international analysis and commentary

History has its eyes on you: the fundamentals of a US political campaign


If you’re familiar with the music and story of the Broadway show “Hamilton”, you may know more about the origin of political campaigning in the United States of America than you think. As described in the song The Election of 1800, Aaron Burr was the first to openly campaign in his attempt to become the third president of the US (spoiler alert, he lost). While a lot has changed in the past two hundred years, some overarching principles continue to guide campaigns both big and small. In short:

Talk less! Smile more! Don’t let ‘em know what you’re against or what you’re for!


Every election is different, and potential candidates would be advised to understand the political landscape, their place within it and their chances of winning before entering the race. Is there an incumbent? Does the candidate have name recognition? Which way does the voter population tend to swing? These questions all add up to answering the two most crucial questions: ‘What will it take to win?’ and ‘What resources are needed to implement the entire campaign?’

The details of the race determine the size of the team, the tactics employed and the money raised as well as spent. Presidential campaigns in the United States are large-scale, expensive and grueling. Here are the basics.



Fundraising is a fundamental element to show the viability of almost any candidate. Of course, money in the bank is essential to sustain a robust strategy, but the number of people willing to invest in a candidate directly correlates to voter support as well. This is why strategists value small donations just as much as large contributions, as they are indicative of the strength of a local base of donors who believe in a candidate.

“You can get a big boost from one donor, but it’s those people who give you a dollar who are often truly invested in your campaign,” said Lisa James, partner at Gordon C. James Public Relations.

In his first day of campaigning as a presidential candidate, Beto O’Rourke raised $6.1m


Presidential elections are notoriously expensive. Barack Obama and his opposing candidate, Mitt Romney, each spent more than $1 billion dollars in the most expensive election in American history in 2012. So far candidates running for president in 2020 have raised a reported $219 million according to the Federal Election Commission. The site indicates that among the democratic candidates, Bernie Sanders is out front with $20 million raised. Congressman John Delaney is second with $18 million. Senators Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris and Kirsten Gillibrand round out the top five. But leading democratic fundraisers have been reported to be working to support former Vice President Joe Biden, Harris and Pete Buttigieg, Mayor of South Bend, Indiana.


The team and strategy

Once candidates have a healthy amount of funds in place, a team of consultants are hired to formulate bigger strategies for a multitude of issues and tasks, including direct mail, television, digital media, pollsters and so on. While campaigns are more digital than ever before, some of the fundamentals remain, including the power of an endorsement from somebody someone knows. Phone calls and meetings and events take time, but pay off in the end. “Each person who joins the coalition becomes a surrogate for the candidate,” as James puts it.

Senator Elizabeth Warren has built out her campaign staff for the party primaries relatively quickly compared to those she is running against. Warren was reported to have already spent more than $5 million in the first quarter of 2019. She now has hundreds of people working for her bid, most whom are based in states like Iowa and New Hampshire, where the first primary votes will be cast. For comparison, other candidates report less than 20 staffers in Iowa.

Elizabeth Warren meets her grassroots team in a public school


A surge of hiring and spending early on is a leap of faith that the momentum can be sustained for the duration of the election. Some candidates remain conservative early on to avoid laying people off when funds might run low.

When building these teams, experts say they look for similar campaigns to imitate, though a consultant’s winning record matters less than their reputation as someone who works hard and delivers.


Implementing the strategy

Even with staff all over the country, large presidential strategies are fueled by volunteer foot soldiers who are experts contributing to policy working groups devoted to specific issues like climate change, any number of demographic groups and health care. Field organizers work close to 24 hours a day, seven days a week for a few months leading up to the election. They are registering voters, motivating volunteers, knocking on doors and attending community meetings.

Mara D’Amico, who worked on Hillary Clinton’s 2016 bid for the presidency, first as a volunteer on a women’s rights policy working group and later as a field organizer in her home state of Michigan, said that the intense effort she poured into the campaign left her with no regrets when the results were in. “In losing I felt I had done everything I could,” she said. That does not mean the loss was easy for her. “It was heartbreaking. You dream about a future, and it is not going to happen – that is really hard.”

At the end of the day, there can only be one winner. Looking at the 20 major candidates for the democratic nomination currently, many would say some running are ignoring what polls might be saying about their chances of winning. So when and how do candidates make the hard decision to drop out of the race?

“It’s a tough decision to make,” Lisa James noted: “A good candidate will surround themselves with people who tell them what they need to hear as opposed to what they want to hear.” There are campaigns you lose, but you look at them as a win because you gained name recognition or moved up in the polls, hopefully meaning you are in a better standing in the next election cycle.

Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have both lost hard-fought presidential primaries


The outliers

However, there are successful unconventional campaigns every cycle. Candidates enter races with no chance of winning all the time. Sometimes these are self-funded candidates, sometimes these are candidates who are in it for the long run – intending to run several times to increase name recognition and their own experience.

Criticism for the independently wealthy, self-funded candidates is easy to come by. Some argue they crowd the field and divide the voters unnecessarily. Others fault the consultants who are cashing paychecks running a campaign doomed to fail.

But critics would do well to remember current President Donald Trump was one of these outlying, self-funded candidates who ran an unconventional campaign and managed to win.

For anyone paying attention, it is clear that every democratic candidate has put their name into the race to first and foremost defeat Trump in 2020. Developing a campaign that draws on conventional wisdom, but is agile enough to develop and implement tactics to bring down the atypical media juggernaut that is Trump will be essential if the US is going to elect a new commander in chief in 2020.