Mike Tyson said it best: They all have a strategy until they got hit. In today’s political environment with all its uncertainty and indifference political campaigns sometimes struggle to find the right recipe for success dealing with populism, fake news and a defragmented electorate.
Life is about choices. So are campaigns. Is the country on the right track, or do people thirst for change? Is the economy doing well off with new jobs being created, or is old labour being shipped overseas? Should Capitol insiders decide the country’s future, or should main street wits decide peoples’ prospects? At its best, campaigns offer voters something to choose, or at least try to frame it that way. Hence, unfortunately not necessarily the person we believe has the best ideas wins. It is not necessarily the person with the best experience. But certainly, the person with the best campaign and a clear and well executed plan wins. While obviously, every campaign is unique, there are some basic principles that can be applied to any election campaign. This article is about what must be taken into consideration to formulate a campaign strategy, plan tactics and communicate a message successfully.
1. In the age of permanent campaigns
The development of campaign management has been changing continuously. In general, experts see an evolutionary development of electoral campaigns, which is part of a modernisation process embedded in the technological and political changes in most post- industrial societies. This development is generally acknowledged by three phases: the pre-modern, the modern and the post-modern campaign.
Communication and the role of media were characterised by a partisan press, local posters and information brochures in the pre-modern era. The candidates spread their message through local meetings and ‘whistle-stop’ candidate trips. With the changing technical possibilities through radio and television, the demand for modern campaign communication grew, which characterised the phase from the early 1960s to the late 1980s. Especially television with its main evening news proved to be an important catalyst for a controlled news management within political campaigns with daily press conferences and controlled photo-ops. Image-related communication increased the profile of candidates and campaigns. In addition, target group-specific direct mail campaigns were added, which narrowed broad-based communication to specific target groups and niche communication. Since the 1990s campaign communications has experienced a diversification with cable emerging in strongly fragmented TV markets and the new internet outreach. The internet promoted direct communication and accelerated information cycles, and the campaigns responded with expanded message management.
Political campaigns are constantly growing, financially intensive, communicative high- performance machines whose characteristic communication style has changed from ‘mass propaganda’ to ‘media campaigning’ to ‘political marketing’, which in turn are characterised by different elements. The post-modern election campaigns are characterised by four essential aspects: (1) the ‘personalisation’ of campaign communication and the emphasis on the candidate role; (2) the scientification of campaign planning by experts (e.g. pollsters, political consultants) at the expense of traditional party of officials; (3) the ‘detachment’ of political parties from citizens by relying heavily on polling instead of civic interaction; and (4) the development of ‘autonomous communication structures’, which not only follow the interests of political campaigns, but also the logic of the media.
This has led to an overall objective in modern governance. The need to constantly communicate publicly and, conveying policies to the electorate, set the stage for the next election campaign. Successful governments use the findings of opinion research and carry out strategically planned communication campaigns. Government actions and policy-making are morphing into a recurring marketing offer – a permanent campaign, where actions and its marketing go hand-in-hand. Governing is perceived as a permanent campaign to mobilise support and public acceptance, blurring the boundaries between policy-making and news-making. Hence, political campaigning becomes an integral part of today’s politics.
2. The basic question ‘change vs. more of the same’
There is a ‘golden rule’ of campaign politics: A campaign must repeatedly communicate a persuasive message to voters. However, to know what the right message is, who my voters are and how to approach them is the magic sauce of strategy and tactics. But before diving into it one must understand the basic question every election poses. The simple but tricky question is: Change or more of the same?
Does this country need a change because the current situation, its leader or their concepts have failed? Or have the last years been successful, leaders have turned the country around, or deserve another term because there is no other alternative on the horizon? Different political parties or candidates offer different analysis or solutions to the problems a society faces. These are constant choices, which they bring before the voters. Campaigns offer voters choices, and ‘change vs. more of the same’ is the simple yet most effective one.
Usually, the opposition formulates a change argument. Obama has been the most obvious candidate doing so when he cleverly filled a void with his simple ‘Change and Hope’ slogan in 2008 which combined his youthful charm, his media freshness and the promise for better times. Ronald Reagan’s 1980 campaign masterfully championed President Carter by framing the choice with the question ‘Are you better off than you were four years ago?’.
In general, the party or candidate in government argues the opposite. They claim successful years in government or stress how risky it would be to not stay on course. In the middle of the global financial crisis Angela Merkel’s 2009 campaign urged voters to believe in the turnaround story of her government. In the words of the chancellor: ‘Germany will come out of the crisis more successful than we went into.’ Therefore, the campaign message was…
The complete article can be found as „Is there a blueprint for victory? Campaign strategy and tactics in elections“ (p.157-173), in: