The nature of the professionalized campaign: Preliminary reflections
Incomplete; version of 1 April 2002
Scholars interested in contemporary political campaigns are generally agreed that, across at least
the advanced industrial democracies, the modern election campaign process differs dramatically
from the way campaigns were conducted only a few decades ago. Although the emergence of
the “modern” or “New Style” election campaign was first described in the United States,
comparative research on campaigns has detected similar transformations in an ever-growing
number of countries, and the set of countries whose campaigns are said to have “modernized”
expands with each election cycle.1 Despite widespread agreement about the existence and importance of this phenomenon, however, its nature and causes have never been assessed in a
systematic, comparative way. This is the general task undertaken by my dissertation, which will
explore the emergence and development of “modern electioneering” via a cross-national and
over-time comparison of national election campaigns in the United States, Great Britain and
One of the most challenging conceptual problems facing this dissertation is the development of a
working definition of the “modern campaign style” or the “modernization”
(“professionalization,” “Americanization”) process. Most topics in comparative politics are
(generally considered to be) sufficiently well bounded that scholars can quickly dispense with
description and move on to explanation; here, however, this is not the case. For the sake of
convenience, the activity of “campaigning” or “electioneering” will be restricted to its general
election context, though not necessarily to the “official” campaign period (never much more than
a month in Britain but longer in Germany and the US). The phenomenon of interest, then,
broadly incorporates the election-related activities of candidates, parties, independent consultants,
volunteer activists, and the news media – and the responses of voters – during this period. On
the question of what distinguishes modern from (presumably) traditional forms of election campaigning, however, conceptual clarity is much harder to come by. However, if I am to
explore what has caused campaign professionalization to occur, or what its implications for
democratic politics may be, I must certainly be able to say what professionalization is. This
question thus lies at the core of my project.
The problem of characterizing the nature of the professionalized campaign has seldom been
approached with the sustained attention one might feel it deserves. Much of the writing in this
area deals with objects of interest more circumscribed than the “campaign” as a whole, thus
1 Those familiar with my previous expositions on this subject will recall that the issue of nomenclature has, at times,
been discussed at some length. I have yet to settle the issue of which descriptor(s) for the “new campaign style” are
best suited to this particular essay – I am unsure, for example, whether I want to christen my own view with a
particular label – and I expect that highly inconsistent nomenclature will be found in the pages that follow. The
variety of terms I have been known to use for the phenomenon of interest include the “modern campaign,” “modern
electioneering,” the “professional” or “professionalized” campaign, and the “Americanized campaign” or the
“Americanization of election campaigns.” “Americanization” is a term I have generally avoided but am thinking of
restoring to greater prominence – not as a strong descriptor of the causal nature of this phenomenon, but as a
convenient weak descriptor of its first emergence that also fits well with popular perceptions.
(perhaps appropriately) sidestepping definitional complications; research on campaign
advertising, the mass media in campaigns, political consultants, and campaign management
generally takes this tack. However, a not inconsiderable body of work also seeks to address the
modern campaign more generally, whether within a single country or in a comparative context.
Under the rubric of “the modern campaign,” these authors have grouped together a whole
assortment of changes (as well as some things that seem not to have changed), including many
that should be clearly separated from it for analytical purposes – particularly as some may be
more usefully regarded as causes or consequences of the modernization process than as
manifestations of the phenomenon itself.
The present essay takes aim at this chaos of definitions. It first attempts an analytic
categorization of the principal characteristics that have thus far been identified as differentiating
the professional from the pre-professional [or the modern from the traditional] campaign. It then
proposes an alternative definition to these, which restricts “campaign professionalism” to its
organizational and technical aspects and divides it – I hope productively – from phenomena
whose precise connections with professionalism as such can then be more closely investigated.
Finally, it applies the new definition to accounts of campaigning in Britain – a country in which a
transition to campaigns of the professional sort is generally agreed to have occurred in the
postwar period. [The latter two sections are largely missing from the current draft, having been
excised on grounds of insufficient comprehensibility.]
