The main characteristics of American election campaigns

Constant Campaigning 

Candidates and political parties in US elections are often in a state of constant electioneering. It is widely understood that the race for the next presidential election typically kicks off immediately following the midterms. This marks the beginning of the 'invisible primaries,' during which a president aiming for a second term carefully considers the potential impact of their policies on their re-election prospects. Amid the COVID-19 crisis, President Trump's initial hesitance to endorse a nationwide lockdown and his remarks about reopening churches by Easter (which did not happen) were believed to stem from concerns about the prolonged shutdown's economic consequences. The state of the economy is traditionally considered pivotal to the likelihood of re-election, and Trump had previously emphasized the country's economic performance during his unsuccessful 2020 re-election campaign.

Name Recognition & Incumbency

Many campaigns in US elections do not mention the party affiliation of the candidates. This is partly because it is typically well-known and also reflects a form of political individualism. To run for elected office in the USA, individuals must form their campaign teams, gather enough nomination signatures, and raise funds for advertising on various platforms. Candidates in the US are essentially self-starters. While state and national parties can assist with financing, donor direction, and endorsements, the 2016 victory of Trump demonstrated that with sufficient resources and campaigning abilities, one can rise from political obscurity to become president. Trump, who had no prior political experience and initially clashed with the Republican establishment, succeeded due to a significant number of Americans trusting him as an individual rather than merely a Republican. His campaign slogans were deeply personal, emphasizing themes like 'Build that wall', 'Lock her up' (targeting opponent Hillary Clinton), and 'Make America Great Again'. Trump also highlighted his self-proclaimed business acumen and deal-making skills, leveraging his background as a TV personality with strong branding and marketing expertise to secure victory, shedding light on the dynamics of US elections.

Congressional and state election advertisements often highlight important qualities in candidates, such as military service (duty and patriotism), success in their field (ability and a strong track record), and values related to family and faith (integrity, commitment, and values). Incumbents typically emphasize their government achievements, fulfilled promises, and extensive experience. 

An interesting example is Iowa Senate Republican candidate Joni Ernst, whose memorable 2014 ad 'Squeal' showcased her background of castrating hogs on her family farm. She humorously stated that this experience would help her navigate through government spending, with the punchline, 'Washington is full of big spenders. Let’s make ’em squeal.' Ernst's connection to Iowa's significant agricultural sector contributed to her victory in 2014 and subsequent re-election in 2020

'Get Out the Vote' and 'Get Rid of the Vote' are significant factors in numerous campaigns. Some campaigns have indirectly aimed to discourage or suppress specific groups of voters. Few Republicans actively encourage African-Americans to vote in larger numbers due to their predominant support for the Democratic Party. This may explain the implementation of stricter voter ID laws and reduced support for postal voting in Republican-controlled states, which are more popular among younger or lower-income workers who are less likely to vote Republican. In 2017, Indiana passed a law allowing the removal of voters from the rolls without notification, but this was overturned for violating the National Voter Registration Act 1993. The justification for this measure was centered on voter fraud allegations, with proponents denying any voter suppression intentions.

 Ahead of the 2024 presidential election, several states still make it incredibly difficult, if not virtually impossible, for people leaving prison to regain the right to vote. Virginia, Tennessee, Iowa and Kentucky still have policies that result in at least some US citizens being effectively shut out of democracy for life. Several other states, including Florida, Alabama and Arizona, predicate voting on having enough money to pay off court fines and fees – another barrier that makes it nearly impossible for low-income Americans to regain the right to vote. 

 Following the 2020 election, some Republicans made claims of fraudulent votes being counted, with Trump stating that he would easily win if only legal votes were counted. Subsequent investigations found no credible evidence to support these allegations.

A patchwork of state felony disfranchisement laws, varying in severity from state to state, prevent approximately 5.85 million Americans with felony (and in several states misdemeanor) convictions from voting. Confusion about and misapplication of these laws de facto disenfranchise countless other Americans. 

The increasing significance of Swing States

One result of the state-based electoral system and the Electoral College in the USA is that most campaigning in national elections is concentrated in a few key states. Significant resources and time are allocated to critical 'swing states' like Florida, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, while states like California and Texas receive relatively less attention despite their size and number of Electoral College votes. Campaign events and rallies further underscore this focus on battleground states. Figures indicate that a majority of campaign events during the 2016 presidential race were held in just six states — Florida, Michigan, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Virginia. In the 2020 election cycle, due to the pandemic, there was a decrease in the number of visits and rallies. In contrast, during primary campaigns, priority is given to states that hold early primaries and caucuses such as Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina. Winning these early contests can generate momentum for a candidate, especially leading up to Super Tuesday when numerous states traditionally hold their primaries or caucuses.The Invisible Primary 

  'The Big MO'  The term was used by George H. W. Bush during his quest for the Republican nomination to run for President in 1980. After he won the Iowa caucuses, and was facing further contests, Bush Senior said: "Now they will be after me, howling and yowling at my heels. What we will have is momentum. We will look forward to Big Mo being on our side, as they say in athletics." This momentum often results in increased funding, more endorsements, and prompts some weaker candidates to drop out early. In the 2020 Democrat primaries, four candidates withdrew after the initial two contests: Deval Patrick, Andrew Yang, Michael Bennet, and Tom Steyer.