Contrast Between Presidential Primary Vs General Election Campaign

July 4, 2017 - 7 minutes read

Compared to other countries, the US Presidential Election seems a long drawn-out process with campaigns running over a year. Over the course of the year, the parties would have their state primaries and caucuses leading up to a single Presidential candidate being elected for each party.

Campaigns and candidate messages change drastically over the period. This is to magnify the effect of the campaign based on the voter base they are appealing to. In a primary election, the focus would be on party supporters at the state level. All the candidates are members of the same party and their political stance would adhere to the party values.

In contrast, the general election has one nominee from either party facing each other (and a handful of independent or third-party candidates). So the campaign would re-align to appeal to voters nationwide.

How US Presidential campaigns change between the Primary Vs the General Election

In short, primaries are a party event. The RNC (Republican National Committee) and the DNC (Democratic National Committee) organize and run their primary elections. The Federal Election Committee merely oversee these events to ensure no fraud occurs.

This is not the only variation between a campaign for a primary election and a general election campaign. Below are some major ways campaigns differ between the primaries and the general run.

Inclination to party ideology

During the primaries, candidates often focus on core issues within the party. This also means they take an extreme position to attract voters with similar values. Democratic campaigns try to win over Orthodox liberals and position themselves as more liberal. The Democratic primary election, as a result, is a test of liberal ideology and a fight among divisions on the left. The Republican primary is similar with stress on conservative ideology. During the primary campaigns, the candidates position themselves further apart to win over the staunch supporters.

Once they are elected the party nominee, the candidate mellows their stance. So in the general election, the campaigns track back to the middle. This is to draw in the casual and swing voters who would not support any candidate who is highly partisan.

The outsider vs the insider

Campaigns aim to engage local voters who feel unrepresented during the primary. They would play up the candidate being a Washington outsider and their lack of involvement with special interest groups. This is seen as a chance to elect someone who will focus on local issues that tend to be overlooked at the national level.

A party candidate for President would claim that their experience at the local level makes them better equipped to be at the center. The campaign then shifts the message to assert that an insider representing local issues can influence change from the top.

Coalesce the stand-outs

Candidates in the primaries often present themselves as the standout who would take the party in a new direction. This helps them win over supporters who feel the party needs to improve or focus on particular issues. All the campaigns seem pretty divided on their policies and messages. This fractures the party itself and presents the members as unaligned.

However, the general election campaign sets everything straight. The elected candidate’s campaign moves to unite the other standouts. They come on board with their key supporters and grassroots leaders following suit. Through media comments and public events, the party presents a united front under a single campaign. In the general election campaign, all party supporters are quite clear that the interests and policies of their nominee are the best discourse and the opposing party is the real threat.

Delegates and electors

The party nominee for POTUS (President Of The United States) is elected at their National Convention. Delegates from all states vote for the candidate who won their state primary. Here it gets a bit different for both parties. Democratic candidates, generally, are entitled to a number of delegate votes proportional to the votes they won in that state’s primary. For Republicans, the winner in the state takes all the delegate votes for that state. So the campaigns in the primary strategize to focus on states where they can win a majority of the delegate votes.

In the general election, the President is elected by the Electoral College. Every state appoints a number of electors equal to the whole number of Senators and Representatives from that state in Congress. However, a winner in a state gets all the electoral votes for that state. The campaign for the general election, therefore, appeals to voters in swing states. The campaign trail is also laid out as per the party’s foothold in the state.

Securing an early lead

The date for the general election is fixed. For those who don’t know, it is the first Tuesday after November 1. However, the road for that is through a win in the primary. An early lead in the states which hold their primaries first is a good way to strengthen your place in the final run. The general election campaign actually begins at the end of the primary race.

Before the primaries even kick off, hopeful candidates already start their campaigns in what is called the “Invisible Primary”. They court influential political figures, donors and party insiders to build the resources needed in the campaign. So the primary campaign takes off even before the candidates make a public announcement for candidacy.

Even though the primary and general election are part of one large race, the campaigns are way different for both. They target different voter groups and tweak their messages to relate to those demographics. The campaign strategy for specific states too change between the primary and the general. In the end, the candidate with the best interests and greater support takes office as the President of the United States. Mostly.

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