Two final points should be made by way of introduction. First, note that this essay is intended as
an exercise in analytic description. It does not address the question of what has caused campaign
professionalization, although this will be a central concern of the project as a whole. Second, the
fact that it proposes a unified analytic description (or definition) should not be taken to imply
that the modern campaign is a strictly homogeneous phenomenon. There has always been – and
will no doubt always be – considerable cross-national diversity in the procedures by which
politicians campaign for national office. Although I believe that the influence of campaign
professionalization has generally been a homogenizing (or Americanizing) influence in politics,
and although I believe that my definition of it is applicable to many political contexts (including
the three quite diverse ones represented by my case studies), it should be understood clearly that
different countries‟ experiences will approach the pure type of the definition in different ways
and to different degrees.
The changing nature of political campaigns: Current perspectives
None of this emphasis on the recent transformation in electioneering is to say that campaigns
today have nothing in common with the campaigns of twenty, or fifty, or a hundred years ago.
Election campaigns have (almost?) always been waged as a prelude to competitive elections in
democratic countries; under one set of electoral rules or another, any democratic government
must seek to have its mandate periodically renewed by the electorate, asking voters to prefer its
claim to the opposition party or parties‟ offer of an alternative government. Long before the
professionalization of campaigning began, traditions of “standing for office” in some countries
(including the US and Britain) were displaced by the now familiar notion of “running for office”
– the active pursuit of electoral victory by the contending parties or candidates. Whether or not
one regards competitive elections as a necessary (Dahl) or even sufficient (Schumpeter)
condition for the existence of democracy per se, campaigns clearly play a vital role in the perpetuation and legitimation of democratic government. And, just as the functional role of
campaigns has not changed over time, neither has their basic strategic premise: The goal is to
win, and to maximize the probability of this outcome by allocating one‟s resources so as to
2obtain a maximally favorable response from the voters. Achieving this goal, now as ever,
requires different concrete approaches in the diverse situations that may confront a campaign.
But many of the basic tasks are familiar. For example, all campaigns require information about
the attitudes and preferences of the electorate. Such information might be gathered by
canvassing local party chapters about their members‟ views and concerns, or by positioning
patronage job-holders on Manhattan street corners to inquire about citizens‟ voting intentions
(Riordan 1948), or by conducting an opinion poll and interpreting the results based on the laws
of statistical sampling. The method of the opinion poll, however, is qualitatively different from
the other approaches mentioned. For one thing, conducting a reliable poll requires expertise of a
particular kind, expertise possessed by the pollster but perhaps not by other campaign workers.
For another, the poll (if properly conducted) offers the campaign something the other approaches
do not: a canvass of the electorate that is [claims to be] scientifically valid, and that claims an
authority and finality not open to challenge from intuitions based on long experience in a party or
constituency. It is these types of differences that inquirers into the nature of modern
campaigning have sought to capture.
Whatever it may be that has changed about campaigns in recent years, it is clear that these
changes have taken place without substantial alterations in the legal framework within which
campaigns are conducted. Although changes in the array of laws affecting campaigns – as for
example the new legislation on campaign finance enacted in Germany in the 1960s and in the
United States in the 1970s – may well accompany and facilitate the transformation, significant
changes in the legal context of elections are the exception rather than the rule in stable
democracies and have by no means always occurred together with the emergence of modern
campaign practices. (This point is emphasized in the case of Britain by Butler 1995. Note that,
for present purposes, the “law” includes also interpretations of legal requirements, such as the
BBC‟s 1959 reinterpretation of its neutrality mandate to permit radio and TV news coverage of
When it comes to characterizing the transformation itself, however, explicit definitions are few
and far between. One widespread tendency is to list a group of loosely connected developments
(all of which may be relevant in different ways) without further explication. The author may
then implicitly accept this as sufficient clarification of the phenomenon of interest, or announce
an explicit intention to focus on only one or a few of the developments cited. Butler and Ranney
(1992:5-7), for example, provide a list of items characterizing pre-“modern” electioneering as
various as the centrality of political parties; the importance of “instinct” and local, grounded
knowledge in predicting election returns; strong party identification among voters; tactics
including door-to-door canvassing, literature circulation, public meetings and posters; and
campaign strategies dictated by “folk wisdom” (7) shared by party leaders and canvass
volunteers alike. In a similarly diverse vein, Mancini and Swanson (1996:2) find that
2 Of course, what is meant by “winning” will vary given different sets of electoral rules, and even given the
particular expectations of a party or candidate entering a given campaign. Some parties and candidates are not
interested in winning in any sense, but I leave them aside here.
