A Content Analysis of Campaign Literature

With all the attention given to the Internet and social media and TV it is easy to overlook the role that printed materials play in a campaign.  Literature ranging from brochures and palm cards to detailed plans and position papers to slick mailings helps spread the campaign's message.
2012 Presidential Campaign: Primaries and Iowa mail. |  General Election.
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A Content Analysis of Campaign Literature
Eric M. Appleman
This is an adapted part of an old paper I wrote looking at literature in U.S.
gubernatorial, Senate
and House campaigns.  It may hopefully provide the reader
with ideas when considering literature from presidential campaigns.

Campaigns produce a wide assortment of printed campaign materials.  This article focuses on the glossy brochures and palm cards that summarize the image and appeal that a candidate is trying to make.  In a sense these are the "introductory handshake" of campaign literature.  Carefully selected pictures, choice adjectives, biography and career information, positions and sometimes a "personal" note to the reader are combined to present the candidate in the best possible light.  For all the attention a campaign may devote to designing a brochure, anecdotal evidence suggests voters typically just take look at this material, scanning through it and glancing at the photos and headers.  Accordingly this analysis will concentrate on images, slogans, and highlighted text and images.  This paper consider several research questions. 

How has campaign literature evolved over the years?  Observation suggests that with the advent of the Internet, introductory literature has become less important.  Campaigns' first step is to refer voters to their websites; some campaigns have PDFs of flyers or literature that one can print out.  More and more, the tri-fold brochure has given way to the palm card which often seems to have three to five bullet-pointed issues with two or three carefully worded sentences on each.  Over time it has become obligatory to include the campaign's web site address on the brochure and more recently to include Facebook, Twitter and YouTube icons.

Graphic design looks and trends change over time.  For example magazine ads from the 1950s look very different from magazine ads of today.  The same applies to literature.  Photoshop gives designers to easily do cut-outs layering and other effects.  Designers have access to huge font libraries and are free to experiment with bold typographical treatment.  It is quite possible that web design meant for a screen, may be influencing print design.  More specifically a number of campaigns have sought to emulate the look of print materials produced for the successful Obama presidential campaign.   

Does campaign literature differ from cycle to cycle?  It seems logical that campaign literature from the 2002 cycle, the first cycle after 9/11 might focus on a different set of issues than in the 2010 cycle, when the sluggish economy was the dominant concern.  The 2002 literature might have more defense and law enforcement-oriented images, while the 2010 material might show more people at work.  Republican literature from 2002, when President Bush had very high favorability ratings might well have more mentions of and photos of Bush than Republican literature from four years later when he was not so popular.  It also seems likely that preferred slogan words may change from cycle to cycle.  For example, the word "values" initially associated with Republicans seems recently to have found increasing favor among Democrats.  In 2008 was the "change" theme used by the Obama campaign repeated by Democratic candidates in other races.

An obvious area for study is partisan differences.  Republican candidates emphasize different sets of issues than Democrats.  Beyond that might there be other differences, such as the types of photo used.

Are there regional differences?  Initial observation suggests there are, particularly in design.  Literature from New Mexico often has yellows and reds and brown, while Vermont literature often has a green palette.  Colorado literature has photos of the Rocky Mountains and oftentimes the campaign logo may include a representation of mountains.  Wyoming literature often has the graphic of the cowboy on a bucking horse.  Regional differences likely encompass substance as well; for example immigration may be a more prominent issue in literature from candidates in border states.

There are many other differences that could be considered.  Might there be differences among incumbents and challengers?  Male and female candidates?  According to the office a candidate is running for?  


Different forms of campaign literature are described briefly here and outlined in the table below.  The detailed plan in booklet form conveys a sense that the candidate has thought through the issues and developed an overall strategy for addressing them. Position papers address isolated issues.  An issue brief summarizes positions on a number of key issues.  A biography presents the candidate's upbringing and career, often on a single page.  A contrast piece compares positions of the candidate with those of his/her opponent.  The brochure, often but not always glossy, is aimed at a general audience.  Tabloid-style newspapers are similar to brochures, but may be cheaper to produce and offer certain advantages with their larger format.  The hand card (or palm card or push card) is a single panel piece (one-third the size of a regular sheet of paper) that is often a condensed version of the brochure.  For low-budget or long shot candidates a business card may be all the literature there is.  Campaigns may produce different variations of brochures or palm cards targeted at different audiences, for example a version in Spanish, a version targeted at African-Americans, and so forth. 

