Political Participation: Campaigns and the Voting Process

Image A is of Bernie Sanders speaking to a group of seated people. Image B is of John Ellis

Presidential candidates often spend a significant amount of time campaigning in states with early caucuses or primaries. In September 2015, Senator Bernie Sanders (a), a candidate for the Democratic nomination, speaks at the Amherst Democrats BBQ in Amherst, New Hampshire. In July 2015, John Ellis “Jeb” Bush (b), former Republican governor of Florida, greets the public at the Fourth of July parade in Merrimack, New Hampshire. (Credit a, b: modification of work by Marc Nozell)

Learning Objectives

  • Compare campaign methods for different types of elections.
  • Identify strategies campaign managers use to reach voters.
  • Analyze the factors that typically affect a voter’s decision.

Campaign managers know that to win an election, they must do two things: reach voters with their candidate’s information and get voters to show up at the polls. To accomplish these goals, candidates and their campaigns will often try to target those most likely to vote. Unfortunately, these voters change from election to election and sometimes from year to year. Primary and caucus voters are different from voters who vote only during presidential general elections. Some years see an increase in voter turnout in younger voters, voters of some particular demographic, or voters with particular interests. Elections are unpredictable, and campaigns must adapt to be effective.

Comparing Primary and General Campaigns

Although candidates have the same goal for primary and general elections, which is to win, these elections are very different from each other and require a very different set of strategies. Primary elections are more difficult for the voter. There may be more candidates vying to become their party’s nominee, and party identification is not a useful cue because all candidates are running in “party elections” seeking to be nominated by a particular party. In the 2016 presidential election, Republican voters in the early primaries were presented with twelve options, including Donald Trump, Jeb Bush, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, John Kasich, Chris Christie, Carly Fiorina, Ben Carson, and four more. Democrats had to decide primarily between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders.

Whether a candidate is running for President, U.S. Senate, U.S. House of Representatives or some state or local office, voters in each party must find more information about each candidate to decide which is closest to their preferred issue positions or who have the experience or personal attributes they seek in their party’s nominee. Due to time limitations, voters may not research all the candidates. Nor will all the candidates get enough media or debate time to reach the voters. These issues make campaigning in a primary election difficult, so campaign managers tailor their strategy.

First, name recognition is extremely important. Voters are unlikely to cast a vote for an unknown. In 2016, some candidates for President of the United States, such as Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump, and Jeb Bush, were well known. Most candidates for president were formerly governors or senators who were less well-known nationally. Of course, for the federal offices for U.S. Senate or U.S. Representative, candidates for the nomination for this office are even more likely to be less known to the primary election voters. During the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination contest, Barack Obama had been only a junior senator from Illinois prior to running for president. Voters across the country had little information about him and he needed media time to become known. While well-known candidates generally have longer records that can be attacked by the opposition, they also have an easier time raising campaign funds because of their odds of winning being perceived as better.

Second, visibility is crucial when a candidate is one in a long parade of faces. Given that voters will want to find quick, useful information about each, candidates will try to get the media’s attention and pick up momentum. Media attention is especially important for newer candidates. Most voters assume a candidate’s website and other campaign material will be skewed, showing only the most positive information. The media, on the other hand, are generally considered more reliable and unbiased than a candidate’s campaign materials, so voters turn to news networks and journalists to pick up information about the candidates’ histories and issue positions. Candidates are aware of voters’ preference for quick information and news and try to get interviews or news coverage for themselves. Candidates also benefit from news coverage that is longer and cheaper than campaign ads. In 2016, both Donald Trump (in the Republican nomination process) and Bernie Sanders (in the Democratic nomination process) benefited by “free” news coverage of their political events and rallies.

An image of Ted Cruz standing in front of a sign that reads “Ted Cruz Rally for Religious Liberty”.

Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) hosts a Rally for Religious Liberty at Bob Jones University, a Christian university in Greenville, South Carolina, on November 14, 2015. Cruz announced his campaign for president on March 23, 2015, at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia. (Credit: modification of work by Jamelle Bouie)

The first Republican candidate to throw a hat into the ring for 2016, Ted Cruz had been preparing for his presidential run since 2013 when he went hunting in Iowa and vacationed in New Hampshire, both key states in the nomination process.[1]

 Like candidates for office at all levels of U.S. government, Cruz understood that campaigns must reach out to the voters and compel them to vote or the candidate will fail miserably.

Campaign ads in primary elections focus on issue positions or name recognition or favorable attributes of the candidate. Many of the best primary ads help the voters identify issue positions they have in common with the candidate.

General Elections and Election Day

The general election campaign period occurs between mid-August and early November. These elections are simpler than primaries and conventions, because there are only two major party candidates and a few minor party candidates.

In 1845, Congress passed legislation that moved the presidential election day to the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November; and, in 1872, elections for the House of Representatives were also moved to that same Tuesday.[2] The United States was then an agricultural country where farmers made up a majority of voters.[3]

The tradition of Election Day to fall in November allowed time for the lucrative fall harvest to be brought in and the farming season to end. And, while not all members of government were of the same religion, many wanted to ensure that voters were not kept from the polls by a weekend religious observance. Finally, business and mercantile concerns often closed their books on the first of the month. Rather than let accounting get in the way of voting, the bill’s language forces Election Day to fall between the second and eighth of the month.

General elections in years in which we elect a president garner the most attention from the media, the political elites, and the voters. Yet, they are not the only important elections. The even-numbered years between presidential years, like 2014 and 2018, are reserved for congressional elections–sometimes referred to as midterm elections because they are in the middle of the president’s term. Midterm elections are held because all members of the House of Representatives and one-third of the senators come up for reelection every two years.

General Election Campaign Strategy

By the general election, whether in a presidential year or in a midterm year, each party has selected their candidates, and campaign must accomplish different goals with different voters. Because most party-affiliated voters will cast a ballot for their party’s candidate, the campaigns must try to reach the independent and undecided, as well as try to convince their party members to get out and vote. Accordingly, some ads will focus on issue and policy positions or personal positive attributes or experiences, comparing the two main party candidates.

Accordingly, some ads will focus on issue and policy positions, or personal positive attributes or experiences, comparing the two main-party candidates. Other ads will remind party loyalists why it is important to vote.

General campaigns also try to get voters to the polls in closely contested states. In Ohio in 2004, George W. Bush’s campaign focused on getting the state’s Republican voters to the polls. The volunteers walked through precincts and knocked on Republican doors to raise interest in Bush and the election. Volunteers also called Republican and former Republican households to remind them when and where to vote.[4] The strategy worked, and it reminded future campaigns that an organized effort to get out the vote is still a viable way to win an election, especially in swing states that can go in either direction on election day.

In 2016, both candidates sensed shifts in the electorate that led them to visit states that were not recently battleground states. Clinton visited Republican stronghold Arizona as Latino voter interest surged. Defying conventional campaign movements, Trump spent many hours over the last days of the campaign in the largely Democratic Rust Belt states, namely Michigan and Wisconsin. President Trump ended up winning both states and industrial Pennsylvania as well.

Positive and Negative Advertising

Campaigns have always been expensive. Also, they have sometimes been negative and nasty. The 1828 “Coffin Handbill” that John Quincy Adams ran, for instance, listed the names and circumstances of the executions his opponent Andrew Jackson had ordered. This was in addition to gossip and verbal attacks against Jackson’s wife, who had accidentally committed bigamy when she married him without a proper divorce. Campaigns and candidates have not become more amicable in the years since then.

An image of a handbill from the 1828 presidential election. The top reads

The infamous “Coffin Handbill” used by John Quincy Adams against Andrew Jackson in the 1828 presidential election. This is an early version of negative advertising. (Credit: Library of Congress, OpenStax included image)

Once television became a fixture in homes, campaign advertising moved to the airwaves. Television allowed candidates to connect with the voters through video, allowing them to appeal directly to and connect emotionally with voters. While Adlai Stevenson and Dwight D. Eisenhower were the first to use television in their 1952 and 1956 campaigns, the ads were more like jingles with images.

