The American Biathlon: How Political Campaigns are Run

So You Think You Can Be President?

By Zac Emanuel

Anyone who has seen middle school class President, or high school student senates, Undergraduate Student Body Presidents understands basically what a campaign is: the process of getting yourself elected. But how they actually function, and what their true purpose in getting someone elected varies from our collective base consciousness. In comparison to your run of the mill class, club, or team President, almost every American election is divided into two distinct stages. 

The first is the primary when members of the same party compete to be the party's nominee for a general election. While in higher profile elections and in states/districts where one party is dominant, these can be very publicized, oftentimes at the lower levels of politics, many are unaware of. Whether due to lack of publicity, information about the candidates, or seemingly random election dates, As a result, incumbents see a hefty advantage, up to 14 percentage points of the voter share. 

The general election is the other stage any election season when nominees compete for the job they are ultimately running for. While ultimately the election that decides who receives the job, in areas like the Bronx’s 15th and 16th Congressional districts, two of the most liberal such districts in the nation, or in statewide elections in California or Texas, where one party holds a vice grip on the electorate, they may merely be formalities.

The biggest (and newest known) difference between the primaries and the general election is in the minds of voters. Joshua Kalla and David E. Broockman, both out of UC Berkeley published a landmark study in late 2017 that found a conclusion that helps understand the hows and whys of campaigns: voters don’t change their minds about who they will support post primary

Given the highly partisan nature of American politics, this does make sense. Most of America’s independents are actually more likely to be “closeted partisans” as Kalla calls them, and only 7% of voters are actually true independents whos vote swings back and forth. 

This further helps us define the two stages of campaigns, and frankly can be seen in the differences between Democratic nominee Joe Biden’s current campaign, and the one he ran when the primary was competitive. During the competitive primary, with voter’s preferences more malleable, Biden staked himself as the definitive moderate in the campaign, squeezing oxygen from the Steve Bullocks and John Hickenlooper’s of the race, preventing them from being leading candidates from the middle. This forced other, while more progressive, still relatively moderate candidates like Kamala Harris, Beto O’Rourke, and Cory Booker to the left, in order for them to try and find a lane and define nature for themselves. In doing so, Biden ensured he would win the primary. However, the strong support for more progressive candidates such as Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren lead the Biden campaign to establish a Unity Task Force with Sanders in order to create platforms and policies to unite their wings of the party upon Biden’s establishment as the de-facto nominee.

Why would a campaign, after holding themselves up as the pinnacle of being moderate, suddenly choose to leave that perch? The answer is, that unlike the primary where you need to convince people, the general election is about turnout. More eligible voters DID NOT vote in 2016 than voted for EITHER candidate. Essentially, national elections or competitive swing races come down to how many supporters of a certain candidate actually end up voting. 

This can be seen in the kind of messages you see in the advertisements during the stages of the campaign. While in a primary campaign, candidates are more likely to focus on intra-party issues and responding to what their primary opponent is campaigning on. Combined with the focus on persuasion, the ads you will see during primaries are about policy, differences between the candidates, and why you should vote for Candidate A over Candidate B. In contrast, when looking at a general election campaign, a sense of urgency is what campaigns seek to inspire in voters. Whether due to encouraging outrage, concern, or hope, the goal is to get people to turn out to vote. 

On a larger scale, this can be seen in the national policies of each party. It is commonly held, and frankly, proven, that at a national level, increased voter turnout is highly beneficial to the Democratic party. As making it easier to vote leads to increased turnout, Democrats tend to support legislation and policies that would do as such. Suppressing turnout has been the policy of the Republican Party, through such policies as Voter ID laws, closing polling stations, and making it harder to get mail ballots. This usually was tied to election integrity in their messaging, as overtly encouraging lower turnout was considered taboo until earlier this year, when Donald Trump and Georgia Speaker of the House David Ralston admitted increased turnout would be “devastating” to Republicans. 

However, how do these forces affect your local elections?

Essentially, at the local level, voters during general elections vote based on party preference or affiliation. During years with major elections, such as Presidential, or Gubernatorial, the success of higher-profile candidates will affect the success of lower-level elections. This is called the “down-ballot” effect. Races with lesser publicity will essentially piggyback off the larger profile races, as candidates to be your local city councilman will have significantly less money to spend on their races than the $35,000,000 that is in the combined total of cash on hand for Republican Martha McSally and Democrat Mark Kelly’s campaigns for Arizona Senate. 

With less than half of 1% of all internet traffic covering local news, how do campaigns even get formed?

Let’s start with the candidate: while plenty of local and grassroots campaigns are concerned citizens, plenty of local politicians enter the game either having been an aide to a candidate/government official or have been recruited by their local party to run for a position. With former aides, there is a built-in network of people who know how to run a campaign and fundraise, which are essential to getting elected. However, the recruited candidates are less likely to have a background in politics or government, and thus the group that recruits them helps provide the infrastructure and knowledge needed to run a campaign. 

Some of these groups are well known, such as EMILY’S LIST, which is dedicated to helping Pro-Choice Democrat women get elected. Partisan groups exist on both sides of the aisle, such as the National Federation of Republican Women. Other recruiting organizations are more specific in who they seek to recruit, such as Higher Heights for America, which supports Black women, or the Victory Institute, which helps LGBTQ+ candidates navigate the endorsement process and helps with funding. 

Once a Candidate is off and running, what happens next?

Especially in local, low profile campaigns, campaigns are reliant on face to face interactions, whether through attending local events like parades, celebrations, or charity events, or your traditional door to door canvassing. In many states, like my home state of Rhode Island, to even appear on a ballot, campaigns need to submit a petition of a certain number eligible voters for that specific election to be on the ballots. I personally got my start in political involvement circulating these petitions, by standing outside my local grocery market and approaching shoppers on the way inside and asking them to sign. (if you’re looking to get involved with a campaign in the future, this is a really easy way to get your foot in the door, as you can do it on your own time, and it can often lead to official job or internships offers with campaigns). 

While the earlier mentioned down ballot effect ultimately can lead to the success or failure of a general election campaign, primaries are often won via name recognition. Your local candidate often does not have the finances to run a barrage of TV, Print, Radio, or Internet Ads. So how do candidates get such recognition? This can be generated through the personal interactions I mentioned above, through news coverage, or often most notably, through the process of endorsements, when a different person, candidate, official, or group publicly backs someone in an election. Especially for lower-level candidates, this offers a way to elevate your platform. A good example of this is through Bernie Sanders’s endorsement of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in her first primary against (former) Rep. Joe Crowley, who had been in office for over 20 years. Against Sanders’s heightened profile following the 2016 Democratic Presidential Primary, in combination with an aggressive grassroots, door to door campaign, Ocasio-Cortez was able to unseat Crowley with a higher profile than your traditional first-term Congresswoman. 

The two-stage nature of the American Political Campaign leads to two very different styles of campaigning, with different goals. The primary is about name recognition, and convincing voters that they should support you. However, when the general election rolls around, the goal changes. You are highly unlikely to change anyone’s mind in the general election, and as such, campaigns are dedicated to convincing as many eligible voters who would support them to turn out. While there are regional variations due to local forces, the above holds in almost any swing state, competitive local race, or presidential elections. If you want to get involved in politics, local campaigns are almost always desperate for local help, and it can be a great way to get your foot in the door and make the connections that may one day get YOU elected.