Craig Allen Smith – Presidential Campaign Communication

This is a guest post by Craig Allen Smith, Professor Emeritus of Communication at North Carolina State University. It summaries his book, Presidential Campaign Communication, 2nd edition. Cambridge: Polity, 2015.


Survey USA conducted several surveys two years before the 2008 presidential election. When they paired Senators John McCain and Barack Obama, McCain won 510 electoral votes to Obama’s 28. Two years later, Obama defeated McCain 364 to 174. The difference between those outcomes was the 2008 presidential campaign. This book is designed to help readers better understand and appreciate the ways that Americans use communication to select presidents.

Presidential campaigns resemble tournaments in which players pursue intermediate goals to bring an ultimate goal within reach. The acknowledgement that a new president has been elected reboots the process and begins the three-year “Surfacing” stage during which players and resources realign. Surfacing culminates in Iowa’s precinct caucuses (early in the election year) where the goal is to finish among the top four in one’s party. Those who surfaced then compete in primaries and caucuses for commitments from a majority of the delegates to their national convention — the “Nominating” stage. Because that competition divides the party, the nominee must heal and unite the party during the third “Consolidating” stage that culminates in the conventions’ nomination acceptance addresses. Finally, the nominees lead their campaigns from their conventions into the fourth “Electing” stage by publicly contesting state elections that allocate 538 electoral votes and the presidency.

Every American enters the presidential campaign with an agenda-driven perspective. By default we are all “Citizens” who (1) decide how to follow the campaign, (2) assess our political priorities, (3) decide whom to prefer, and (4) decide how to participate. Some Citizens decide to participate as candidates or campaign workers, and they become “Campaigners” who (1) decide whether to run, (2) organize substantial resources, (3) win a party’s nomination, (4) consolidate the splintered party, and (5) win state elections that produce 270 electoral votes. Some other interested Citizens choose to observe and discuss the campaign and function as “Reporters” (scholars, entertainers, pollsters, pundits, bloggers and journalists) who (1) observe the campaign, (2) frame those campaign observations as stories, and (3) attract an audience to make their reporting worthwhile.

The phenomenon we recognize as an American presidential campaign is a “Trialogue” among Citizens, Campaigners, and Reporters. We all try to fulfill our agendas in a competitive environment. Campaigners, Reporters and Citizens all seek like-minded others to maximize their influence, and they compete with other Campaigners, Reporters and Citizens for political leverage. Everyone engages in “rhetorical transactions” that trade words or symbolic acts for the resources they need (“victory units”) that range from attention and adherence to money, volunteer hours and votes. Campaigners compete for Citizens’ votes, Reporters compete for Citizens’ interest, Citizens compete with one another to form alliances that can influence Campaigners and Reporters to engage them.

To better understand the nature of those rhetorical transactions the book uses Lloyd Bitzer’s situational rhetoric, Kenneth Burke’s dramatism, Bormann’s Symbolic Convergence Theory and Michael McGee’s ideographs. It conceptualizes presidential campaigns as a series of “rhetorical puzzles”: How should one decide what to say (or not to say) or do (or not do) to whom through what channel(s) to fulfill one’s campaign agenda? We write rules and laws that constrain many rhetorical choices (e.g. who may vote, who can give how much money to whom), we cultivate shared identities, we make our private stories public and public stories personal, and we encapsulate arguments in ideographs such as <freedom> and <equality>. Our rhetorical choices cultivate clusters of like-minded Citizens who become the audiences of the campaign.

How do the clusters of like-minded Campaigners, Reporters and Citizens interact to produce an electoral college majority? To answer that question the book prefers analytics to demographics. As Amazon suggests new books from our past preferences, we suggest tracking preferred words over demographics. The Pew Center for People and the Press has been doing so since the 1980’s in a series of studies of the American Electorate. Pew poses a series of dichotomous alternatives and identifies clusters of voter types from their preferences. Pew’s 2015 study identified three “partisan anchor” clusters — one Democrat (Solid Liberals) and two Republican (Steadfast Conservatives and Business Conservatives) — that accounted for 57% of politically active Americans but only 43% of registered voters and 36% of the adult population. Four other clusters — Young Outsiders, Hard-pressed Skeptics, the Next Generation Left and the Faith and Family Left — accounted for only 43% of the politically active but 57% of registered voters and 54% of adults, and all four have reservations about both national parties. “Bystanders” are 10% of adults but 0% of registered voters and the politically active.