John Kennedy’s campaign was the first to use images to show voters positive personal attributes of the candidates suggesting that the candidate was the choice for everyone. His ad, “Kennedy,” combined the jingle “Kennedy for me” and photographs of a diverse population dealing with life in the United States.

link to learningThe Museum of the Moving Image has collected presidential campaign ads from 1952 through today, including the “Kennedy for Me” spot mentioned above. Take a look and see how candidates have created ads to get the voters’ attention and votes over time.

Over time, however, ads became more negative and manipulative. President Lyndon B. Johnson used the infamous “Daisy Girl” ad, which cut from a little girl counting daisy petals to an atomic bomb being dropped, to explain why voters needed to turn out and vote for him. If the voters stayed home, Johnson implied his opponent, Barry Goldwater, might start a war. The ad aired once as a paid ad on NBC before it was pulled, but the footage appeared on other news stations as newscasters discussed the controversy over it.[5]

President Lyndon B. Johnson’s “Peace Little Girl (Daisy)” campaign ad aired only once, during an NBC broadcast of “Monday Night at the Movies,” yet it was one of the most notorious ads ever shown during a political campaign. (Stock Photo: file photo credit to The Greenfield Recorder and the Los Angeles Times at http://www.recorder.com/Long-before-Trump-4244993).

President Lyndon B. Johnson’s “Peace Little Girl (Daisy)” campaign ad aired only once, during an NBC broadcast of “Monday Night at the Movies,” yet it was one of the most notorious ads ever shown during a political campaign. (Credit: The Greenfield Recorder and the Los Angeles Times at http://www.recorder.com/Long-before-Trump-4244993).

Another source of negative ads is from groups outside the campaigns. Sometimes, shadow campaigns, run by political action committees and other organizations without the coordination or guidance of candidates, also use negative ads to reach voters. Even before the Citizens United decision allowed corporations and interest groups to run ads supporting candidates, shadow campaigns existed. In 2004, the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth organization ran ads attacking John Kerry’s military service record, and MoveOn attacked George W. Bush’s decision to commit to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. In 2014, super PACs poured more than $300 million into supporting candidates.[6]

The Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002, or McCain–Feingold, included a requirement that candidates stand by their ad and include a recorded statement within the ad stating that they approved the message. Although ads, especially those run by super PACs, continue to be negative, candidates can no longer dodge responsibility at least for those they directly run.

Candidates are also frequently using interviews on late night television to get messages out. Soft news, or infotainment, is a new type of news that combines entertainment and information. Shows like The Daily Show and Last Week Tonight make the news humorous or satirical while helping viewers become more educated about the events around the nation and the world.[7]

In 2008, Obama and McCain visited popular programs like The Daily Show, The Colbert Report, and Late Night with Conan O’Brien to target informed voters in the under-45 age bracket. The candidates were able to show their funny sides and appear like average Americans, while talking a bit about their policy preferences. By fall of 2015, The Late Show with Stephen Colbert had already interviewed most of the potential presidential candidates, including Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, Jeb Bush, Ted Cruz, and Donald Trump.

Candidate Debates

Debates are an important element of the general election season, allowing voters to see candidates answer questions on policy and prior decisions. While most voters think only of presidential debates, the general election season sees many debates. In a number of states, candidates for governor are expected to participate in televised debates, as are candidates running for the U.S. Senate. Debates not only give voters a chance to hear answers, but also to see how candidates hold up under stress. Because television and the Internet make it possible to stream footage to a wide audience, modern campaign managers understand the importance of a debate.

Photo of the presidential debate in St. Louis (2016). Credit: Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA and the Chicago Tribune; "Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump during the second Presidential Debate at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri" at http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/nationworld/ct-photos-presidential-debate-between-donald-trump-hillary-clinton-20161009-photogallery.html.

