Political campaign

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(Redirected from Election campaign)

A political campaign is an organized effort to influence the decision making process within a group. In democracies a political campaign often brings to mind elections, that is the choosing of decision makers, but it could also include the effort to alter policy within any institution.

Politics is as old as humankind and is not limited to democratic or governmental institutions. Examples of political campaigns are: the effort to execute or banish Socrates from Athens in the 5th century BC, the uprising of petty nobility against John of England in the13th century, or the recent push to remove Michael Eisner from the helm of Disney.


Campaign elements

Missing image
A pre-election husting at the Oxford West and Abingdon constituency, England.

Any political campaign is made up of three elements. The modern mnemonic is message, money, and machine.

Where the message is the prefered outcome i.e. elect Smith, banish Socrates, protect the spotted owl, explore the ANWR for oil. In a modern political campaign the message must be carefully crafted before it is spread. Well financed campaigns use all of the tools of consumer advertisers.

Money represents the physical resources that will be expended to achieve that outcome. Raising the treasure required to prosecute a campaign requires a significant portion of the campaign organization's time.

Finally, machine represents human capital, the foot soldiers loyal to the cause, the true believers who will carry the word. The machine may have a paid staff or may be completely run by volunteer activists. Successful campaigns usually require a campaign manager and a treasurer who along with a candidate make the strategic decisions.

Hallmarks of modern campaigning are the combined use of mass communication methods, the media, face-to-face contact and public protest. Electronic campaigning is a growth area within the techniques used.

Compare the noisy demonstrations held by the campaign to ban genetically modified organisms with the tactics adopted by corporations to try to gain tax or trade concessions.


Political campaigns have existed as long as there have been informed citizens to campaign amongst. Often mass campaigns are started by the less privileged or anti-establishment viewpoints (as against more powerful interests whose first resort is lobbying). The phenomenon of political campaigns are tightly tied to special interest groups and political parties. The first 'modern' campaign is thought to be William Gladstone's Midlothian campaign in the 1880s, although there may be earlier recognisably modern examples from the 19th century.

Democratic societies have regular election campaigns, but political campaigning can occur on particular issues even in non-democracies so long as freedom of expression is allowed.


The campaign is established with a particular goal in mind; pass or repeal a law, win an election, or similar.

The focus of the campaign is to reach as many people as possible and persuade them to support the goal of the campaign; and hopefully contribute actively to the campaign itself with time or money.

One of the first priorities for the campaign team (which may be as small as one inspired individual, or a heavily-resourced group of professionals) is to establish the campaign message. This is a brief summary of what the goal is and why the average voter should support it. This draws on techniques from advertising and propaganda.

The message is then communicated by a number of methods. Possible methods are below. Not all are appropriate for a given campaign.

  • the public media (in US parlance 'free media') may run the story that someone is trying to get elected or to do something about such and such
  • advertising in the media (TV adverts are very common in the USA and banned in the UK; other techniques include newspaper adverts and billboards)
  • holding protests and rallies (if enough people can be persuaded to come)
  • holding mass meetings with speakers
  • writing directly to members of the public (either via a professional marketing firm or, particularly on a small scale, by volunteers)
  • communicating face-to-face with members of the public, either at events, in the street or on the doorstep
  • by cold-calling members of the public over the phone.
  • by distributing leaflets or selling newspapers
  • through websites, online communities, and solicited or unsolicited bulk email
  • through a whistlestop tour - a series of brief appearances in several small towns

The campaign will typically seek to identify supporters at the same time as getting its message across. These identified supporters are then sent additional information requesting their active support. This can involve 'joining' the campaign, donating money, doing voluntary work, writing letters to the media, voting in a particular way, and generally proselytising for the cause.

The ideal of the campaign is for the numbers of people involved, the media presence, the funds available, the hours worked by volunteers and the number of people reached by the message to increase rapidly and to keep increasing until the goal of the campaign is reached.

Ongoing campaigns can become entrenched as institutions, charities or political parties. Equally existing bodies use campaigns to keep themselves active and relevant.

Modern election campaigns in the UK


(see also Elections in the United Kingdom)

British election campaigns are very much centered around political parties.

The Labour Party, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats aim to contest every seat in mainland Britain, with the exception of the Speaker's seat (to avoid violating his political neutrality).

Plaid Cymru contest seats in Wales and the Scottish National Party and Scottish Socialists contest seats in Scotland.

