The Race to 270: The Electoral College and the Campaign Strategies of 2000 and 2004

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The Electoral College has played an important role in presidential politics since our nation’s founding, but surprisingly little information exists about precisely how it affects campaign strategy. Daron R. Shaw, a scholar who also worked as a strategist in both Bush-Cheney campaigns, has written the first book to go inside the past two presidential elections and reveal how the race to 270 was won—and lost. 

Shaw’s nonpartisan study lays out how both the Democrats and the Republicans developed strategies to win decisive electoral votes by targeting specific states and media markets. Drawing on his own experience with Republican battle plans, candidate schedules, and advertising purchases—plus key contacts in the Gore and Kerry camps—Shaw goes on to show that both sides used information on weekly shifts in candidate support to reallocate media buys and schedule appearances. Most importantly, he uses strikingly original research to prove that these carefully constructed plans significantly affected voters’ preferences and opinions—not in huge numbers, but enough to shift critical votes in key battlegrounds. 

Bridging the gap between those who study campaigns and those who conduct them, The Race to 270 will provide political scientists and practitioners alike with fresh insights about the new strategies that stem from one of our oldest institutions.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780226751337
  • Publisher: University of Chicago Press
  • Publication date: 11/1/2006
  • Pages: 216
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

Daron R. Shaw is associate professor in the Department of Government at the University of Texas at Austin. He has worked on several political campaigns, including both Bush-Cheney presidential bids.

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Read an Excerpt

The University of Chicago Press Copyright © 2006 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-75133-7


We knew this would be a tough fight, but the important thing right now is confidence in who we are and all that we have done up to this point. Trust the candidate. Trust the campaign.

KARL ROVE, to the Bush campaign staff the morning aft er the 2000 New Hampshire primary

This is a different kind of book. It is neither wholly academic nor journalistic. It draws heavily on my education and experience as a social scientist as well as on observations gleaned from my involvement in presidential campaigns. At its core, it is a book that attempts to bridge the gap between those who study campaigns and those who do campaigns. The perspectives of both academics and practitioners are called upon to shed light on two particular topics: the intent and the effect of presidential campaigns. The central argument is that campaigns affect voters and electorates. Documenting and characterizing these effects, however, requires greater strategic insight and better empirical data than have heretofore been brought to bear.

Both professional and personal factors drive this effort. Professionally, I have noticed a recent shift in the attitudes of campaign consultants and political scientists toward each other. Do not read too much into this observation. Consultants still profess disdain for academics. A Democratic friend of mine told me that James Carville once said to him, "There isn't one idea from political science that has ever been of use in a real political campaign." Setting aside the Carvillian hyperbole of this statement-I assume it means that median voter theory, party identification, and retrospective voting are either irrelevant or so obvious that political science gets no credit for discovering them-it effectively captures the traditional belief among people practicing politics that academicians tend to focus on esoteric concerns. Practitioners oft en believe that most political scientists have no sense of what campaigns do and therefore are in no position to judge their impact. This opinion is, in a sense, analogous to the disdain many athletes feel for reporters who have never "played the game."

But consultants increasingly monitor, and even read, the top political science journals and university presses. Bush senior adviser Karl Rove freely extols the virtues of Thomas Patterson's analysis of the media in Out of Order (1993) and has several copies of Samuel Popkin's book The Reasoning Voter (1991) in his office in the West Wing of the White House. Across the partisan aisle, Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg was an assistant professor at Yale University and oft en references realignment theory in analyzing trends in contemporary survey data. More generally, in the 2000 and 2004 election campaigns, top-level strategists from both parties were well aware of what political science had to say about primary fights, convention bounces, debate effects, negative advertisements, television ad watches, and (of course) election forecasting models.

On the other side of the divide, political scientists have become increasingly interested in presidential campaigns. I describe the origins of our historical lack of interest in chapter 2, but for the present discussion suffice it to say that for years there has been a consensus that presidential campaigns are primarily the means by which we arrive at predictable outcomes. Jimmy Carter's ouster in 1980 and Ronald Reagan's landslide victory in 1984 reinforced this consensus. Despite the success of presidential election forecasting models in 1988, however, I believe the Bush-Dukakis race sowed the seeds of discontent with the conventional perspective. In particular, many political scientists believe that George H. W. Bush outmaneuvered Michael Dukakis for the presidency, largely by waging a trivial and negative campaign. There is, of course, a fascinating irony here: scholarly interest rose dramatically in the wake of what was to many a disappointing and distasteful presidential campaign.

This increased academic interest is manifest in the emergence of several cottage industries within the study of American elections. Most notably, there has been a surge in research on negative advertising, news media coverage, get-out-the-vote efforts, and aggregate- and individual level movement in the presidential preference polls. We have also seen a number of political scientists serve in presidential campaigns, bringing back a range of unique and interesting data on candidate and campaign activities as well as on voters' preferences. There appears to be an academic market for the kinds of expertise that campaign consultants have and the sort of data to which they have access.

This confluence of interest and circumstance brings me to my reason for writing this book. I want to describe what it is that presidential campaigns actually do and how well their strategies and activities work toward their goal of winning the election. Of course, it would be a monumental (and foolhardy) task to set out to decide, once and for all, whether campaigns matter. I am not so ambitious. I do believe, however, that I can advance the debate by joining detailed descriptive knowledge of how campaigns operate with high-level analyses of their influence. Perhaps most important, I believe that understanding American campaigns is crucial to understanding the nature of democracy in the United States. Campaigns are the connective tissue between elected officials and citizens. The notion that campaigns are irrelevant, or even mechanistic, calls into question much of what we think we know about politics in the United States. If elections are predictable referenda based on some combination of the performance of officeholders and the underlying distribution of party identification, it doesn't much matter what challengers propose during the campaign; they win or lose based on exogenous factors. Should they be advantaged by conditions and win, it would mean they should not feel constrained by the promises or proposals they made during the campaign when they take office, as voters will judge them solely on results. Nor should they feel compelled to represent particular interests, as party and performance will determine whether or not groups give their support. A truly savvy candidate would therefore care only about creating a favorable environment and then activating latent predispositions. There is, in short, little deliberation, little representation, and only a gross sort of accountability. If even partially accurate, this is a profoundly different type of democracy than the framers of the Constitution had in mind and ought to command the attention of all Americans.

There are, of course, other reasons for caring about campaigns and their effects. Political campaigns around the globe, but especially in the United States, cost a great deal of money. Individuals, corporations, labor unions, and ideological organizations of all stripes contribute money to campaigns, and it would be quite interesting if one were to empirically establish that all of this cash does nothing to affect the outcomes of elections. The prospect of the irrelevant campaign is even more intriguing given (1) the recent increase in free and fair democratic elections around the world, particularly since the fall of the Soviet Union, and (2) the increased prominence of American- style electioneering within these democracies. This first point is particularly unnerving: What if the data show that American election outcomes are as predictable as those in the USSR under Stalin (with incumbent job approval and party identification replacing the secret police as the determinative force)? As for the second point, recent examples of American consultants advising Tony Blair in Great Britain, Vicente Fox in Mexico, Ehud Barak in Israel, and Boris Yeltsin in Russia can be seen as a harbinger of things to come, but only if foreign clients are convinced that these campaign professionals are worth their cost in electoral gold.

As I stated at the outset, the core thesis of this book is that presidential campaigns affect voters and electorates. The particular arguments I advance are simple. First, presidential campaigns see the world in terms of amassing 270 electoral votes, which requires identifying, persuading, and / or mobilizing a requisite number of voters in battleground states. In short, they make plans. Campaigns do not seek to talk to everyone, and if they can avoid "wasted effort," they will. Furthermore, resources are allocated roughly according to the campaign's plan, although the activities of the opposition and the broader strategic concerns of the party force deviations.

