The campaign organization communicates the candidate's message to the voters, highlighting his or her strengths and downplaying his or her weaknesses. 

American presidential campaigns represent the state of the art of modern electoral campaigning.  They are able to attract the best people and put the most recent techniques into play.  Modern political campaigns have many areas of responsibility including political, field, communications, new media, research, outreach/coalitions, data/voter file, scheduling and advance, operations, get out the vote, legal, and finance.  Ultimately the success of a campaign depends on the qualities of the candidate, but a candidate's campaign team can make a difference. 

From the campaign manager or state director and top staff in headquarters to the field organizer toiling away in a ramshackle office in a small town, to the unheralded intern or the volunteer making calls at a phone bank, a campaign depends on people willing to work long hours for modest or even no pay.  Because of the demanding nature of the job, many campaign staffers are in their 20's and 30's, but there are also the "gray hairs" who can call on their experience working on a succession of presidential campaigns.  Any candidate has a trusted inner circle of advisors, some of whom may not even be part of the campaign staff.  Senior advisors make greater or lesser contributions to the campaign.  The candidate's spouse sometimes is quite involved in the campaign.  Campaigns seek endorsements from current and former elected officials, and these individuals, depending on their inclination, can also play an active role in the campaign.

Campaigns also have a stable of consultants and vendors to help with specialized tasks such as polling, fundraising and paid media. 1  From an historical perspective, campaigns have become increasing professionalized in recent decades, and they are using increasingly sophisticated means to communicate with voters, ranging from micro-targeting to social media. 

Pre-Campaign to Post-Campaign

Even before the campaign starts, a potential candidate usually has a political organization, be it a leadership PAC, a Section 527 organization, a 501(c)(4) or a re-election campaign.  Although no major candidates have yet declared for 2012, the glimmerings of campaign organizations are starting to take shape.  As a next step a potential candidate may opt to form an exploratory committee or he or she may directly form a campaign committee. 

The first staffers get to work setting up headquarters, sometimes in a temporary space.  The location of the national headquarters can make a difference.  Recent campaigns show there may be an advantage to being outside the Beltway as evidenced by Obama (Chicago), George W. Bush (Austin), Bill Clinton (Little Rock).  In 1999, when Vice President Al Gore's campaign appeared to be floundering he shut down his DC headquarters and moved all those willing to go to Nashville.

Fundraising is a key part of the early months, and the campaign strives to bring in the resources that will enable it to compete.  While money is important to building a campaign organization, it cannot in itself guarantee success.  In the 2008 Republican presidential primary campaign, for example, former Gov. Mike Huckabee was able to outlast former Gov. Mitt Romney, although with $44 million of his own funds, the latter was much better resourced. 2

The organization grows, perhaps opening a few state offices.  The strength and presence of a presidential campaign in the fifty states is uneven.  During the primaries, over a period of many months or even a year, campaigns develop sizable organizations in the key early states, while in later states campaigns may be active for just a few weeks or not at all. 

If a campaign lags, the candidate may eventually decide to make some changes and bring on new people to try to revive the effort.  Shakeups in a campaign are usually not a good sign, although McCain was able to survive the near implosion of his campaign in 2007.  In the weeks before voting in a particular state primary or caucus, the campaign implements a get-out-the-vote plan, and volunteers may come in from around the country to help.  If a candidate achieves success in one of the early states, the result can be an influx of people, money, and interest that challenges the ability of the campaign to make effective use of it.  More staff are brought on. 

Once the nomination is secured or in view, the campaign will bring on additional talent as it builds out a national organization.  The campaign will also place its own people in key positions at the national party committees (DNC and RNC) as well as naming people to work with the convention committees.  Some staff will be assigned for the vice presidential nominee, and he or she will also bring some of his or her own people.

In the Fall, out in the states, three entities help bring a presidential candidate's message to the voters: (a) the candidate's campaign organization; (b) the unified effort designed to elect party members at every level from the court house to the White House (known as the coordinated campaign for Democrats and the Victory campaign for Republicans); and (c) the state party.  In the case of an incumbent president, the White House is also closely involved.  Electoral math and the quest for 270 electoral votes dictate that a presidential campaign should focus its resources on certain states, while other states may be largely bypassed. 

