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Anticipating the 2018 Midterm Elections (October 2018): The Scholarship of Electioneering

By Will Miller

The Scholarship of Electioneering

Having an understanding of how Trump’s election and subsequent two years in office are laying the foundation for the 2018 midterm elections at all levels of government, one can next turn to examining the theoretical works that explain how campaigns operate today and how they have evolved over time. As discussed in the introduction, campaigns today look very different from those of two hundred—or even ten—years ago. Campaigns were once run by family members, friends, and party activists who canvassed neighborhoods and street corners handing out pamphlets. Ward heelers cajoled friends and posted yard signs. In the 1950s, this sort of “retail” politics was the way of the world. By the mid-1960s, mass-market strategies like random-sample surveys were colonizing American politics. Carefully constructed random-sample surveys appeared more effective than conferring with party leaders, and television could reach a huge audience with comparative ease. Adlai Stevenson, who railed against those who “merchandise candidates for high office like breakfast cereal,” would be dismayed at the present state of affairs. With Trump relying as much on his own personal brand as on concrete policy issues to win, there are questions today about whether the candidate him- or herself even matters.

In 1974, Gerald Pomper—writing in Elections in America—noted that although Americans choose more than half a million public officials through the ballot, elections are a mystery. By beginning to examine the scholarship of campaigns and elections, one can see the critical transformation that is underway: new-style campaigning has taken hold from the presidential level down to the city-council contests. Contemporary political professionals and scholars might dismiss handshake-and-pamphlet electioneering as “old-style.” Old-style campaigning was characterized by a personalized retail politics practiced by political operatives and party bosses. “New-style” campaigning, a notion outlined by Robert Agranoff in The New Style in Election Campaigns in 1972, broke with that past. The new style was marked by a new individualism, with new players, new incentives, new tactics, and new resources—none of which was dominated by the major political party organizations. As a novel campaign industry began taking hold in the early 1970s, there were, by Agranoff’s count, thirty branches of the campaign profession. A directory of political consultants now lists seventy categories of consultancy, from “Ad Testing” to “Voter Registration.”

Strategists build standardized components that will fit diverse situations. Campaign scholars Judith Trent, Robert Friedenberg, and Robert Denton write in Political Campaign Communication: Principles and Practices that candidates tend to adapt to audiences with speech modules, each being a single unit of speech. A campaign’s talking points are recycled from one event to the next with minor variations in phrasing. They are used in letters, brochures, op-eds, debates, social media, or any other textual communication. Old-style retail campaigning involved a direct relationship with voters; early new-style campaigns used a mass-marketing approach; and the new-style, in which consultants narrowly target their message to members of a broad audience, adapting processes on demand, exemplifies mass customization.

At the center of the study of campaigns is the question, Do campaigns actually matter? Early work on voter behavior suggested campaign activities might not play a significant role in electoral results. A voter’s ballot choice is highly predictable early in the campaign season, based on socioeconomic status and party attachment. A typical contest’s outcome is highly predictable. Electoral forecasts that take account of incumbency status, economic conditions, and other influences outside the control of campaign organizations can usually predict the winner well before Election Day (even as media attention dwells on the most uncertain of these contests). Maybe campaigns don’t matter, or don’t matter much.

Political scientists speak of the “minimal effects” of electioneering, but minimal does not mean absent. Thomas Holbrook, in Do Campaigns Matter?, argues that outcomes and behavior can be explained with just a few variables—none of which are actually related to the campaign. It is essential for a candidate who falls behind to move public opinion toward expectations. Campaign effects are minimal, but real; they can make a difference. Scholars who see a strong role for noncampaign influences understand the limitations of forecasting models. John Sides and Lynn Vavreck, in The Gamble: Choice and Chance in the 2012 Presidential Election, have found strong evidence for the influence of fundamentals (such as incumbency and economic performance) on campaigns, but the power of conditions beyond a candidate’s control is contingent on a decision to take advantage of those conditions. Leading scholars Gary Jacobson and Jamie Carson argues in The Politics of Congressional Elections that the question now is not whether campaigns matter, but how. Well-resourced, forward-thinking candidates need to apply their skills competently if they are to maximize their chances for victory on Election Day. While the marginal value of any singular consultant may be difficult to estimate—the number of potential factors is all but countless—the assumption that good strategy can make a difference appears to drive the behavior of campaign organizations.