“[i]ncreasingly … common practices” as campaigns modernize include “political commercials,
candidates selected in part for the appealing image they project on television, technical experts
advising candidates on strategies and voters‟ sentiments, media professionals hired to produce
compelling campaign materials, mounting campaign expenses, and mass media moving to center
3stage in campaigns.” The connections between these different items – whether some bring
others about, for example – are left unexplored.
While few students of the “new style” campaign define this phenomenon outright (the specialists
in “political marketing” are perhaps the one exception), a group of widely endorsed, largely
implicit statements about its nature can be extracted from the academic literature on modern
campaigning. The primary emphases I have identified are described in the paragraphs below.
While they are by no means mutually exclusive, authors tend to emphasize one or a small
number to the exclusion of others. [What I ultimately want to say about each view is in brackets.
I‟m not sure whether these might be listed in some useful order; at the moment, the sequence is
The modern campaign relies on marketing expertise. [Not necessarily.]
Some scholars of contemporary election campaigns focus on the extent to which their research
and promotional activities, and their decision-making processes more generally, resemble the
activities carried out by private firms in the course of marketing their products. Bowler and
Farrell (1992), for example, emphasize the importance of marketing approaches and
professionals trained in commercial marketing for contemporary political campaigns. Some
scholars, such as Mauser (1983) and Lees-Marshment (2001), go farther, asserting that the
modern campaign is, in its essence, fundamentally an exercise in marketing. Lees-Marshment
(2001), for example, draws a direct parallel between politics and commerce in distinguishing
between market-oriented, sales-oriented, and product-oriented parties. The oldest type, the
product-oriented party, attempts to communicate its message to voters but does not perform
market research, simply assuming that voters will be willing to „buy‟ what it has on offer. The sales-oriented party, a sort of middle position, pursues market intelligence and designs
communication approaches to „pitch‟ its product to voters, but the product itself remains
invariant. The market-oriented party “uses market intelligence to identify voter demands, then
designs its product to suit them” (2001:30) – rendering it, according to Lees-Marshment, a complete analogue of the modern commercial firm.
The modern campaign involves innovations in organization and decision-making processes.
[Too undeveloped. This is substantially the line I want to take; however, existing moves in
this direction have tended to underspecify just what organizational changes matter and
Bowler and Farrell (1992) place considerable emphasis on the “organization and control” of
campaigns (together with “preparation and planning” and “campaign themes and images”).
They note first that understaffed and underfinanced parties will be unable to wage successful
nationwide campaigns – hardly a new development in party competition. They go on to say,
3 Mancini and Swanson later describe the “elements of modern campaigning” (1996:6) in more general (and less
useful) terms as incorporating the personalization of politics, “scientificization” of politics (Habermas), increasing
detachment of parties from citizens, the development of autonomous communications media, and a shift on the part
of the electorate from “citizenship” to “spectatorship.”
however, that the complexity of parties‟ organizational structures “has changed in response to the
need to mount more complex campaigns” (1992:14). Generally speaking, larger parties that mount professionalized campaigns can be expected to have “a coherent organizational division
into such units as press and communications, research, strategy and campaign, and possibly also
marketing.” Tasks will be carried out by full-time staff members, the occasional external
specialist, and perhaps volunteers. A particularly important organizational question concerns
who is in charge of making basic decisions about the campaign, both during the design phase and
as the campaign proceeds. In this regard, Bowler and Farrell suggest that the United States is an
exception: by and large, party leaders remain firmly in charge of essential campaign strategy.
The modern campaign is obsessed with “image.” [This, I would say, mistakes a characteristic tool or approach for a necessary/defining feature. The “candidate-centered
campaign” (Foster and Muste 1992) may well be a consequence of the „new style.‟]
This characterization may take different forms. Most often, emphasis is laid on the
“personalization” or “presidentialization” of political campaigns – particularly those in parliamentary systems where a focus on party rather than individual candidates has been the rule.