Photo of the presidential debate in St. Louis (2016). (Credit: Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA and the Chicago Tribune; “Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump during the second Presidential Debate at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri” at http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/nationworld/ct-photos-presidential-debate-between-donald-trump-hillary-clinton-20161009-photogallery.html)

In 1960, the first televised presidential debate showed that answering questions well is not the only way to impress voters. Senator John F. Kennedy, the Democratic nominee, and Vice President Richard Nixon, the Republican nominee, prepared in slightly different ways for their first of four debates. Although both studied answers to possible questions, Kennedy also worked on the delivery of his answers, including accent, tone, facial displays, and body movements, as well as overall appearance. Nixon, however, was ill in the days before the debate and appeared sweaty and gaunt. He also chose not to wear makeup, a decision that left his pale, unshaven face vulnerable.[8] Interestingly, while people who watched the debate thought Kennedy won, those listening on radio saw the debate as more of a draw.

While debates are not just about a candidate’s looks, most debate rules contain language that prevents candidates from artificially enhancing their physical qualities. For example, prior rules have prohibited shoes that increase a candidate’s height, banned prosthetic devices that change a candidate’s physical appearance, and limited camera angles to prevent unflattering side and back shots. Candidates and their campaign managers are aware that visuals matter.

Debates are generally over by the end of October, just in time for Election Day.

The Internet has given candidates a new platform and a new way to target voters. In the 2000 election, campaigns moved online and created websites to distribute information. They also began using search engine results to target voters with ads. Candidates also use social media, such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, to interact with supporters and get the attention of younger voters.

Voter Decision Making

The election environment is complex and most voters do not have time to research everything about the candidates and issues. Yet they will need to make a fully rational assessment of the choices for an elected office. To meet this goal, they tend to take shortcuts.

Chart showing 3 ways voters make decisions: 1) party affiliation, 2) personal attributes, and 3) issues.

One popular shortcut is simply to vote using party affiliation. Many political scientists consider party-line voting to be rational behavior because citizens register for parties based upon either position preference or socialization. Similarly, candidates align with parties based upon their issue positions. A Democrat who votes for a Democrat is very likely selecting the candidate closest to his or her personal ideology. While party identification is a voting cue, it also makes for a logical decision.

About half of voters will make their decision based upon party membership, so candidates will focus on winning over independent voters and visiting states where the election is close.[9]

The 2016 election was no exception to this consistent pattern of voters affiliated with either the Republican or Democratic party to vote for the candidate who was nominated by their respective parties.

Bar chart shows how party identification affected voting in 2016.

Nationally available exit polling data showing how party identification impacted voting in the 2016 election. (Credit: CNN at http://edition.cnn.com/election-polls/national/president).

Voters make decisions based upon candidates’ physical characteristics, such as attractiveness or facial features.[10] Voters are known to review personal attributes of a candidate that include consideration of not onoly physical characteristics such as age, ethnicity, or gender; but, also the candidate’s personality, perceived personal qualities, educational background, or past political experiences.

They may also vote based on gender or race, because they assume the elected official will make policy decisions based on a demographic shared with the voters. Candidates are very aware of voters’ focus on these non-political traits. In 2008, a sizable portion of the electorate wanted to vote for either Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama because they offered new demographics—either the first woman or the first black president. Demographics hurt John McCain that year, because many people believed that at 71 he was too old to be president.[11]

Hillary Clinton faced this situation again in 2016 as she became the first female nominee from a major party. In essence, attractiveness can make a candidate appear more competent, which in turn can help him or her ultimately win.[12]

