A presidential campaign is a vast exercise in communications.  Personal encounters are usually most telling in shaping impressions of a candidate, but a candidate can only meet so many people first-hand and must get his or her message out to a wider audience through an infinite variety of free media opportunities and paid advertising.

Among the possibilities for paid media, depending on its budget, a campaign can run ads on broadcast or cable television, on radio stations with varying formats, it can run print ads in national, local or community newspapers or in magazines, it can put ads on the Internet, it can print up nice, glossy brochures or less expensive flyers, it can do direct mail or robocalls, or it can put up a billboard (or even a virtual billboard as the Obama campaign did in October 2008 on internet video games).1  Television continues to get the majority of campaign media spending, while direct mail and Internet also receive significant shares.2

In terms of free media, a candidate may deliver a formal policy speech at a think tank in Washington or New York, hold a town hall meeting outside the Beltway, write a book and do a book tour, make a photo-friendly visit to a significant location such as the border or an energy plant, or even stop in for an impromptu visit to a local cafe.  Some candidates are better communicators than others.  Because the candidate cannot go everywhere, the campaign will sometimes send surrogates, generally family members, elected officials or celebrities.  A candidate's wife can be a particularly effective ambassador for the candidate.  The campaign can generate free media as well, for example by rolling out a coalition, doing a canvass or posting an edgy video on its website.3

In determining the message he or she wishes to convey, a candidate starts with his or her individual experience, intelligence and values and has input from a team of trusted advisors.  Paid consultants may weigh in to determine how the message should be presented, i.e. what medium, what approach (serious and straightforward, humorous, dramatic...) and so forth.  Consultants at times seem to be ubiquitous and some argue that they have changed campaign discourse for the worse.

The effectiveness of the message depends on such factors as timing (what other events are happening in the world), the medium used (how the message is delivered), and the receptivity of the audience.  In modern campaigns there is a lot of testing, focus grouping and polling to shape the message.4  Sometimes a meticulously crafted message will flop, while a slapped together one will go viral. During the long campaign, candidates will inevitably stray from the talking points or make gaffes which completely overshadow the message.5  Meanwhile supporters are out spreading the word.  A contact through social media, a call, note or visit from a neighbor, supporter or campaign staffer can be much more effective than an annoying robocall.  Even small features such as the logo or typeface a campaign uses or the musical zing at the end of an ad can make a difference.  With more and more Americans using the Internet and mobile devices to obtain news and information about politics, campaigns are devoting more resources to online communications and social media.6 

Of course, the candidate and the campaign are not the only ones communicating; the message environment is crowded with communications from competing campaigns, interest groups and the political parties7, and the media are sifting through and reporting these messages or parts of them.

1. See also:
Ben Smith.  "Twitter to launch political advertising."  Sept. 20, 2011.  Politico.
Elizabeth Dwoskin. "Some candidates jump on Facebook campaign ad tools.  Sept. 26, 2011.  SFGate.com.
Revolution Messaging. "Mitt Romney is Latest Target of Political Text Message Spam."  Feb. 27, 2012 (press release).

2. Tom Edmonds, a Republican media strategist and former president of the American Association of Political Consultants, estimates that 55-percent of campaign advertising dollars go to television, 15-percent to direct mail, 13-percent to Internet, 8-percent to radio, 8-percent to newspaper and 1-percent to outdoor advertising.  (Presentation at Newspaper Association of America/American Society of Newspaper Editors Convention in Washington, DC, April 5, 2012).

3a. See: John Avlon.  "The End of TV Campaign Ads?"  Oct. 27, 2011.  The Daily Beast
  b. A good example of a free media action was the Romney campaign's 24 "We Did Build This" events around the country on July 25, 2012.  The Obama campaign and Democrats organized a modest response. (1, 2)

4. Sasha Issenberg.  "The Death of the Hunch"  May 22, 2012.  Slate.

5. "2012 United States Presidential Election"  Know Your Meme.

6. On July 31, 2012 both the Obama and Romney campaigns announced apps.  The Romney campaign launched its Mitt Events app on Sept. 12, 2012.

7. "The 2012 General Election Ad Campaign in Colorado and Virginia" gives a sense of the ad ecosystem in a couple of battleground states.

RESOURCES  (2008 page)

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