Door hangers are frequently distributed near Election Day with the campaigns' get out the vote message.  Newsletters report on the campaign's progress and upcoming events; these may be directed to supporters and contributors rather than the general public.  Direct mail, including persuasion mail and get-out-the-vote (GOTV) pieces, is frequently used to target specific segments of the electorate such as seniors or voters in inefficient media markets.  A miscellaneous category includes such items as football schedules, Mrs. Candidate's favorite recipes, etc. emblazoned with the candidate's name.  Finally, campaigns sometimes send out copies of news articles in response to requests for information.

Some candidates do not produce literature.  Incumbents in safe seats may wage minimal campaigns, including no literature.

Not considered here are specialized communications such as faxes directed to the media, press releases and fundraising letters. Note that in some cases literature may not emanate from the campaign but state party or the coordinated campaign.

Table 1. A Classification of Campaign Literature.
 -detailed plan in booklet form
  -position papers
  -issue brief
  -contrast piece
  -glossy brochure
 -tabloid-style newspaper 

  -hand card (palm card or push card)
  -business card
  -direct mail pieces
  -miscellaneous (for example, football schedules, recipes, etc.)
  -news articles

It is important to acknowledge at the outset that today's campaigns are largely fought on television, on the Internet, and by direct mail.  Even back in the pre-Internet days of 1994 one campaign worker stated, "People don't read them."  The images, slogans and issues presented there may be completely different from those in the general candidate brochure.  However, one of the hallmarks of a good campaign is that the various efforts to communicate the message all reinforce and build upon each other.  TV ads and direct mail often focus on negative aspects of an opponent's record or character.  Candidate brochures and web sites provide a more convenient means for studying how the candidates are presenting themselves.  This is an analysis of literature.  It will concentrate on images, slogans, and highlighted issues, assuming that a glance at the photos and a quick look inside may be all the attention a voter commits to a brochure.

Literature Review

A review of the literature reveals a number of studies that can guide a visually-based content analysis of campaign brochures.

Kaid and Davidson (1984) examine political advertising and develop the notion of video style.  They describe television advertising as "pseudo-interpersonal communication."  While these terms do not translate exactly to printed communications, the brochure, which often contains a "personal" note from the candidate, can also be thought of as a pseudo-interpersonal 
communication.  The brochure serves to introduce the candidate. It is the "introductory handshake" of campaign literature, and the presentation and layout of information it contains influence our impressions of the candidate.

Shyles (1984), in his study of images and issues in candidates' TV advertisements, points out that "image" can refer to "the candidate's perceived or projected cluster of personality traits" or to the visual appearance of the candidate.  This study considers both.  Photographs, the second kind of image, help shape our views of the candidate.  Slogans attempt to capture in a few words those traits and image that the campaign wants us to associate with the candidate.

Deutsch (1992) provides an invaluable theoretical perspective for understanding a politician's image.  He identifies three ingredients essential to a politician' success: familiarity, appeasement and power.  The candidate (or officeholder) must present himself as being like the voter, caring for him or her as an individual, and, at the same time being more powerful than the voter and thus able to solve his or her problems.  Campaigns, and the consultants they hire to design brochures, do not have these criteria in mind when they select which images they will use, but they have learned from experience what works (Cabarga, 19--).  Photos of the candidate interacting with ordinary citizens or pictures of citizens without the candidate communicate the idea that the candidate is a regular guy who cares about people (familiarity and appeasement).  Family shots also show the candidate is "like me."  There should be many of these kinds of images. Images of the candidate in an office setting or on the phone imply problem-solving ability and correspond loosely to the power component.

Various studies provide insights into coding print and televised images.  Cutler and Javalgi (1992) compared visuals used in magazine advertisements in the United States and Europe.  Among other factors, they looked at size of the images, use of black and white or color, use of photographs or illustrations, and frequency with which minorities, elderly and children were 

Moriarty and Popovich (1993, 1991) and Moriarty and Garramone (1986) analyzed photographs of the presidential candidates appearing in fall 1992, 1988 and 1984 issues of Time, Newsweek, and U.S. News & World Report.  In their effort to determine whether one or the other of the candidates received more favorable coverage, Moriarty and Popovich considered 15 attributes in three broad categories: behavior (posture, expression ... ), context (props, setting, dress) and perspective (camera angle, position on page).  Whereas the focus of these studies is on possible bias, the candidate images in brochures should be positive, obviating the need for subjective judgements about favorableness or unfavorableness. (An exception is occasional unflattering portrayals of the opponent, but the focus here is self-presentation).

