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 are more candidates vying to become their party’s nominee, and party identification is not a useful cue because each party has many candidates rather than just one. In the 2016 presidential election, Republican voters in the early primaries were presented with a number of options, including Mike Huckabee, Donald Trump, Jeb Bush, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, John Kasich, Chris Christie, Carly Fiorina, Ben Carson, and more. (Huckabee, Christie, and Fiorina dropped out relatively early.) Democrats had to decide between Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, and Martin O’Malley (who soon dropped out). Voters must find more information about each candidate to decide which is closest to their preferred issue positions. 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. Some candidates, like Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush, have held or are related to someone who held national office, but most candidates will be governors, senators, or local politicians who are less well-known nationally. Barack Obama was a junior senator from Illinois and Bill Clinton was a governor from Arkansas prior to running for president. Voters across the country had little information about them, and both candidates needed media time to become known. While well-known candidates have longer records that can be attacked by the opposition, they also have an easier time raising campaign funds because their odds of winning are better. Newer candidates face the challenge of proving themselves during the short primary season and are more likely to lose.
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.
For all these reasons, campaign ads in primary elections rarely mention political parties and instead focus on issue positions or name recognition. Many of the best primary ads help the voters identify issue positions they have in common with the candidate. In 2008, for example, Hillary Clinton ran a holiday ad in which she was seen wrapping presents. Each present had a card with an issue position listed, such as “bring back the troops” or “universal pre-kindergarten.” In a similar, more humorous vein, Mike Huckabee gained name recognition and issue placement with his 2008 primary ad. The “HuckChuck” spot had Chuck Norris repeat Huckabee’s name several times while listing the candidate’s issue positions. Norris’s line, “Mike Huckabee wants to put the IRS out of business,” was one of many statements that repeatedly used Huckabee’s name, increasing voters’ recognition of it. While neither of these candidates won the nomination, the ads were viewed by millions and were successful as primary ads.
In February 2008, Chuck Norris speaks at a rally for Mike Huckabee in College Station, Texas. (credit: modification of work by “ensign_beedrill”/Flickr)
By the general election, each party has only one candidate, and campaign ads must accomplish a different goal 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. Some ads will focus on issue and policy positions, comparing the two main party candidates. Other ads will remind party loyalists why it is important to vote. 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, Republican Barry Goldwater, might start an atomic 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.
More recently, Mitt Romney used the economy to remind moderates and independents in 2012 that household incomes had dropped and the national debt increased. The ad’s goal was to reach voters who had not already decided on a candidate and would use the economy as a primary deciding factor.
Part of the reason Johnson’s campaign ad worked is that more voters turn out for a general election than for other elections. These additional voters are often less ideological and more independent, making them harder to target but possible to win over. They are also less likely to complete a lot of research on the candidates, so campaigns often try to create emotion-based negative ads. While negative ads may decrease voter turnout by making voters more cynical about politics and the election, voters watch and remember them.
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.
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General campaigns also try to get voters to the polls in closely contested states. In 2004, realizing that it would be difficult to convince Ohio Democrats to vote Republican, 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. 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.