In the general election, a number of landmarks lead the way to Election Day: the traditional Labor Day kick-off, the ad campaign, September debate negotiations, the debates themselves, and a grueling last ditch effort as the candidates go all out to win over a few more voters in key states. Charges and countercharges fly; excitement builds. While all this is happening, the campaigns are operating with one goal in mind: 270. Two hundred-and-seventy electoral votes is the number needed to win, and major party presidential campaigns deploy their resources accordingly.
The 2012 campaign showed the tremendous advantage an
wield. This was also true for President George W. Bush in
groundwork for Obama's re-elect was laid starting with the
establishment of Organizing for America at the Democratic National
Committee in January 2009. President Obama formally launched his
re-election effort on April 4, 2011. Meanwhile, Romney only
presumptive nominee following the withdrawal of former Sen. Rick
Santorum on April 10, 2012. Not until June did the Romney
really begin to bulk up its staff for the Fall. The Obama
thus had a year or more head start and was able to build up an
unprecedentedly large and
and building the ground game produced
Starting in May 2012
and through the summer the
Obama advertising campaign defined Romney in unfavorable terms.
Attacks on Romney's record on Bain, outsourcing, and his refusal to
release his tax returns took a heavy toll
, bolstering a perception the Romney was "not one of us" and did not
care or relate to the concerns of ordinary folks. Most observers
believe that the Romney campaign did not adequately respond.
the Romney campaign and its allies were trying to counteract that
uncaring perception right to the end.
Romney and his campaign made a number of unforced
errors. The "47-percent" remarks
secretly recorded at a fundraiser on May 17, 2012 and made public four
months later on September 17 proved particularly damaging. There
were other remarks ("let Detroit go bankrupt") that reinforced
the negative perceptions of Romney and Obama and the Democrats made
ample use of them (some conservatives would argue with an assist from
the mainstream media).
The campaign itself seriously
misjudged the electorate, evidenced by their confidence heading into
Election Day that they were going to win. Romney fared very
poorly among Hispanic and African American voters who comprise an
increasing share of the electorate. The Census Bureau report "The
Diversifying Electorate—Voting Rates by Race and Hispanic Origin in
2012" (PDF) found
2008 the number of white non-Hispanics casting votes
decreased by 2.0 million, while the number of blacks voting increased
by 1.7 million, Asians by 547,000 and Hispanics by 1.4 million.
Despite the factors weighing against him, Romney seemed to be very much in the game. The economy continued to plod along, and then came the first president debate, held Oct. 3, 2012 at the University of Denver. Up to that time, Obama had been seen as having a narrow but significant lead. Romney's animated performance reversed that, energized his supporters, and put a crack in the Obama campaign's sense of confidence and inevitability. From that first debate the Romney campaign built a momentum narrative (1, 2, 3 but see also 4, 5) that it carried right into the closing days of the campaign. (Some Republicans argue that Romney "let up" and did not follow through on his advantage after the first debate.) The Obama campaign, meanwhile, continud to emphasize its ground game, as it had from the outset, focusing on "1) expanding the electorate by registering new voters, 2) persuading undecided voters, and then 3) turning out our supporters" (1, 2 [PDFs]).
Overall the 2012 campaign was not particularly edifying. Both sides pointed to an "enthusiasm gap" for the other candidate. Obama had not lived up to the expectations of many of his supporters, while a considerable share of the support for Romney seemed more anti-Obama (note that that did not work in 2004 either when a fair amount of support for Kerry seemed to be anti-Bush). Obama's campaign while brilliant, was also unsatisfactory in that it focused much of its attention on painting Romney in a bad light or highlighting the efforts of his grassroots supporters, rather than setting out what he would seek to achieve in a second term. Recall that in the 1996 campaign, President Clinton at least introduced the rhetorical construct of the "Bridge to the 21st Century." The best that Obama's team came up with was a "new economic patriotism." In turn Romney continued his referendum approach for much of the campaign, preferring to focus on failings of the "Obama economy" (1, 2), and not delving into his own plans much beyond talking points. Turnout was down from 61.6% of the voting eligible population in 2008 to 58.2% in 2012.
In a real sense the
election begins once the nominees are known; then the presumptive
turns his or her attention from the primary contest to the opponent he
or she will face in the general election and the goal of obtaining 270
electoral votes. The
campaign is the first since reapportionment following the
2010 Census so a "new math" was required to reach the magic
must determine how best to spend the resources it has available.
In some states the
will "play hard" or even "play very hard." These contested states
receive frequent visits by the candidate, his wife, the vice
candidate, and surrogates, and the campaign makes serious ad buys in
At the other extreme, some states are essentially written off as
they receive minimal resources. The 2012 campaign revolved around
about nine or ten battleground
|Vice President Joe Biden||x||x
|Former Gov. Mitt Romney||x
|Rep. Paul Ryan||
|Rationale, Methodology and Limitations||map
|Selected states in detail:
AZ | CA | CO | DC | FL | GA | IL | IA | MA | MI | MN | NV | NH | NJ | NY | NC | OH | PA | TX | VA | WI
As the weeks
a campaign may upgrade or downgrade a state's importance as it becomes
less competitive. This cycle, the Romney campaign's initial hopes
in Pennsylvania and
Michigan faded. The addition of Rep. Paul Ryan to the ticket put
Wisconsin into play. In the closing weeks, the Romney
campaign put Pennsyvlania back into play and even ran some ads in
Minnesota. Early on, the
Obama campaign was tempted to invest in Arizona but ultimately they
In 2008 candidate Obama won states such as Indiana
and Virginia, which
a Democrat had not carried since 1964, as well as North Carolina, which
the Democratic nominee last won in 1976. This time Indiana was
as solidly in the Republican column, and North Carolina was seen as
challenging. Nonetheless, Democrats saw a
number of paths to 270 (+).