Farrell and Webb (2000) are among many who argue that an increasing prominence of the party
leader in campaign communications is characteristic of the modern campaign. Similarly,
Mancini and Swanson (1996:14) place “the personalization of politics” (and concomitant
weakening of its party character) first on their list of characteristics of “modernized”
campaigning. However, an emphasis on the promotion of “image” may also be combined with
attention to the strategic or planning side of a professionalized campaign. In discussing the
importance of “campaign themes and images,” Bowler and Farrell (1992:15) argue that the
modern campaign must be grounded in a coherent melding of party image, leader image, and
policy proposals. A campaign will succeed in today‟s electoral context to the extent that it
consciously embraces and consistently promotes such a unified message.
The modern campaign is practiced by a new breed of campaign technician. [True, but
The unique nature of the modern campaign may also be located in its “professional” character –
by which is generally meant the “professional” approach of the technicians and tacticians who
provide direction or advice. The practitioners (Luntz 1988), journalists (Blumenthal 1982?), and
handful of academics (Sabato 1981, Thurber and Nelson 2000) who have taken up the subject of
political consultancy in writing are generally agreed – implicitly or explicitly – that the involvement of a new type of actor is the central transformation involved in the emergence of the
modern political campaign. These new actors – first advertising and public-relations
professionals with an interest in campaigning (Kelley 1956), then “professional campaign
managers” (Rosenbloom 1973), and finally the “political consultants” of the 1980s and 1990s –
first became prominent in the United States, a development easily enough attributed to the
institutional peculiarities of US politics (organizationally weak parties, frequent and predictable
election cycles, little or no restriction on campaign spending or fund-raising, and so forth).
Political consultancy as an activity engaged in by private, for-profit firms has been less
prominent in other countries, in large part “because the parties have managed to bring
professionals into the machinery as members, as volunteer-advisors, even as full-time
employees” (Bowler and Farrell 1992:12). Bowler and Farrell caution, however, that “the
American case is not as unique as it may appear,” both because US consultants and consulting
firms generally have strong party loyalties (for reasons of professional advantage as well as
personal preference), and because “there are prominent examples [in other countries] of the
employment of outside agencies to provide expert advice in specialist areas” including
advertising, polling, and general strategy.”
Students of campaign management and political consultancy differ among themselves as to
which are the most salient characteristics of the new campaign technicians. To Sabato (1981),
professional political consultants are most notable for their technical expertise, their increasing
specialization into different subspecies of practitioner, their full-time engagement in the business
of campaigning and their lack of firm ties to any particular candidate, region, or (sometimes)
party. To Johnson (2001), their detachment, permanence, and lack of any motivation beyond
winning are particularly important. Blumenthal (1982) presents them as master manipulators of
media images, and also as “aggressive[ly] strategic” thinkers who use new political technologies
– polling, computerized direct mail – to implement their strategic goals (1982:22). To Rosenbloom (1973), technical sophistication and profit motive most set the new campaign
professionals apart from their predecessors.
The modern campaign employs new technologies to accomplish its ends. [True enough, but
there is seldom a clean distinction between technological change as a characteristic and as a
cause of new-style campaigns.] The technological innovation most often identified as fundamentally differentiating the modern
campaign from its predecessors is television – treated separately in the following section. There
is at least one other technological development that has been equally important to the modern
campaign, however: computing. Affordable and ever-more-powerful computer systems have
made possible electioneering techniques including opinion polling via random-digit dialing;
rapid, flexible analysis of poll results; computer-generated direct mail; computer-aided research
and information storage; and constant e-mail contact between campaign operatives. Other
technological advances of the later twentieth century that have proved important for election
campaigns include affordable air travel, fax machines, cellular telephones, and developments in
market research (including the use of focus groups). Finally, the expertise wielded by the new
campaign professionals is itself a “technology” in an important sense, and many writers have
stressed the intimate connection between technique and practitioner.
