The general election campaign formally kicks off after the conventions have ended. Voters traditionally begin paying attention to the presidential contest after the Labor Day weekend, as they return from summer vacation.
Taking a Stand on the Issues
The candidates and their staffs devise a strategy for the general election that they believe will win the necessary 270 Electoral College votes required for victory (more on the Electoral College later in the chapter). The strategies usually revolve around two central ideas: which issues should be emphasized (or de-emphasized), and how those issues should be framed. Months of polling and focus-group testing go into determining the issues and the language used to discuss them. Beginning in the late summer, both candidates use daily tracking polls in key states to detect any change in momentum.
Once they've settled on a strategy, the candidates travel to the states that they believe are necessary for victory, where they attend rallies, meet with voters, and talk to the local press to get their message out. The candidates' goal is to garner media coverage while at the same time “staying on message.” Given the hordes of media that follow the candidates' every move, staying on message can be difficult. A botched phrase, misspoken word, or incorrect statement can dominate the news cycle for days.
Pollsters use focus groups to gain insights into how the public views the candidates and the issues. The information gathered allows campaign strategists to understand the emotions and anxieties behind certain issues. Most focus groups are highly segmented, meaning that they target particular demographics — senior citizens, blue-collar workers, ethnic groups, younger Americans, and so on.
The candidates typically “contrast” their records and philosophy with their opponent's, pointing out the strengths in their candidacy and the weaknesses in their opponent's. As Election Day draws near, this type of negative campaigning usually intensifies — especially if the contest is close. During the waning days of the campaign, it is not unusual for a candidate to drop an “October surprise” — a particularly nasty revelation — about his opponent with the hopes of gaining a slight advantage. Just days before Election Day in 2000, it was leaked to the press that George W. Bush had a DWI arrest in the 1970s. Some believe it was just enough to slow his momentum and throw the race into a dead heat.
Media coverage intensifies as the general election begins in earnest following the nominating conventions. Dozens of reporters travel with both candidates, reporting on their every move, utterance, gesture, and campaign squabble. With information closely guarded by the campaigns, reporters are often left to report on the machinations of the campaigns rather than the candidates themselves. News coverage tends to focus on the “horse-race” aspect of the contest, as daily polls track who's up, who's down, and why.
The general election debates are the only unguarded — some would say unscripted — moments of the campaign, leaving the candidates to their own devices. The presidential candidates participate in two debates, which are televised on all the major networks. For the candidate who is trailing, the debates represent the best opportunity to change the dynamics of the race. In 1988, Vice President George H. W. Bush used the debates to pull away from Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis, who was tripped up by a question from CNN newsman Bernard Shaw. Dukakis's emotionless answer to Shaw's difficult question about rape turned off many voters. In 1992, President Clinton turned in a commanding performance in a town hall–style debate with President George H. W. Bush and Ross Perot, leaving little doubt that he was up to the task of leading the nation.
Heading into the presidential debates, both campaigns play the “expectations game” as they try to convince the media that the other candidate is expected to perform much better. In 2000, the Bush campaign masterfully lowered expectations for their candidate, so much so that when Al Gore failed to deliver a knockout blow during the first debate, it was considered a Bush victory.
Not all of the media coverage is serious. Comedy programs such as the Tonight Show, Late Night with David Letterman, Comedy Central's The Daily Show, and Saturday Night Live spend months lampooning, satirizing, and simply poking fun at the candidates and campaigns, sometimes with alarming effectiveness. During the 2000 campaign, the Saturday Night Live parody of the presidential debates was very effective in portraying the public's perception that the Gore campaign team made the vice president watch a videotape of his performance in order to convince him not to roll his eyes while George Bush was speaking. Some Americans learned more about the campaign through Saturday Night Live's Will Ferrell (Bush) and Darrell Hammond (Gore), than from the candidates themselves. Although late-night comedy ripostes directed at the candidates rarely change the dynamics of the race, they sometimes reinforce feelings or attitudes already held by the public.
Election Day takes place on the Tuesday after the first Monday in November. In the days leading up to Election Day, the candidates zigzag across the country, visiting key states to make a last appeal to voters. In 1996, Bob Dole campaigned ninety-six hours straight with almost no sleep over the final four days — his “96 in '96” finale.
With little left to be done on Election Day, candidates typically relax with staff and wait for returns. In 2000, Al Gore, running mate Joseph Lieberman, and their families gave hundreds of radio interviews throughout Election Day in an effort to pick up a few extra votes. Gore's bold Election Day strategy likely contributed to his victory in the popular vote.
The media — most notably the television networks — typically try to forecast (or call) the results as soon as the polls have closed. Even though it takes hours for the actual results to come in, they make these predictions based on “tracking polls” that are performed throughout the day. Tracking polls are simply polls that are conducted of voters as they leave the polling place. These polls aren't always accurate, because people often misrepresent their actual vote when speaking to the media. The media combines tracking-poll information with historical voting data to predict results, sometimes with alarming inaccuracy. In 2000, it was the breakdown of this statistical modeling that twice led to incorrect calls in the Florida race.