A coding scheme devised by the Center for Media and Public Affairs (1988) to evaluate TV coverage of presidential candidates includes two relevant categories -- "candidate in context" and "uses of props."  Candidate in context lists 12 elements ranging from "factory/construction/work situation" to "conducting official business."  Eleven items are in the use of props list including hard hats, other hats and the American flag.

General Considerations

A number of independent variables are expected to affect findings.  Most important among these are the office the candidate is seeking, the candidate's party (Democratic, Republican, Independent/ Other), their status as an incumbent or a challenger, and the part of the country they are campaigning in.
The office a candidate is seeking will certainly affect the content of his or her brochure.  Governors are executives and Senators are members of a legislative body; different offices have different constituencies.  The most significant issues in Senate races and gubernatorial contests may well be different, with topics such as welfare and taxes possibly assuming more importance in state contests.  Local issues such as transportation may be prominent in House races.  Governors' races offer another peculiarity which must taken into account.  In a number of states, the candidates for governor and lieutenant governor run as a team, so the brochure may show, or at least mention, both.  Party identification is another variable to be considered; candidates may highlight party identification in their primary literature and then drop it for general election when they are seeking to appeal to the broader public.

There should also be some correlation between a candidate's party and the issues he or she chooses to emphasize. Republicans are stereotyped as being tough on crime while Democrats champion social concerns such as education.  Cynics would argue that there is no difference between the two major parties and that candidates from both parties are driven by polling.

Incumbents will likely highlight their experience and accomplishments in office, while challengers point out the incumbent's shortcomings and promise change.

Finally, regional variations may be evident.  In the West, immigration may be a big issue and imagery can include cowboy hats the Rocky Mountains and such.

A candidate's organization may be experimenting with several pieces in the course of the 
campaign.  In some cases one or two panels or photos in a brochure may be varied in a printing 
run or the brochure may be revised in a later printing.  A campaign may also deploy a range 
of brochures designed for different parts of the state, or for women, seniors, Hispanics or 
African-Americans, or addressing specific issues.


The candidate may be shown with his/her family, interacting with citizens or officials or in a portrait or cut-out image.  There may be other images of the candidate as a youth or growing up.  Some images may not include the candidate, but show children, people at work, scenery, etc.  Just as one can speak of video style to describe a candidate's television advertising, so too different styles of presentation may be discerned in their brochures.  Some lit. pieces include lots of images, others relatively few; in addition to considering each of the images, one may want to consider the proportion of space devoted to images as compared to text or to the entire area of the piece.

Many different coding schemes are possibile.  To keep coding decisions simple, I fit the images into four main categories.  In a portrait, the candidate is the only individual in the picture (there may be somebody's elbow or shoulder at the edge, but the candidate is dominant).  Portraits encompass a variety of images ranging from cut-outs, in which information about the candidate's surroundings has been obliterated, to scenes with a dramatic background.  Drawings of the candidate are included in this category. 
 Governor-Lt. Governor images (or Presidential/Vice Presidential candidate) were coded as portraits.  Images showing the candidate as a youth, growing up and in his or her pre-political life are a bit tricky; these are somewhat akin to family snapshots, and could possibly be coded under family.  Interaction shots 
show the candidate interacting with citizens. (The brochure designer could create a portrait by 
cropping out other people in the image). The family shot shows the candidate and his or her 
family, and sometimes even the family dog.  Family shots might include pictures of the candidate as
a youth.  Other images include stock photos of kids, seniors, people at work, a crime scene, the 
Capitol Dome and so forth, as well as photos of the candidate's opponent.  The candidate is not 
present.  Included in the "other" category are wallpaper images, encompassing photos and 
drawings of subjects such as a field of wheat or the Grand Canyon used to fill the background. 

In addition to the main categories above, images were coded for symbolic content.  The context 
or settings, props, and kinds of people shown in the brochure all provide cues about the 
candidate.  An image of the candidate talking with law enforcement officials implies he or she 
is "tough on crime;" a classroom scene conveys concern about education; a scene with workers
denotes jobs and the economy.  One question to consider here is whether or not to code images which do not contain the candidate.  This seems logical; a generic classroom scene "says" 
education even if the candidate is not in the picture.  A picture of a wilderness expresses environment.