Different sorts of arguments have been advanced connecting new technologies to changes in the
nature of electioneering activity. Bowler and Farrell (1992), for instance, posit a shift from
“labor-intensive” to “capital-intensive” campaign tactics: a “capital intensive” strategy has emerged that is heavily reliant on new technologies, and the ongoing development of these
technologies renders it increasingly more cost-effective than traditional approaches dependent on
„people power.‟ Although the focus of his book is largely on campaign consulting, Luntz (1988:2) also views technological change as central to the transformation of campaigns:
“Modern campaign technology has changed – completely and forever – the traditional styles of
campaigning once common in American politics.” Because these technological innovations in
turn demand expert advice if they are to be employed effectively in the marketing of candidates
for office, the (technology-generated) role of the political consultant becomes – according to
Luntz – indispensable for the technically-sophisticated campaign. Finally, Penniman (1981:107)
also emphasizes the power of technological change “to alter campaign practices”: “Computers
have enabled party headquarters to gather intelligence about national political attitudes faster and
more accurately than large numbers of party workers half a century ago could canvass individual
constituencies. Computers have also made it possible to solicit funds from thousands of
sympathizers whose support had not previously been tapped, and they have enabled candidates to
send „personalized‟ letters to hundreds of thousands of constituents.” He also argues that “[n]ew
campaign technology requires … a new kind of political professional” – suggesting that the emergence of political consultants and others is due to the new techniques at their disposal.
[A refinement of the above.] The modern campaign is the necessary accompaniment of – and is in fact substantially constituted by – the new communications media, especially
Much of the scholarly work on the transformation of campaigning has been performed by
specialists in communications, and it is therefore not surprising that a strong mass-media focus is
widespread in this field. Among the particular aspects of the television medium that are
identified as having changed (and themselves constituting change in) political campaigns, it is
the capacity of television to establish an apparently “direct” connection between politicians and
voters – unmediated by press reporting, unconstrained by the unwillingness of voters to attend
campaign rallies, and untouched by anything that would seem to voters out of the ordinary run of
their experiences – that is most often pointed to as the distinctive contribution of the modern
mass media to political campaigning. One pivotal, shared belief of those who embrace this
understanding of modern campaigning is that the mass media – and television in particular – cannot be viewed as passive channels for transmitting a message from parties or candidates to
voters. As campaign messages are crafted to suit the television medium, the nature and content
of those messages is itself transformed. A second common conviction is that television does not
merely „present‟ a campaign occurring elsewhere to an audience comfortably seated at home.
Instead, “to a large degree, the television coverage is the election campaign” (Smith 1981:177).
As television comes not only to „cover‟ but also to constitute the substance of election events, a profound transformation in the nature and meaning of campaigning is brought about.
Farrell and Webb (2000) are among many who hold changes in communications technologies – first television and then the “telecommunications revolution” – ultimately responsible for a
whole panoply of changes in the way parties have organized their electoral campaigns. They
link many different aspects of campaigning – preparation and necessary resources, preferred
themes and tactics, target audiences, and the content of campaign communications – directly to the dominance of different communications media at different moments in time. The media are
both cause and central characteristic of the peculiarities of successive campaign styles. While
this type of approach is widely shared, Farrell and Webb are unusual in predicting that
campaigns will again change radically as television is succeeded by other communications media:
“The Television Age ushered in nationalized campaigning, with an emphasis on the broadcasting of single coordinated nationwide messages. In sharp contrast, the Digital Age appears to be
shifting the culture of campaigning back towards more focused, localized, targeted
communication,” or “narrowcasting” (2000:110). These new communications technologies – including “cable and satellite technology, the digital revolution, and the internet” – have not yet fully penetrated most countries‟ media mix or campaign planning centers; however, they have
great potential for future impact.
[Having thus completed what is essentially a literature review – albeit a review of an issue in which the “literature” is disinterested – I had planned two further sections of this paper, which
currently exist in fairly chaotic form. A brief, second section will lay out my own tentative
definition of the “professionalized campaign,” which is substantially unchanged from my
thought-piece of last semester – I think it‟s still reasonably on the mark. The third, longer
section will review the transformation of election campaigning in postwar Britain, attempting to
use my definition to create order out of descriptive chaos, and to usefully separate campaigning
as such from its causes and consequences. Neither of these sections is presentable at the moment,
although I‟d be interested in hearing your thoughts about them (and about whether they‟re worth
writing at all). I‟ve gone ahead and provided the elements of my own definition for any who
may be interested. Note that this set of characteristics overlaps with some of those described
above; it‟s not so much the elements as the combination – the particular inclusions and exclusions – that are novel.]