Second, although state outcomes ultimately decide the election, paid and free media dictate that media markets also constitute an important level of analysis. Television ads occur at the media market level, and candidate appearances attempt to drive local news media coverage. We run the risk of mismeasurement if we ignore the point at which aggregate political communication occurs.

Third, because it is difficult to attain campaigning advantages in the most significant electoral battlegrounds, favorable movement in voters' preferences is neither easy nor especially common. In fact, perhaps my strongest empirical finding is that one needs to account for the weekly ebb and flow of campaigning to uncover the nature and magnitude of campaign effects. Cross-sectional analyses rarely show campaign effects because they are insensitive to this dynamic strategic reality. This is something campaign veterans know instinctively, but it has never been established empirically.

Fourth, campaigns usually attempt to affect voters' perceptions of candidates, which they presume leads to a positive shift in the vote. In other words, campaigns seek to improve the net favorability of their candidate while eroding their opponent's. Such shift s in net favorability subsequently drive the minor vote shift s we typically see over the fall campaign.

Over the course of my three empirical chapters, I test a variety of subtle twists on each of the main claims, which creates a more detailed picture of the underlying dynamic of presidential campaigns. But these simple arguments anchor the analysis.

The 2000 and 2004 presidential election campaigns provide a unique and serendipitous opportunity to enhance our understanding of what presidential campaigns actually do and how effective their efforts are. Some appreciable portion of this serendipity is personal. In 1999 and 2000, as I was teaching classes and conducting research as an assistant professor at the University of Texas at Austin, I was also serving as the director of election studies for the Bush (and, later, the Bush-Cheney) campaign. In addition to aging considerably during this time, I had an opportunity to see a presidential campaign from the inside. Initially, I had four tasks: (1) developing county- and media-market-level vote targets for the Republican primaries, (2) redeveloping these targets for the general election, (3) developing and maintaining an Electoral College model for rank-ordering states according to Republican potential, and (4) participating in a working group on the Catholic vote. Outside of running a few numbers and writing a memo or two, I did nothing on the fourth task. The other three, however, presented an enormous research agenda.

Not only did I witness the formulation and execution of presidential campaign strategy but the relatively small general staff also made the process more interpretable than might be the case for, say, an incumbent seeking reelection. For example, at its most expansive, the Bush campaign's Strategy Department included only fourteen full-time people: Karl Rove (chief strategist), Matthew Dowd (director of polling), Chris Henick (deputy chief strategist), myself, Israel Hernandez (deputy assistant), Bill Rice (director of computer and IT [information technology]), Kristen Palasciano (administrative assistant to Rove), and interns John David Estes, Josh Ginsberg, Denise Gitsam, Emily House, Michael Shannon, Meredith Terpeluk, and Neil Zimmerman. Moreover, the main office in Austin had approximately 120 people, counting volunteers, throughout the summer of 2000. It was, in short, an opportunity to observe a presidential campaign that many political scientists would kill for.

Following Bush's controversial triumph in 2000, I maintained close ties with the people who would form the nucleus of the Bush-Cheney 2004 reelection effort. Although I did not move to Alexandria, Virginia, to work on the reelection campaign, I served as a consultant for Bush-Cheney '04 and the Republican National Committee. This role afforded me an opportunity to engage in some of the planning and analysis for 2004; ultimately, I helped set state, county, and precinct vote targets. It also allowed me to again witness-though from afar-the development and execution of the campaign strategy. Again, the experience was extraordinarily informative for a researcher whose core interest is election campaigns.

I mention all of this for two reasons. First, I have developed empathy for how political scientists view campaign consultants and how consultants view political scientists. Not just sympathy, but empathy. For example, I understand political scientists who think that campaign personnel can be enormously egocentric in their causal assessments of the political world. Oftentimes, they do not value the necessity of creating and maintaining databases, nor do they appreciate some of the core canons of social science research. Perhaps most annoying is that their interest in broad, theoretical issues tends to dry up and blow away as the leaves begin to turn in autumn of election years.

