Presidential election campaigns follow a set of familiar steps, from the early maneuvering and testing-the-waters activities in the pre-campaign period to frenetic last-ditch efforts of the party nominees in the fall.  Each presidential campaign occurs in, and is shaped by, a unique historical context.

Considering the Field of Play

Beyond the temperaments, leadership abilities, and characters of the candidates, one must also consider the context, or playing field on which a campaign is fought, for this sets broad bounds within which the candidates and their organizations must operate.  Events, social and economic conditions, cultural tendencies, technology, and rules and laws governing the election process all combine to create a political landscape which may favor one or another of the candidates.  The historical context in which a campaign is waged impacts its substance, pushing various domestic and foreign issues into greater or lesser prominence.  Further, since our presidential election campaigns are so long, the terrain can change somewhat even during the course of one election cycle.

Consider the communications environment.  The technologies a campaign can use to reach voters are constantly developing.  In the past, the whistlestop tour may have been the best way to communicate with voters; more recently the 30-second television spot was the preferred currency, and now the Internet and social media have assumed an increasingly important role.  The dialogue is not exactly being conducted in Tweets limited to 140 characters, but Tweets are part of the equation.  Campaigns must also take into account a news ecosystem which has changed dramatically in the past decade.  The rise of the Internet has drained revenue from traditional media, causing outlets to slash newsroom jobs and forcing some newspapers to close altogether.  At the same time, the blogosphere has exploded.  In the absence of editorial checks, the quality of information provided by bloggers is decidely uneven, however.  Some bloggers are breaking stories and others are spreading misinformation.

There is also the notion that America has become a polarized nation, divided into "red" and "blue."  Partisan bickering and gridlock seem very much the order of the day, but an argument can be made that sharp divisions go right back to the early days of the Republic and that gridlock is built into the system.  Others point to the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal or the battle over Florida following the 2000 presidential campaign or talk radio as polarizing factors.  It is possible that the professionalization of politics, from the proliferation of lobbyists to the ubiquitous role of consultants to the widespread use of polls, has jammed the works.  In recent decades, voters increasingly are chosing to register as independents or non-affiliated (see political parties).  Certainly voter dissatisfaction was much in evidence in 2010 midterm elections and in the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street movements.

In general, American election campaigns are long and expensive and often fall short in producing substantive discussion of issues.  Campaigns seem more geared to scoring points and lining the pockets of consultants than addressing problems facing the country or community.  The process for choosing the party's presidential nominees places a premium not on ideas or experience, but on the ability to raise money in the year before the election.  Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich decried a lack of seriousness in the political process during a "Lincoln at Cooper Union" dialogue held on Feb. 28, 2007.  "The process is decaying at a level that is bizarre, and it's a mutual synergistic decay between candidates, consultants and the news media," Gingrich said.  Individuals who might make excellent presidents may choose to self-select out rather than enduring the grind of a presidential campaign.  One wonders whether an Abraham Lincoln or a Theodore Roosevelt-type candidate would even be electable in the modern era.

The conduct of federal elections is governed by rules set out in Title 11 of the Code of Federal Regulations (>) (Federal Election Commission), state laws (>), and rules of the political parties.  These laws and rules have evolved over time.  For example, following the 2008 cycle, when twenty-four states held their presidential primaries or caucuses on February 5, both of the major parties changed their rules to encourage states and state parties to spread out their contests.  This resulted in a different pace to the 2012 Republican primaries.  More significant is the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Citizens United and the emergence of super PACs which "can raise unlimited sums from corporations, unions and other groups, as well as wealthy individuals;" this has resulted in a "Wild West" period of campaign finance.

In "The Keys to the White House," Allan J. Lichtman, professor of history at The American University in Washington, D.C., identifies thirteen factors ("keys") which he argues determine whether the incumbent party will win or lose the White House.  Examples of the keys include the balance of seats in the House of Representatives, whether there is a contest for the incumbent party nomination, real per capita economic growth, and whether there has been a major military or foreign-policy success.  Lichtman argues that it is these factors, not all the speechifying and debates and ads that determines the outcome.

Context in 2012 and Recent Elections

2012 - The American economy remained sluggish throughout the 2012 cycle (1, 2, 3, 4, 5), portending difficulties for President Obama's re-election prospects.  Signs of economic improvement (+) proved fleeting, and the fallout from the 2008 economic collapse was significant.  For example, a Federal Reserve report found that from 2007-10 "median net worth fell 38.8 percent, and the mean fell 14.7 percent," hardly figures to inspire a positive outlook among voters.  Looking ahead, the situation did not appear particularly rosy either; the prospect of a "fiscal cliff" loomed ahead on Jan. 1, 2013 when the Bush tax cuts were set to expire and automatic spending cuts of close to $1 trillion to take effect.  In a June 5, 2012 report, the Congressional Budget Office projected federal debt at the end of 2012 would amount to 73-percent of GDP.   The CBO report warned that continuing on the current path would "increase the probability of a sudden fiscal crisis."  There were also worries that the situation in the euro zone might worsen and impact the economy here.

