Campaign costs in the United States have become enormous, with political advertising, especially television, being the greatest expense. As a result, parties and candidates need to raise many millions of dollars. Financial contributions by corporations, labor unions, and other other organizations, individuals, and federal employees as well as expenditures by the parties' national committees have been restricted by law. Closer regulation of contributions was attempted by establishment of the Federal Elections Commission (FEC) in 1974 and 1976; the FEC provides public financing in return for spending limits.
In the late 1990s, however, the FEC negated some of its own rules and weakened the restrictions. Additionally, political action committees are permitted as private campaign-funding vehicles, and unlimited "soft money" may be raised by political parties (as opposed to candidates) for "party development" (nearly $500 million in 2000). Also, a number of presidential candidates, beginning with George W. Bush in the 2000 presidential campaign, have chosen to forgo public financing in order to avoid the associated spending limits. Thus the reforms have not slowed the escalating cost of campaigns.
Attempts in the late 1990s to revamp the way national political campaigns are financed were successfully filibustered in the U.S. Senate, but in 2002 Congress passed legislation to eliminate soft money on the national level and restrict it on the state and local level while increasing the amount that could be donated to a candidate. The bill also restricted the ability of political action committees to mention candidates by name immediately before an election. That and the provisions regarding soft money were challenged in court but narrowly upheld (2003) by the Supreme Court. In 2007, however, a more conservative Court narrowed the restrictions on political action committees, and in 2009 the Court narrowly overturned its 2003 decision in part and declared a significant portion of the 2002 legislation unconstitutional when it ruled that Congress could not limit independent expenditures by corporations during elections.
In Great Britain the system of parliamentary government permits the overthrow of the cabinet by a vote of no confidence at any time, and, compared with U.S. congressional elections, this results in a more unified party campaign. British parliamentary and local elections are never held concurrently; campaigns are short and intensive, and party expenditures are comparatively very moderate and are fixed by law.
See V. O. Key, Politics, Parties and Pressure Groups (5th ed. 1964); L. Overacker, Presidential Campaign Funds (1991); J. Pollock, Party Campaign Funds (1991); P. Stern, The Best Congress Money (1991).
Politics is as old as humankind and is not limited to democratic or governmental institutions. Some examples of political campaigns are: the effort to execute or banish Socrates from Athens in the 5th century BC, the uprising of petty nobility against John of England in the 13th century, or the 2005 push to remove Michael Eisner from the helm of The Walt Disney Company.
Political messages are carefully crafted before they are disseminated. Campaigns in the western world may spend large sums of money on opinion polls and focus groups in order to figure out what message is needed to reach a majority on Election Day.
A campaign team (which may be as small as one inspired individual, or a heavily-resourced group of professionals) must consider how to communicate the message of the campaign, recruit volunteers, and raise money. Campaign advertising draws on techniques from commercial advertising and propaganda. The avenues available to political campaigns when distributing their messages is limited by the law, available resources, and the imagination of the campaigns' participants. These techniques are often combined into a formal strategy known as the campaign plan. The plan takes account of a campaign's goal, message, target audience, and resources available. The campaign will typically seek to identify supporters at the same time as getting its message across.
The United States is unusual in that there are dozens of different types of elections and political offices available, from the sewer commission to the President of the United States. Elections happen every year on many different dates in many different areas of the country.
At the local level, some offices (e.g., school board, town council, etc.) may be officially non-partisan, with candidates of the same political party challenging each other and in many cases without any campaign references to political parties. Other offices (e.g., county treasurer, county district attorney, county sheriff) may be filled in partisan manners with parties endorsing like-minded candidates and then working on their behalf.
All state and national elections are partisan (except judicial elections in some states).
Major campaigns in the United States are often much longer than those in other democracies.
Campaigns start anywhere from several months to several years before election day. The first part of any campaign for a candidate is deciding to run. Prospective candidates will often speak with family, friends, professional associates, elected officials, community leaders, and the leaders of political parties before deciding to run. Candidates are often recruited by political parties and interest groups interested in electing like-minded politicians. During this period, people considering running for office will consider their ability to put together the money, organization, and public image needed to get elected. Many campaigns for major office do not progress past this point as people often do not feel confident in their ability to win. However, some candidates lacking the resources needed for a competitive campaign proceed with an inexpensive paper campaign or informational campaign designed to raise public awareness and support for their positions.
Once a person decides to run, they will make a public announcement. This announcement could consist of anything from a simple press release to concerned media outlets to a major media event followed by a speaking tour. It is often well-known to many people that a candidate will run prior to an announcement being made. Campaigns will often be announced and then only officially "kicked off" months after active campaigning has begun. Being coy about whether a candidacy is planned is often a deliberate strategy by a prospective candidate, either to "test the waters" or to keep the media's attention.
One of the most important aspects of the major American political campaign is the ability to raise large sums of money, especially early on in the race. Political insiders and donors often judge candidates based on their ability to raise money. Not raising enough money early on can lead to problems later as donors are not willing to give funds to candidates they perceive to be losing, a perception based on their poor fundraising performance.
Also during this period, candidates travel around the area they are running in and meet with voters; speaking to them in large crowds, small groups, or even one-on-one. This allows voters to get a better picture of who a candidate is than that which they read about in the paper or see on television. Campaigns sometimes launch expensive media campaigns during this time to introduce the candidate to voters, although most wait until closer to election day.
Campaigns often dispatch volunteers into local communities to meet with voters and persuade people to support the candidate. The volunteers are also responsible for identifying supporters, recruiting them as volunteers or registering them to vote if they are not already registered. The identification of supporters will be useful later as campaigns remind voters to cast their votes.
Late in the campaign, campaigns will launch expensive television, radio, and direct mail campaigns aimed at persuading voters to support the candidate. Campaigns will also intensify their grassroots campaigns, coordinating their volunteers in a full court effort to win votes.
Voting in the United States often starts weeks before election day as mail-in ballots are a commonly used voting method. Campaigns will often run two persuasion programs, one aimed at mail-in voters and one aimed at the more traditional poll voters.
Campaigns for minor office may be relatively simple and inexpensive - talking to local newspapers, giving out campaign signs, and greeting people in the local square.
Political campaigns have existed as long as there have been informed citizens to campaign amongst. Often mass campaigns are started by the less privileged or anti-establishment viewpoints (as against more powerful interests whose first resort is lobbying). The phenomenon of political campaigns are tightly tied to special interest groups and political parties. The first 'modern' campaign is thought to be William Gladstone's Midlothian campaign in the 1880s, although there may be earlier recognisably modern examples from the 19th century.
Democratic societies have regular election campaigns, but political campaigning can occur on particular issues even in non-democracies so long as freedom of expression is allowed.
American election campaigns in the 19th century created the first mass-base political parties and invented many of the techniques of mass campaigning. In the 1790-1820s, the Federalist Party and the Democratic-Republican Party battled it out in the so-called "First Party System".