Aside from party identification and demographics, and other personal attributes, voters will also look at issues or the economy when making a decision, known as issue voting. Many voters are likely to seek out a candidate’s position on a multitude of issues before making a decision. They will use the information they find in several ways. On the other hand, for some single-issue voters, a candidate’s stance on abortion rights will be a major factor, while other voters may look at the candidates’ beliefs on the Second Amendment and gun control. Single-issue voting may not require much more effort by the voter than simply using party identification; however, retrospective voting occurs when the voter looks at the candidate’s past actions and the past economic climate and makes a decision only using these factors. This behavior may occur during economic downturns or after political scandals, when voters hold politicians accountable and do not wish to give the representative a second chance.
Pocketbook voting occurs when the voter looks at his or her personal finances and circumstances to decide how to vote. Someone having a harder time finding employment or seeing investments suffer during a particular candidate or party’s control of government will vote for a different candidate or party than the incumbent. Prospective voting occurs when the voter applies information about a candidate’s past behavior to decide how the candidate will act in the future. For example, will the candidate’s voting record or actions help the economy and better prepare him or her to be president during an economic downturn? The challenge of this voting method is that the voters must use a lot of information, which might be conflicting or unrelated, to make an educated guess about how the candidate will perform in the future. Voters do appear to rely on prospective and retrospective voting more often than on pocketbook voting.

In some cases, a voter may cast a ballot strategically. In these cases, a person may vote for a second- or third-choice candidate, either because his or her preferred candidate cannot win or in the hope of preventing another candidate from winning. This type of voting is likely to happen when there are multiple candidates for one position or multiple parties running for one seat.[13]

In Florida and Oregon, for example, Green Party voters (who tend to be liberal) may choose to vote for a Democrat if the Democrat might otherwise lose to a Republican. Similarly, in Georgia, while a Libertarian may be the preferred candidate, the voter would rather have the Republican candidate win over the Democrat and will vote accordingly.[14]

link to learningSince 1960, the American National Election Studies has been asking a random sample of voters a battery of questions about how they voted. The data are available at the Inter-university Consortium for Political and Social Research at the University of Michigan.

Straight-Ticket Voting

Citizens also use party identification to make decisions via straight-ticket voting—choosing every Republican or Democratic Party member on the ballot. In some states, such as Texas or Michigan, selecting one box at the top of the ballot gives a single party all the votes on the ballot. Straight-ticket voting does cause problems in states that include non-partisan positions on the ballot. In Michigan, for example, the top of the ballot (presidential, gubernatorial, senatorial and representative seats) will be partisan, and a straight-ticket vote will give a vote to all the candidates in the selected party. But the middle or bottom of the ballot includes seats for local offices or judicial seats, which are non-partisan. These offices would receive no vote, because the straight-ticket votes go only to partisan seats. In 2010, actors from the former political drama The West Wing came together to create an advertisement for Mary McCormack’s sister Bridget, who was running for a non-partisan seat on the Michigan Supreme Court. The ad reminded straight-ticket voters to cast a ballot for the court seats as well; otherwise, they would miss an important election. McCormack won the seat. Split-ticket voting occurs when a voter makes decisions based not upon party affiliation but on issue, demographics, or some other factor. Split-ticket voters split votes between candidates from various parties.

An image of an official ballot for the 2012 general election. A callout box highlights the section titled

Voters in Michigan can use straight-ticket voting. To fill out their ballot, they select one box at the top to give a single party all the votes on the ballot. (Credit: OpenStax included image)


Straight-ticket voting does have the advantage of reducing ballot fatigue. Ballot fatigue occurs when someone votes only for the top or important ballot positions, such as president or governor, and stops voting rather than continue to the bottom of a long ballot. In 2012, for example, 70 percent of registered voters in Colorado cast a ballot for the presidential seat, yet only 54 percent voted yes or no on retaining Nathan B. Coats for the state supreme court.[15] Voters make decisions based upon candidates’ physical characteristics, such as attractiveness or facial features.[16]

Split-ticket voters split votes between candidates from various parties. Split-ticket voting occurs when a voter makes decisions based not on party affiliation but on issues, demographics, candidate attributes, or some other factor.