Once the election is over, the process of packing up and winding down the campaign, built up over so many long months, takes place, bringing with it a sense of nostalgia.  Many members of the winning campaign team find places in the inaugural committee or on the transition, while hoping for jobs in the administration.  For members of the losing campaign it is also time to dust off the resumes and try to figure out what to do next. 

Organization in 2011-12

The outside the-Beltway approach to campaign headquarters has continued with Obama setting up in Chicago again, and most of the major Republicans placing their headquarters outside DC.  One of the most startling developments of the pre-primary period was the quick implosion of Newt Gingrich's campaign, as top consultants and staff staged a mass exodus of less than a month after he announced.

Review of 2008

The 2008 campaign saw a number of interesting developments in campaign organization.  During the primaries, the McCain campaign, having fallen well short of fundraising projections, underwent a major restructuring, really a near implosion, in July 2007.  This may have been beneficial in allowing McCain to shed some consultants; in any event he went on to win the nomination.  Among other Republican campaigns, the Giuliani campaign looked very good on paper in terms of building a national organization, but when it came to the ballot box his effort folded rather quickly. 3  Ron Paul probably inspired the most grassroots activism of any Republican candidate, but his campaign organization itself was unable to leverage that.  On the Democratic side, the Clinton campaign had a share of infighting, and in Feb. 2008 Clinton let her campaign manager and deputy campaign manager go.  Throughout the primaries, the Obama campaign was characterized by an unprecedented field organization, starting for example with about 37 offices in Iowa; three months later it had about 39 offices in Pennsylvania and this continued right to the last of the primaries with seven offices in Montana and 12 in South Dakota.  The Obama campaign seemed to play hard in every state, building organizations in states like Kansas (Feb. 5 caucuses) where the Clinton campaign did not fully engage.

In the general election Obama for America, by virtue of its fundraising success and vast resources, was able to put together an unprecedented field organization including approximately 770 field offices around the country, and at least one staffer in every state.  In competitive states OFA typically had a state director, political director, communications director and a new media director.  The coordinated campaign/field component called the Campaign for Change encompassed the many field organizers.  Its initial focus was on voter registration.  Because the Obama campaign did not take PAC or lobbyist money, there were several instances where state parties ran their own coordinated campaigns with their own set of field offices in addition to the Campaign for Change and its field offices.  In every state the Obama campaign had many more people on the ground than did the McCain campaign.  Beyond the many field organizers, the campaign had deputy field organizers, committed volunteers who went through one of the many Camp Obama two-day training sessions held around the country and then relocated for five weeks or more to a targeted state.  McCain (and then McCain-Palin) campaign had 11 regional campaign managers, each with significant responsibilities and each headquartered in what was expected to be a battleground state.  However, in quite a few non-competitive states, the McCain campaign did not have a person on the ground and relied on the state party.

1. On media consultants see: Mike Madden.  "Inside the Campaign Ad Machine."  AdweekJune 27, 2011.

2. See: Michael Scherer.  "Mitt Hits the Road Again."  Time.  Jan. 20, 2011. 
Scherer quotes Romney spokesman Eric Fehrnstrom: "Last time, Mitt's campaign was like IBM. This time, if he runs, he wants to be like JetBlue...  Which is to say, more nimble and more efficient and ready to respond."

3. See: Giuliani's Jan. 24, 2011 interview on CNN's "Piers Morgan Tonight."
"For my benefit or benefit of anybody else running, I made a basic mistake. The basic mistake was -- I made a lot of them, but I made one big one, which was I built a national campaign. When John McCain was ahead, we were kind of like trying to catch him. We caught him and we went ahead of him. So we were the front-runner for six months, five months, whatever. But I didn't build a good enough campaign in any one state to win a primary. I had a great national campaign, a terrible primary campaign. And it should be reversed. You've got to win primaries in order to get nominated. So if I did it again, or for anybody else who is running, I would concentrate on figuring out how do you win Iowa? How do you win New Hampshire? How do you win South Carolina? How do you win Florida? In that order, at least one or two of those."