Characteristics of the professionalized campaign. 1. The centralization of strategic choice. The professionalized campaign aims to coordinate
many individuals‟ efforts in carrying out a unified strategic plan. In most cases, this plan is
drawn up well before the “hot” phase of the campaign begins.
2. The emergence of a division of labor among campaign workers (whether campaign staff,
party staff, or outside consultants) based on claims to technical expertise and the performance of
particular tasks associated with that expertise.
3. Reliance on qualitative and (especially) quantitative research – polling, focus groups, etc. –
as a primary information source. The results of this research are vital both to the development
of the initial campaign plan and to ongoing assessments of the campaign‟s effectiveness
4. Careful targeting of campaign appeals that draws on the results of this research.
5. Calculated management of the campaign’s resources, especially time (the candidate‟s, the leaders‟, the staff‟s) and money.
6. Carefully controlled presentation of the party or candidate, especially in the free and paid
media. This self-conscious construction of the campaign also extends to live appearances by the
candidate or party leader(s), the choice of issue positions, etc.
[A few paragraphs commenting on the above.] Note that this attempt at a unified analytic
definition in no way denies the existence of considerable – and continuing – variation in
campaign approaches across nations. It is important to recognize, for example, that the tactics
employed by a professionalized campaign are likely to vary substantially across countries and
parties, and over time. This definition implies no particular conclusions about the nature of the
messages that will be conveyed (i.e. that they will be personalized, or negative, or issue-based)
or about the channels that will be used to transmit those messages (such as print or broadcast
media, targeted mailings, posters or leaflets, or direct interaction between campaign volunteers
and voters). A systematic effort to identify and target marginal voters, for instance, might
operate at different levels (seeking to identify wavering voters within a US congressional district,
concentrating on target districts in Britain, targeting demographic groups or regions as part of a
national strategy in the Netherlands) and use different tactics (posters, leaflets, telephone calls,
door-to-door or on-the-job canvassing, TV or radio ads) – but the technique (identify marginal
voters, develop a message that will appeal to their concerns, and expend resources contacting
those voters and (as much as possible) those voters only) is the same.
It is likely, of course, that the new campaign professionals – the critical actors of the
professionalized campaign – will have an affinity for certain sorts of tactics and channels of
communication rather than others, and that these will differ from the tactics and channels that
have traditionally been favored in many countries. One example is likely to be in the area of
information gathering. As campaigns professionalize, traditional or informal sources of
information about voters‟ beliefs and preferences may come to be seen as unreliable. The
information source most likely to replace the traditional channels is the opinion poll –
supplemented perhaps by focus groups, careful analysis of media coverage, and so forth.
Similarly, volunteers may be an undesirable resource from a professional perspective, since they
are difficult to mobilize, require continual investment of effort, and may be unwilling to adhere
to the established campaign plan. However, many professionalized campaigns continue to use
local volunteers, although there is evidence to suggest that campaign materials and strategies to
be used locally are increasingly produced at the center and that the present value of a mass
membership may lie as much in the democratic legitimacy members convey as in the concrete
work they do at campaign time (Epstein, but see Scarrow). Since campaign professionals often
have little control over the resources available to the campaign, they may also choose to use
familiar resources (such as members) in an unfamiliar way (to legitimize a candidate‟s selection
through a (quasi-)primary rather than for door-to-door canvassing, say). Butler and Farrell‟s argument that the key shift in campaign professionalization is from labor- to capital-intensive
tactics may well be accurate if such a change in tactics seems to the new professionals to
represent a more efficient use of the campaign‟s resources, if it allows these professionals
opportunities to exercise their skills, or if it makes centralized control and management of the
campaign easier. And indeed, all three of these things would appear to be the case.
[My next step was to elucidate what I mean by these six characteristics, and why I think they are
a useful way to characterize a complex phenomenon, by reference to the British example. That
section, though, has not yet been hacked into manageable form, and since I am submitting this
paper very late indeed I will spare you reading it for now.]
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