Candice Nelson and James Thurber’s Campaigns and Elections American Style: The Changing Landscape of Political Campaigns is designed to show exactly how campaigns matter in the context of the 2016 election. Academics and campaign professionals explain how Trump won the presidency, comparing his sometimes novel tactics with tried and true strategies including the development and communication of campaign themes and strategies, the changes in campaign tactics as a result of changing technology, new techniques to target and mobilize voters, the evolving landscape of campaign finance and election laws, and the increasing diversity of the role of media in elections. Offering a unique and careful mix of Democrat and Republican, academic and practitioner, and male and female campaign perspectives, this volume scrutinizes national and local-level campaigns with a special focus on the 2016 presidential and congressional elections and what those elections might tell us about 2018 and 2020.

A strong literature covers the practice of electioneering, including several books that emerged in the 1970s, most notably Joseph Napolitan’s The Election Game and How to Win It.  In the 1980s, Larry Sabato’s The Rise of Political Consultants: New Ways of Winning Elections, Marjorie Hershey’s Running for Office: The Political Education of Campaigners, Ann Beaudry and Bob Schaeffer’ Winning Local and State Elections, and Barbara Salmore and Stephen Salmore’s Candidates, Parties, and Campaigns described the inner workings of political campaigns. Later, Edwin Diamond and Stephen Bates’s The Spot: The Rise of Political Advertising on Television and Karen Johnson-Cartee and Gary Copeland’s Negative Political Advertising: Coming of Age examined campaign advertising; Gary Selnow’s High-Tech Campaigns took account of computer technology in modern elections.

Mike Burton, Dan Shea, and this reviewer spend considerable time in Campaign Craft: The Strategies, Tactics, and Art of Political Campaign Management working to bridge the gap between the theoretical and the practical. By looking at both practical tips and the underlying theories behind them, the book speaks to both scholars and practitioners. Stephen Craig and David Hill highlight perspectives by scholars and practitioners together in The Electoral Challenge: Theory Meets Practice, an edited volume that encourages students of politics to talk about both theory and practice. William Feltus, Kenneth Goldstein, and Matthew Dallek’s Inside Campaigns: Elections through the Eyes of Political Professionals brings together research from over one-hundred campaign staffers to describe the behind-the-scenes activities prominent at any level of campaigning. Costas Panagopoulos also brings a practitioner perspective to his Political Campaigns: Concepts, Context, and Consequences.

Even more recently, John Klemanski, David Dulio, and Michael Switalski examine state legislative campaigns in Campaigns from the Ground Up: State House Elections in a National Context. Dulio has also looked at political consulting as a business in For Better or Worse? How Political Consultants Are Changing Elections in the United States, as has Stephen Medvic, one of the early observers of political consulting, in Political Consultants in U.S. Congressional Elections. Dennis Johnson’s No Place for Amateurs, Campaigning in the Twenty-First Century, and Democracy for Hire: A History of American Political Consulting analyze the consulting industry as it rose from an ad hoc business model to a mature profession.

Electioneering, for all its cutting-edge bluster, is inherently unadventurous. In the commercial world, strategists can roll out a new marketing technique with full knowledge that poor returns would mean a temporary, but recoverable, dip in sales. The all-or-nothing rules of American elections mean a new technique that loses few percentages points can spell disaster. A rational consultant might resist change and look to the successes and failures of others, learning about strategy and tactics vicariously through the retelling of war stories, as Michael Burton and Dan Shea demonstrate in Campaign Mode: Strategic Vision in Congressional Elections.

Works Cited