If the state of the economy had worsened, incumbency had the potential of being a negative for Obama.  But incumbency confers significant advantages in terms of fundraising and building a campaign organization.  Effectively President Obama had a one-year head start in building his general election team.  The symbols of the office, such as arriving on Air Force One, carry weight.  Also there is a sense that people want a president and the country to succeed.   These same factors applied to President George W. Bush's re-election in 2004.

Changing demographics proved to be a key factor in the 2012 campaign.  America is becoming a more diverse country.  In particular, campaigns cannot afford to ignore the growing Hispanic population.  Also of note in 2012, reapportionment following the 2010 Census affected the electoral math.  Eight states gained House seats and hence electoral votes and ten states lost seats (>).  Texas was the big winner, gaining four House seats.

The 2010 mid-term elections and the massive setbacks suffered by Democrats at every level also helped set the stage for 2012.  Republicans hoped to build on the successes of 2010 to win the White House, and there was considerable optimism heading into the primaries.  In Fall of 2012, Republicans' control of many governors offices in battleground states might have provided an organizational boost to the nominee, however some of those governors were unpopular.  One could argue that Republicans' strong 2010 showing may have hurt the their chances of winning the presidency, as voters shied away from Tea Party elements or were wary of too much Republican control.  In 1996 President Clinton was able to rebound from mid-term defeats and win a second term.  Republicans prefer to point to 1980, when the sour economy led to President Carter's defeat.

Republican Advantage Following the 2010 Mid-terms



U.S. Senate 57D 41R
U.S. House 255D 178R 2v

Governorships 26D 24R

State Legislatures + 61D 36R 1 tied + NE
1 tied + NE

2008 - The collapse of the housing bubble and the myriad ramifications of that collapse ultimately had the most telling effect on the outcome of the 2008 election.  The housing sector, which had been propelling economic growth, weakened markedly in 2007.  In March 2008 Bear Stearns collapsed and the Federal Reserve intervened.  By Sept. 2008 a full-scale economic crisis had developed, dominating the closing weeks of the election.  On Sept. 7 the federal government placed mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac into conservatorship.  Such was the seriousness of the situation that, even in the heat of the campaign, Congress managed to pass the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act of 2008, a $700 billion financial rescue/bailout bill, which President Bush signed into law on Oct. 3.  Major fluctuations roiled financial markets.  For example, the Dow Jones Industrial Average lost 777.68 points (6.98%) on Sept. 29, 678.91 points (7.33%) on Oct. 9, and 733.08 points (7.87%) on Oct. 15, while gaining 936.42 points (11.08%) on Oct. 13 and 889.35 points (10.88%) on Oct. 28.  President George W. Bush's job approval ratings hovered around 30-percent throughout the election year.

2004 - The 2004 election in essence was about national security.  The terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001 had burned into the national psyche.  Within a month anthrax letters spread further anxiety to the extent that people were afraid to open their mail.  Increased security led to a new set of realities including long lines at airports and unsightly barricades around some public buildings.  President George W. Bush's popularity soared with the successful prosecution of the war in Afghanistan; his job approval reached 92 percent in October 2001 and was still at 83 percent in late January 2002.  The focus shifted to Iraq, and by the summer months of 2002 there was much speculation in the press and political circles about a possible war to force a "regime change" in Iraq, and about what form such a war would take and when it would come.  On March 19, 2003, having failed to gain the backing of the U.N. Security Council, the United States, backed by a "coalition of the willing," launched a strike on a meeting of key leaders in Baghdad, thereby beginning the war with Iraq.  Democrats selected Sen. John Kerry as their nominee in significant part because he was a Vietnam veteran and was thus seen as someone who could speak with authority on national security.

2000 - The event that most colored the political landscape in the 2000 cycle was the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal.  This sordid story dominated the news in the latter part of 1998, culminating in the U.S. Senate sitting as a Court of Impeachment in January 1999.  President Clinton survived, but the scandal set up a strong undercurrent which continued to resonate throughout the election cycle, creating a very awkward situation for Vice President Gore.

1996 - In 1996, the Cold War had receded into people's memories, and the campaign was fought on domestic issues.  The debate over the Clinton administration's health care proposal, Republicans' gain of control of the House in the 1994 mid-term elections, and the unprecedented shutdowns of the federal government all set the stage for the 1996 campaign.

1992 - The context of the 1992 campaign can best be summed up in the slogan, "It's the economy, stupid."