We coded for an official context (i.e. an office setting, on the phone, shuffling papers, on the 
steps of the Capitol, near the official seal, etc.), a workplace setting (with hardhats, on the 
factory floor), a classroom or instructional setting, hospital/doctor situations, an agricultural 
setting (with farmers), an environmental setting (fishing, hunting, in the wilderness), the presence of 
patriotic symbols such as an American flag or a American Legion banner, and the presence of 
regional symbols (cowboy hat, state flags). 

For the kinds of people shown in the interaction and 
other images we identified kids (embodying youth, the future), seniors (our heritage), members 
of minority groups, law enforcement officials, and VIPs.  Coding did not distinguish between 
candidates and citizens (sometimes the candidate themselves are doctors, African-Americans ... ).

Not coded are details such as facial expression, whether the candidate is waving his or her arms 
around (Moriarty and Popovich's behavior category) or camera angle, image size and so forth 
(perspective category).  These points are generally considered in studies looking for evidence 
of positive or negative portrayals of individuals.  Candidates' dress (formal/informal), a frequent component of image coding schemes, was not deemed worth analyzing as a separate category.


Most presidential campaign logos are done in the traditional red, white and blue; often there is a star or stars, and sometimes there are wavy stripes.  Various typefaces are used--serif and sans serif--and they are done in different styles, for example, bold or regular, all caps or with lower case letters.  Some logos highlight or include only the candidate's last name, some include both the first and the last name, and others emphasize or include just the first name (Hillary, Rudy, Fred and Tommy).  Most say "for president" or "president" but a few do not.  A strong logo can help with branding the campaign.  The Obama campaign's 2008 blue O with with the red and white stripes at an angle is instantly recognizable.  Designer Sol Sender states the logo means "the sun rising over the horizon--the dawning of a new day in American politics."  The rising sun logo is incorporated in the 2012 re-elect campaign's logo.  (see 2008 Campaign LogosAs noted above, a lit. piece can include other logos such as for social media as well as for endorsing organizations.

Text: Slogans

Slogans typically include action words (fighting/working/standing 
up ... doing, making), objects including change, jobs, people/working people/families and maybe a more specific 
identification (America, Americans; or in the case of state and local race for Maryland or for Marylanders or for the people of the # District), and qualities such as independence, leadership, experience, common sense integrity and courage.  In 2008 Obama had the memorable slogan "Change you can believe in" (not simply change).

Text: Copy

A piece of campaign literature may cover the candidate's biography and accomplishments; issues and positions; and other details such as how to get involved in the campaign.  It may also consider an opponent's or opponents' record; indeed many of the slick direct mail pieces do only that.  How much depth a piece goes into on particular issues depends on its purpose and intended audience, but generally a palm card or brochure handed out at a campaign rally is not going to have much detail.


Cabarga, Ted. 19--. "On the Art and Science of Designing Political Brochures." San Francisco: Winning Directions.

Center for Media and Public Affairs. 1988. "Visuals Another Interesting Election Variable." [Unpublished coding scheme for television news coverage of the candidates]. Washington, DC.

Cutler, Bob D., and Rajshekhar G. Javalgi. 1992. "A Cross-Cultural Analysis of the Visual Components of Print Advertising: The United States and the European Community." Journal of Advertising Research 32:71-80.

Deutsch, Robert D. 1992. "Dissecting the TV Image." Nieman Reports 46:59-64.

Kaid, Lynda L. and Dorothy K. Davidson. "Videostyle: Candidate Presentation of Self Through Television Advertising, " paper presented to the International Communication Association. San Francisco, May 1984. (From footnote 8 in Moriarty and Popovich).

King, Karen N. 2002. "The art of impression management: self-presentation in local-level campaign literature."  The Social Science Journal 39:31-41.

Moriarty, Sandra E., and Mark N. Popovich. 1993. "News Magazine Visuals and the 1992 Presidential Election." Draft paper presented to the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication, April 1, 1993.

Moriarty, Sandra E., and Mark N. Popovich. 1991. "Newsmagazine Visuals and the 1988 Presidential Campaign." Journalism Quarterly 68:371-80.

Moriarty, Sandra E., and Gina M. Garramone. 1986. "A Study of Newsmagazine Photographs of the 1984 Presidential Campaign." Journalism Quarterly 63:728-34.

Graber, Doris A. 1987. "Kind Pictures and Harsh Words: How Television Presents the Candidates." In Elections in America, ed. K. Schlozman. Winchester, Mass: Allen & Unwin.

Shyles, Leonard. 1984. "The Relationships of images, issues and presentational methods in televised spot advertisements for 1980's presidential primaries." Journal of Broadcasting 28:405-21.