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Anticipating the 2018 Midterm Elections (October 2018): Home

By Will Miller


This bibliographic essay originally appeared in the October 2018 issue of Choice (volume 56 | number 2). 


The concept of voting has remained relatively constant over time, even if how citizens vote may have evolved. A citizen casts a ballot (whether it be by telling a bartender to write her name in a column, filling in a circle, clicking an electronic box, or dropping a postcard in the mail), an official oversees the tabulation of votes (by manually counting or watching a machine produce reports), and a victor is declared (by claiming a plurality or majority of the votes). While the voting process has progressed incrementally over the life of American elections at all levels of government, how candidates campaign and appeal to voters has dramatically changed since the beginnings of candidate-, and ultimately consultant-centered, campaigns. Each national election introduces new ways to think about campaigns and elections: from travelling to meet voters, to using radio addresses and buying television ads, to placing messaging into video games.

To understand how campaigns operate today—and to anticipate how the 2018 midterm elections will be conducted—one needs to have some understanding of the historical context of elections in America. The presidential election of 1896 was an epic battle pitting Democrat William Jennings Bryan, a fiery politician from Nebraska, against Republican William McKinley, the even-tempered governor of Ohio. Bryan’s oratory was in the classical tradition. Economic hardship was dividing the nation, Bryan argued, and a monetary policy like the one McKinley offered, which proposed to link the national currency to gold bullion, was a dire threat to the working class. Taking his “Silver Democrat” message to twenty-six states, speaking to an estimated 5 million people, distancing his policies from the failures of the incumbent administration, Bryan cast himself as a champion of the “common man.”

Nineteenth-century political custom held that presidential incumbents should not plead their own case on the campaign trail. Wandering the countryside in search of votes suggested weakness and would give Bryan a chance to outperform McKinley. Marcus A. Hanna—arguably the first modern campaign consultant working for his longtime friend McKinley—therefore orchestrated a series of finely tuned pilgrimages that had the air of a contemporary campaign. The candidate would not go to the people; the people would come to the candidate. From midsummer through November, McKinley gave more than 300 speeches and saw perhaps a million callers at his door. People snatched twigs, grass, stones, and shards of the now-famous front porch to keep as souvenirs.

And Hanna didn’t rely on just pilgrimages to Canton. He approached captains of industry for campaign cash, gathering about $3.5 million, more than anyone had raised in a presidential race to that date. He organized separate bureaus for Germans, African Americans, wheelmen, merchants, and even women, a group that did not yet enjoy universal suffrage. Hundreds of speakers were deployed and countless pamphlets were distributed, some written in the home languages of newly arrived immigrants. And it worked. McKinley won with approximately 51 percent of the vote—a respectable win, thanks, in large measure, to the innovative tactics of Hanna.

McKinley’s 1896 triumph came in the early days of electronic communication—telephones were a novelty and radio was still in the offing—and the stage was set for astonishing change. Television would be introduced following World War II, and within a decade two-thirds of the nation’s households would own at least one TV set. In the 1960s, satellite communication became standard fare on television newscasts. In the 1980s, CNN made television news a twenty-four-hour commodity. And in the 1990s, the internet gave instant access to in-depth information from around the globe. The culture became wired, and then wireless. College students carry smartphones, take and share photos, play music, locate restaurants and reviews, send and receive tweets, and message friends around the globe. “Cord cutters” are watching movies, documentaries, campaign commercials, and candidate gaffes on Netflix, YouTube, Chromecast, and Fire Sticks.

With increasingly sophisticated data available on potential voters—ranging from magazine subscriptions to social media activity—and mediums available that allow for granular-level targeting never experienced before, the opportunities to target messaging are greater than ever before. Every two years, when federal elections complete with the deepest campaign war chests stretch what insiders believed to be possible, it is evident that elections very much matter. And it’s easy to understand why. Consider the impact national elections alone could have in 2018. If Republicans maintain control of the House of Representatives and Senate, President Donald Trump’s ability to exert influence over policy and process will look quite different than if Democrats are able to win one or both bodies. With Supreme Court Justices Thomas and Ginsburg both being rumored as considering retirement, unified versus divided government in Washington, D.C. could have lasting impacts on policy interpretations through the judiciary. And each election has the potential to impact policy at every level of government. In short, elections mean more than simply selecting a representative; they have real policy implications.

To move toward understanding all of the moving parts that will collectively make up the 2018 midterm elections is to highlight the seminal works from the campaign and elections literature, which brings together multiple disciplines, including political science, communication, sociology, and psychology. This bibliographic essay will examine the current political landscape in America, including early analyses of Trump’s impact on Washington, D.C., and American society at large, the theoretical works that underlie campaign decisions made by consultants and candidates across the country, examinations of past elections and lessons learned for the future, practical handbooks that aim to help candidates win in elections at all levels of government, and finally specialized examinations of topics that continue to evolve and merit additional attention by scholars.

As Assistant Vice President of Campus Adoption at Campus Labs, Will Miller leverages data best practices to help campuses make strategic decisions. As a teacher, he draws on his perspective as a public intellectual to engage students in courses on political science, public policy, program evaluation, and organizational behavior. He has taught courses on political psychology and campaigns and elections at Flagler College, Southeast Missouri State University, Ohio University, and Notre Dame College.