questions to consider

  1. In what ways is voting your party identification an informed choice? In what ways is it lazy?

  2. Do physical characteristics or personal attributes matter when voters assess candidates? If so, how?

Terms to remember

ballot fatigue–the result when a voter stops voting for offices and initiatives at the bottom of a long ballot

incumbency advantage–the advantage held by officeholders that allows them to often win reelection

issue voter–voter who decides which candidate to vote for on the basis of what positions they have taken on key issues of concern to the voter

party affiliation–the political party the person identifies with, also known as political identification

personal attributes–include consideration of not only physical characteristics such as age, ethnicity, or gender but candidate personality or perceived personal qualities as well as educational background or past political experiences

pocketbook voting–occurs when the voter looks at his or her personal finances and circumstances to decide how to vote

retrospective voting–voter looks at the candidate’s past actions and the past economic climate and makes a decision only using these factors

shadow campaign–a campaign run by political action committees and other organizations without the coordination of the candidate

split-ticket voting–the practice of voting based upon issue or candidate rather than party; voters may split decisions between individuals from a variety of parties

straight-ticket voting–the practice of voting only for candidates from the same party

  1. Margaret Carlson, “In Iowa, Ted Cruz Shoots Ducks in a Barrel,” Bloomberg View, 29 October 2013; Steve Peoples, “Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas Heading to New Hampshire,” San Jose Mercury News, 13 July 2013.
  2. 28th Congress, Session II. 23 January 1845. "An Act to Establish a Uniform Time for Holding Elections for Electors of President and Vice President in all the States of the Union," Statute II, chapter 1, image 721 at http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/index.html; 42nd Congress, Session II, "An Act for the Apportionment of Representatives to Congress among the Several States According to the Ninth Census." Chapter 11, section 3, http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/index.html; November 1, 2015
  3. Donald Ratcliffe. 2013. "The right to Vote and the Rise of Democracy, 1787--1828, "Journal of the Early Republic 33:219-254; Stanley Lebergott. 1966. "Labor Force and Employment, 1800-1960," in Output, Employment, and Productivity in the United States after 1800, ed. Dorothy S. Brady. Ann Arbor, Michigan: National Bureau of Economic Research.
  4. …So Goes the Nation. 2006. Directed by Adam Del Deo and James D. Stern. Beverly Hills: Endgame Entertainment.
  5. Drew Babb, "LBJ's 1964 Attack Ad 'Daisy' Leaves a Legacy for Modern Campaigns," Washington Post, 5 September 2014, "1964 Johnson vs. Goldwater" at http://www.livingroomcandidate.org/commercials/1964 (9 November 2015).
  6. "Super PACs," https://www.opensecrets.org/pacs/superpacs.php?cycle=2014 (November 11, 2015).
  7. "Public Knowledge of Current Affairs Little Changed by News and Information Revolutions," Pew Research Center, April 15, 2007.
  8. Shanto Iyengar. 2016. Media Politics: A Citizen’s Guide, 3rd ed. New York: W.W. Norton.
  9. "Party Affiliation and Election Polls," Pew Research Center, 3 August 2012.
  10. Lasse Laustsen. 2014. "Decomposing the Relationship Between Candidates' Facial Appearance and Electoral Success," Political Behavior 36, No. 4:777-791.
  11. Alan Silverleib. 15 June 2008. "Analysis: Age an Issue in the 2008 Campaign?" http://www.cnn.com/2008/POLITICS/06/15/mccain.age/index.html?iref=newssearch.
  12. Laustsen. “Decomposing the Relationship,” 777–791.
  13. R. Michael Alvarez and Jonathan Nagler. 2000. "A New Approach for Modelling Strategic Voting in Multiparty Elections," British Journal of Political Science 30, No. 1: 57–75.
  14. Nathan Thomburgh, "Could Third-Party Candidates Be Spoilers?" Time, 3 November 2008.
  15. "Presidential Electors," http://www.sos.state.co.us/pubs/elections/Results/Abstract/2012/general/president.html (July 15, 2015); "Judicial Retention–Supreme Court," http://www.sos.state.co.us/pubs/elections/Results/Abstract/2012/general/retention/supremeCourt.html (July 15, 2015).
  16. Lasse Laustsen. 2014. "Decomposing the Relationship Between Candidates’ Facial Appearance and Electoral Success," Political Behavior 36, No. 4: 777–791.