(1, 2), conventional wisdom was
Romney needed to thread a narrow path to achieve the White House.
Republican strategist Karl
Rove advanced a "3-2-1" strategy which would have given Romney the
requisite 270 electoral votes. As outlined by Rove, Romney needed
to carry Indiana, Virginia, and
North Carolina, the
three states which have traditionally voted Republican, flip Ohio and
Florida back into the Republican column, and pick up one other
state. Of the battleground states Romney ended up carrying only
Once a campaign has
it will contest a particular state, it does not blindly throw resources
in. In presidential elections a significant share who turn out
will vote for the Republican
no matter what and another significant share will vote for the Democrat
what. Thus much energy and resources are devoted to trying to
the remaining portion of the electorate—persuadable swing voters—with
|For a campaign, the electorate can be divided into three groups: those who are for the candidate, those who are "agin" him and the undecided. In the fall, much of the campaign's resources are directed to this third group. Then, in the closing weeks, the campaign makes a substantial effort to mobilize its base supporters.|
Campaign stops are scheduled in media markets with high concentrations of persuadable voters. People in these areas can expect to see a lot of political ads. Direct mail pieces go out to swing voters. The message is carefully tailored to attract persuadables or allay their concerns. To attract persuadables, the major party nominees generally move toward the middle, toning down more extreme elements of their messages that they had used to appeal to party activists during the primaries.
Due to increased early and absentee voting, "Election Day" has become a somewhat variable term, but as it approaches campaigns redouble their efforts to mobilize supporters. Phone-banking and precinct-walking are staples of get-out-the-vote (GOTV) efforts leading up to Election Day itself (+).
The fall campaigns of the
major party candidates have since the 1970s been financed by direct
grants from the Federal
Campaign Fund, which in turn is financed by the $3 check-off on
income tax returns. The
must agree to abide by a spending limit, although they can raise funds
for legal and accounting expenses. The candidates officially
party nominees at their conventions. In June 2008,
the Obama campaign announced it would forgo federal funds. On
September 8 the FEC certified
the McCain/Palin campaign to receive $84.1 million (this is the $20
million figure provided for in the
1974 Federal Election Campaign Act adjusted for inflation). For
the 2012 cycle both the Obama and Romney campaigns
opted to forego
|Obama for America
|Obama Victory Fund 2012
|Swing State Victory Fund
|Romney for President Inc.
|Romney Victory Inc.
|Gary Johnson 2012 Inc.
|Jill Stein for President
Source: FEC through Dec. 31, 2012; figures
rounded to nearest dollar. Money raised by the joint fundraising
committees (1, 2)
is split among the presidential candidate, national party, and state
party committees. Johnson committee had debts and
obligations of $863,362.
national parties are allowed to spend a fixed amount advocating the
of their nominees; the limit for coordinated party expenditures in 2012
was $21.7 million (+).
are also free to make independent expenditures supportive of their
However, the campaigns were not the only players on
field. Super PACs and other outside groups spent tens of millions
Recall that in 2004 Section
527 groups such as America Coming Together and The Media Fund on
Democratic side and Progress for America and Swift Boat Vets and POWs
Truth on the Republican had a significant impact. In 2008 such
groups were less
of a force. Court rulings in Citizens
United (Jan. 21, 2010) and SpeechNow.org
(March 26, 2010) made super PACs possible, opening up what some
termed a "Wild West" of campaign spending. Super PACs and other
groups weighed in heavily with independent expenditures mostly
attacking the opposing candidate. According to OpenSecrets.org,
Restore Our Future spent $88.6 million opposing Obama, American
Crossroads $84.5 million and Americans for Prosperity $33.5 million;
meanwhile Priorities USA Action spent $65.1 million opposing Romney.
As in 2008 the Obama campaign built a massive ground game with numerous field offices, field organizers, and volunteer neighborhood team leaders. During the primaries the Romney campaign went from state to state rather than leaving an infrastructure in place as Obama had in 2008, and it never really caught up. In the general election the Obama campaign had significantly more field offices in every battleground state (for example 131 in Ohio compared to about 37 in Ohio and over 60 in Colorado compared to 13 for the Republican Victory effort). Additionally, unlike the Romney campaign, the Obama campaign had a staffer in every state and was thus able to mobilize support on behalf of the president even in the most Republican states. [On a technical note, the field organization on the ground in a given state is typically carried out by a coordinated campaign or Victory campaign which is funded by the state party and the national party and seeks to elect party officials up and down the ticket].
Much of the money raised by the campaigns goes into television advertising.
Minutes" differs markedly from that watching "Judge Judy." It is
to media planners, juggling GRPs and dayparts, to put together ad
buys. In addition to ads from campaign ads, super PACs and
interest groups add their voices to the mix.
Of course television is not the only paid medium available to the campaigns. Radio is an effective way to reach some audiences, for example during drive-time. Because of its lower profile radio is sometimes used to deliver negative messages. Persuasion mail and phone calls also convey the campaigns' negative messages. Magazine and newspaper advertising can be very effective, but was not used much. More and more attention is being given to online advertising as well as advertising on social media, and this will be an increasing focus in the future.