Political Campaigns: The Basics

A political campaign is an attempt to get information to voters that will persuade them to elect a candidate or not elect an opponent.  All political campaigns – regardless of the candidate or party they support – have two main goals: (1) to reach voters with information about their candidate; and (2) to get voters to show up and vote for their candidate at the polls by engaging in voter mobilization or GOTV (get out the vote) efforts.

Political campaigns vary greatly in size and intensity.  Campaigns in swing districts such as Texas Senate District 10 in Fort Worth usually have larger campaigns than campaigns in districts that heavily support one major party over the other, such as Texas House District 11, which includes Cherokee, Nacogdoches, and Rusk counties.

Successful political campaigns generally have a professional campaign organization, money to finance advertising, travel, and other campaign-related expenses, name recognition and a favorable impression for the candidate, unfavorable impressions of the opponents, and mechanisms that encourage supporters to go to the polls.

Campaign Strategies

Most political campaigns adopt one or more of the following campaign strategies when developing their campaign’s message:

  1. party-centered strategy, which focuses on the values of the candidate’s political party and why voters should support those values
  2. issue-oriented strategy, which focuses on a particular issue or set of issues
  3. image-oriented strategy, which focuses on the candidate’s image and portrays the candidate as able to rise above partisan considerations to tackle issues facing the citizens that the candidate would represent

Despite polls demonstrating that most voters do not respond well to negative advertisements and messages, modern campaigns – whether they are federal, state, or local – increasingly rely on mudslinging and negative messages about opponents as part of their campaign strategy, in large part because other polls demonstrate that using negative advertisements and messages influences undecided voters.

Campaign Phases

Political campaigns consist of two phases: primary campaigns, during which members of the party-in-the-electorate determine who the candidate for a particular political party will be among a list of potential nominees, and general election campaigns, during which members of the electorate vote on who they would like to represent them in an elected office.

These different phases require appealing to different voters, which in turn necessitates different sets of strategies (summarized below).

Primary Campaigns

  • Target Voters:  members of the party-in-the-electorate
  • Campaign Strategies:  
    1. Focus on issue positions
    2. Seek to increase visibility and name recognition

General Election Campaigns

  • Target voters:  Eligible voters
  • Campaign Strategies:
    1. Persuade independent and undecided voters to choose their candidate, often by focusing on policy issues of the major candidates
    2. Mobilize voter turnout within the party base and among independent and undecided voters who may vote for the candidate

Advertising spikes during the general elections, in part because of the general election campaign strategy of swaying voters with information about the candidates and trying to mobilize people to vote in the election, and in part because shadow campaigns, or campaigns run by PACs and other organizations without coordination with or guidance from candidates, air negative advertisements to reach voters during the general election phase.

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