The Evolution of US Political Campaigns

As we approach the 2016 US Presidential Elections let’s take a few moments to review the evolution of US political campaigns. You would agree that all campaigns are in business to promote the messages of presidential candidates, motivate voters by canvassing in communities, and fundraise. Although many people volunteer in political campaign, a lot of money is spent on campaign staff and of course on advertisements. To this end, all campaigns must substantially fundraise in order to remain competitive. Below is a short summary that highlights the evolution of US political campaigns from the 20th to early 21st centuries.

Early 1900s

Political campaigns made use of newspaper advertising, community meetings, and neighborhood canvassing. For the purposes of this blog let’s refer to the above as traditional political campaigning.

1950 – 2008

Advances in technology such as radio, television, and the Internet made political campaign messaging more accessible to voters. To this end, these technological advances gave rise to national advertisements such as Dwight D. Eisenhower’s 1952 commercial Ike for President, John F. Kennedy’s 1960 commercial JFK Election Jingle, Lyndon B. Johnson’s 1964 commercial Daisy, Gerald Ford’s 1974 commercial Peace, Ronald Reagan’s 1984 commercial’s The Bear and Morning in America, George H.W. Bush’s 1988 commercial Revolving Door, and Bill Clinton’s 1992 commercial Hope.


Since the development of the Internet in the mid-90s, political campaigns developed campaign websites. Of course, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that political campaigns made use of e-mails to fundraise. In many ways, the Internet and more so e-mail revolutionized political campaigns by allowing supporters who with the click of a mouse were able to read about the different political campaigns, connect with other supporters, get more involved with the campaign that resonated with them and of course donate. To this end, it would be safe to say that e-mail became the bread and butter of political campaigns.

2008 – present

obama vs mccain

The Internet is here to stay and so too is e-mail. In addition to e-mail, political campaigns since 2008 have made use of social media. You may recall that in IS6621 we discussed the Reply button of e-mail was the first form of social media. Barack Obama’s 2008 and 2012 political campaigns made better use of social media than John McCain and Mitt Romney respectively. Barack Obama had a greater social media presence on seobama vs romneyveral platforms including Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Google+ and Instagram than his rivals. Team Obama was surely ahead of its rivals in understanding that social media was a tool used to not only target messages to young people but also to seniors.


So what to expect in 2016?

For certain e-mail will arguably be the most integral part of political campaigning. CNN’s Digital Correspondent Tanzina Vega noted that for Obama’s 2012 political campaign “digital donations, through email and other outreach methods, accounted for more than $500 million in campaign contributions and two-thirds of that was via email. I expect that for 2016 Presidential elections, political campaigns will use different social media platforms to target their messages to specific demographics. Thus, candidates will use platforms such as Snapchat to target younger voters. Recently, we have seen how CNN condensed a 3 hour Republican debate into 180 seconds on Snapchat. We can expect candidates to pitch their campaigns to younger voters in similar fashion. Election pundits frequently argue than some candidates do a better job of connecting with voters than others. Platforms such as Instagram may very well equalize the political playing field in regards to connecting candidates with voters. Pictures can surely bring more exposure to candidates by highlighting their real selves to voters.


  1. This article does a wonderful job of articulating the changing political landscape. No longer do candidates need large endorsements from donors to create effective advertising campaigns. I think twitter and Instagram are perfect examples of candidates attempting to relate to younger voters and remain current. For example, Hillary Clinton utilized twitter to comment on the story of Ahmed Mohamed and his clock- making her appear relevant, which appeals to younger voters.

  2. Richard, this is a great overview of the evolution of political campaigns. I remember watching political advertisements on TV (“this message was brought to you by…”) and being so skeptical of the candidates which turned me off from politics. Today, we can’t run. I think politicians are using social media to humanize themselves and better connect with voters. It’s definitely changing the game for politicians and they have to focus on social media strategy in order to push their campaigns to the next level.

  3. I enjoyed your argument saying email will be an integral part of the campaign. Personally, I have been so wrapped up in the candidates presence on social media sites like Twitter and Instagram (and Trumps “10 second sound bites on key issues”). Your perspective reminds me that email is probably one of the most effective and targeted ways to receive donations. The concept of digital donations is an interesting one – I wonder how creative candidates will get to not only grow support, but also in raising money via channels beyond traditional email. Thanks for sharing.

  4. handhandhand · ·

    I really liked your brief breakdown of the evolution of politics with relation to media – watching the old adds really drove the point home that politics has come very far in their attempts to gain votes and stay relevant in citizens’ daily lives.

    I completely agree that the use of Instagram could dramatically change the way voters view or connect with candidates. i would love to see less-produced shots of the candidates hard at work, or practicing a speech. I think finding a way to show a behind-the-scenes or at least more candid view of the work and strategy put into campaigns would not only humanize the candidates more but perhaps spark more interest in the field from the younger demographic.

  5. Really loved your breakdown of the shifts in the world of political campaigns through the years! I think social media is a great tool for helping younger voters not only stay up to date with the relevant issues and topics of campaigns, but also serve as a reminder of the importance of their vote. Many younger votes seemingly have a tendency to be either uninformed about the upcoming election or feel as though they are powerless in deterring its outcome. Like we’ve talked about in class a few times, social media can give a voice to the voiceless.

  6. Thanks for the history lesson. It’s certainly always been interesting to follow the use of SM in politics over the years. Each election cycle always brings something different, so it will be interesting to see what happens this time.

  7. ariellebudney · ·

    I loved your analysis of how campaigns have evolved. I think it’s going to be interesting to see how social media impacts the upcoming election. Every campaign now seems to have a social media strategy, and the candidates who are not active on SM seem to be losing traction. It now seems like a prerequisite for candidates to be on Twitter to even be considered part of the conversation. It’s possible that winning the day on social media might become just as important at winning official debates.

  8. Thanks for outlining the evolution of political campaigns through history – I learned a lot. Also loved the use of images as examples of everything you were writing about. Another use of social media in politics is for candidates to interact with each other and for the world to see how they are interacting. We can go to the Twitter of various 2016 candidates and see their opinions towards some of their opponents’ ideas.

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