Each party has a membership and organisation in each parliamentary constituency and each local authority (see constituency labour party). These local branches are responsible for selection of candidates and for campaigning outside of the four to six week period of the election. The local party organisation is effectively responsible for the local effort in all election campaigns.

This provides a common organisation for candidates of the party at all levels of government, from parish councils to the Westminister and European Parliaments.

Conduct of election campaigns

Candidates depend heavily on the national media profile of their party and party leader. The UK has far more national newspapers and TV than, for instance, the United States. Media attention is therefore heavily focused on political activity in and around Parliament and on national figures.

During the campaign parties deploy a great deal of effort in news management, trying to make sure that media coverage focuses on their core messages. The focus on this in the national party headquarters becomes even greater.

In the UK, broadcast media are explicitly forbidden from taking advertising on matters of political or industrial controversy. This means that national advertising campaigns are effectively restricted to billboards and hoardings. While paid advertisements in newspapers are legal, they are relatively unusual.

While TV advertising is illegal, UK parties are entitled to party election broadcasts and party political broadcasts, typically 5 minute pieces produced by the party and shown on the same day on all five principal TV channels.

For Parliamentary elections candidates are entitled to an election address delivered to the voters by the Post Office. The candidates are responsible for creating the content of the election address, which can take the form of a letter or leaflet.

The campaign 'on the ground' in the election is also of great importance. Parties aim to concentrate resources in their marginal seats.

They aim to contact as many voters as possible either face-to-face (canvassing) or over the telephone, both to introduce candidates and to gain information on the voter's intentions and inclinations. They also produce a variety of newspapers, flyers, newsletters and letters intended to influence voters' opinions.

The campaign culminates on polling day where the parties launch an effort to get out the vote by contacting supporters in person, over the phone or by mail. Most voting is conducted in person at a polling station, but there is a right to vote by post at request (in which case ballot papers are issued by mail in advance and returned in advance). There are experiments in progress with 'all-postal' voting and electronic voting.

Ballot papers are typically counted on the night after close of polls. It is an offence to publish an exit poll while voting is still ongoing.

When ballots for an election have been counted, the election agents of candidates are told the provisional result by the Returning Officer in private. The agents are then able to request a recount of the ballots before the result is publicly announced.

Legal restrictions

As well as restrictions on TV and radio advertising, expenditure on campaigning is strictly limited.

Any campaign has an election expenses limit based on the size of the electorate of the ward or constituency in question. A candidate who spends above the limit can be unseated on the ruling of an election court (if elected) as well as facing a significant fine and/or jail term. (In practice this is very rare).

Expenditure by third parties intended to influence the result of the election is counted as an election expense and must be authorised explicitly by the candidate's agent. This too is an extremely rare practice.

There is also a national expenditure limit for spending by the parties.

There is no limit to the size of a donation made to a party or a campaign. However, donations exceeding 200 a year to a party must be recorded and those exceeding 5000 are published. Donations from overseas sources are not acceptable. Donations of over 50 made directly to an election campaign are published.

Modern election campaigns in the US

Political campaigns in the United States are not merely a civic ritual and occasion for political debate, but a multi-billion industry, dominated by professional political consultants using sophisticated campaign management tools, to an extent far greater than elsewhere in the world. Though the quadrennial presidential election attracts the most attention, the United States has a huge number of elected offices and there is wide variation between different states, counties, and municipalities on which offices are elected and under what procedures. Moreover, unlike democratic politics in much of the rest of the world, the US has relatively weak parties, with campaigns being controlled by the individual candidates.

American political campaigns have become heavily reliant on broadcast media and direct mail advertising (typically designed and purchased through specialized consultants). Though virtually all campaign media are sometimes used at all levels (even candidates for local office have been known purchase cable TV ads), smaller, lower-budget campaigns are typically more focused on direct mail, low-cost advertising (such as lawn signs), and direct voter contact.

Money is raised and spent not only by candidate's campaign, but also by party committees, political action committees, and other groups (in the 2004 election cycle, much controversy has focused on a new category of organization, 527 groups). This is sometimes done through independent expenditures made in support or opposition of specific candidates but without any candidate's cooperation or approval.

Many political players and commentators agree that American political campaigns are currently undergoing a period of change, due to changing campaign-finance laws, increased use of the internet (which has become a valuable fundraising tool), and the apparently declining effectiveness of television advertising.

See also

External links


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