There are several possible paths from the Pew clusters to an electoral majority. One is to activate one’s base by saying things that their partisans long to hear (but which often alienate moderates). This strategy could provide a 36% Republican to 21% Democratic majority IF the less engaged and cross-pressured middle groups do not vote (as happens in non-presidential mid-term elections). This partially explains recent Republican efforts to complicate or limit voting. A second path is to expand one’s rhetorical appeals to attract the middle groups and increase turnout, in which scenario Democrats can expect 53% to Republicans 47% (which partially accounts for Democratic presidential victories).  The third and most useful path is to triage the states’ electoral votes into Republican, Democratic and “battleground states”. States that are solidly, favor or lean Democratic account for 249 electoral votes (21 short of victory), whereas states that are solidly, favor or lean Republican account for only 191 electoral votes. Since 1992 the focus has been on keeping one’s base and winning the battleground states needed to accumulate 270 electoral votes.

Whether trying to mobilize their base or to attract middle groups, Campaigners attempt to modify candidate images by acclaiming their policy and character virtues, by attacking their opponents’ policy and character, and by defending their policies and character (Benoit). Acclaims invite attacks and attacks invite defenses to create a mix of arguments. Normally, incumbents acclaim and defend while challengers attack.

Campaigners acclaim, attack and defend in speeches, advertising, debates, and social media, adapting their messages to their target audiences. Generally, advertising and social media trigger the “automatic” reactions of “fast thinking” whereas speeches and debates provide the extended explanations of “slow thinking” (Kahneman). When those messages intrigue Reporters, their stories expand the conversation.

Our “Reporters” are the Greek chorus of observers (scholars, entertainers, pollsters, pundits, bloggers and journalists) who help Citizens to make sense of the campaign. Not unlike candidates, Reporters need audiences to justify and finance their reporting. We conceive of each reporting network as a social system of message producers, distributors, advertisers, and reader/listeners. Thus we differentiate between the cultures of, for example, [CNN] and [Fox News] as the product of different reporters, audiences and advertisers. Each such system strives to satisfy its audience’s informational needs. The proliferation of reporting outlets has nurtured a plethora of like-minded audiences who bookmark their preferred Reporters and ignore alternative reports. Thus each Reporter’s message is biased toward its audience, for there is no requirement that they provide news or opinion unpalatable to their audience. Campaigners rhetorically adapt to core and potential voters and Reporters rhetorically adapt to core and potential readers/viewers.

Televised candidate debates attract the largest audiences of the campaign but have decided only one election (the 1980 contest among Carter, Reagan, and Anderson). In several cases (including the 1960 Kennedy-Nixon campaign) they have enabled the challenging candidate to keep pace with the frontrunner. Indeed, incumbent presidents have fared poorly in the debate era. Citizens’ selective perception, Reporters’ reduction of the debates to sound bites, and Campaigners’ strategizing have rendered debates an event similar to the Super Bowl — a high visibility event with limited consequences for the society.

In conclusion, American presidential campaigns are a trialogue of assorted Campaigners, Citizens and Reporters all trying to fulfill their rhetorical agendas better than their competitors. They trade words and images for “victory units” to increase their leverage and to undermine their competitors. Structural variables (such as war and economics) account for a significant amount of the variance in presidential elections, but (a) those structural variables only become meaningful as they are framed and interpreted rhetorically, and (b) the unexplained variance can often prove decisive.

Because Citizens, Campaigners and Reporters are humans, and because all humans are imperfect, their efforts result in imperfect campaigning, reporting, and voting. Because Campaigners and Reporters all rhetorically adapt to Citizens’ needs and wants, Citizens hold the keys for improving the process if and when they decide to pay more critical attention to the campaign’s rhetorical choices.

Craig Allen Smith is Professor Emeritus of Communication at North Carolina State University. He can be reached at,com.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.