But I also understand political consultants who think academics sometimes mistake broad tendencies for absolute laws and blur the lines between suggestive correlation and causal argumentation. Furthermore, they oft en fail to dig deeply into phenomena that are at the core of democratic processes because their preferred theories have not been falsified. Perhaps most annoying is that more than a few scholars fail to employ the "giggle test" when considering the plausibility of their explanations and political insights.

Still, while both sides have their faults, each has an enormous cache of knowledge to share. The exchange of this knowledge has begun and could lead to both significantly improved analyses and more fruitful theoretical complexity. I want to explicitly acknowledge and comment on this interchange throughout this book.

My second reason for spelling out my involvement in the 2000 and 2004 elections is intellectual honesty. Much of what I have to say, including occasional assertions that "this is the way things were," is based on daily observations of (and conversations with) people in the Bush campaign. I do not wish to exclude this experience as some sort of pretense to intellectual objectivity because much of what I experienced is germane to the important arguments I wish to make and the broader questions at hand. Indeed, these experiences breathe life into the data I present here. And I would feel like a phony disguising these experiences as interviews or secondhand conversations (which, by and large, they were not).

The downside is that people may have concerns about the objectivity of my analysis. That is a trade-off I am willing to accept. The questions that motivate this work center on the nature and effects of presidential campaigns, and I do not think I have any particular interest (surely not a partisan one) in arguing that campaigns do or do not matter. One might argue that my history predisposes me to believe that campaigns matter, and I would agree. My conclusions on this matter, however, are more ambivalent than one might assume.


Setting aside for the moment the debates and trends within political science and professional politics, one might reasonably ask: how does this book differ from the scores of presidential campaign books that dot the popular-literature landscape? Answering this question requires a brief overview of the masterworks of the genre. Let me begin at the obvious point of origin: journalistic narratives have dominated the study of presidential campaigns since Theodore White's The Making of the President, 1960 (1961), the wonderful and evocative account of the presidential race between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon. While White's books remain in a class by themselves, a number of other efforts have had both commercial success and an influence on our understanding of specific elections. From 1980 to 1992, Jack Germond and Jules Witcover, two respected political journalists, wrote a series of well-received presidential campaign narratives based on their personal observations and interviews with major players (Germond and Witcover 1981; 1985; 1989; 1993). They stopped after their treatment of the 1992 election, and Germond recently observed, "There is no demand anymore for those campaign books." Similarly, Newsweek, which assigns half a dozen or more reporters to presidential campaigns, has published several books in its Quest for the Presidency series. These volumes are the product of what newsmagazines call "group" journalism, in which campaign correspondents are asked to "weave their discoveries and insights into a coherent whole and to set it in the context of its time" (Goldman et al. 1994, x). In their 1992 narrative, the authors write,

This is a work of journalism, not of scholarship, or of political theory, or of public policy. Readers will search it in vain for detailed analysis of the various "plans" offered by the candidates or for a moral commentary on the state of our society and its institutions and processes of self-government. This is, rather, a book about what has come to be called practical politics-the inside story of how presidents are made, (and) broken, in the late twentieth century. (Goldman et al. 1994, x)


Excerpted from THE RACE TO 270 by DARON R. SHAW Copyright © 2006 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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Table of Contents

List of Tables and Figures
1. Bridging the Great Divide
2. What We Know (and Don’t Know) about Presidential Campaigns
3. The Truth about Electoral College Strategies
4. Allocating Campaign Resources across States and Media Markets
5. Measuring the Campaign’s Impact
6. Learning from Our Mistakes

Appendix 1
Television Advertising by Media Markets, 2000 and 2004
Appendix 2
Candidate Appearances by Media Markets, 2000 and 2004
Appendix 3
Media Markets Used in Pooled Time Series Analyses, 2000 and 2004

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