Presidential hopefuls still bank on retail politics

Despite the rapid proliferation of Super PACs, massive advertising budgets, and mainstream social media channels, the fabric of face-to-face campaigning hasn’t changed that much over the decades. Throughout the election season presidential candidates Donald J. Trump and Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonSuper PACs release ad campaign hitting Vance over past comments on Trump I voted for Trump in 2020 — he proved to be the ultimate RINO in 2021 Neera Tanden tapped as White House staff secretary MORE have been on the campaign trail with grueling travel schedules to hold rallies and meet as many potential voters as possible.

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For example, 15 months ago, Sec. Clinton launched her campaign on YouTube, but immediately hit the road to “earn” America’s vote. Packed into a vehicle she dubbed the “Scooby Doo van,” Sec.  Clinton embarked on a 1,000-mile road trip from her home in Chappaqua, N.Y. to her first official campaign stop in Monticello, Ia.

The journey was meant to show Sec. Clinton’s ability to connect with everyday Americans and was chock full of personal interactions with prospective voters.

Since then, Sec. Clinton and Mr. Trump have participated in hundreds of in-person events. It begs the question: Why are two individuals with nearly 100 percent name recognition and the ability to target voters in unprecedented ways through paid, social, and earned media, spending countless hours hosting voter rallies, participating in stakeholder events, and preparing for their national party conventions?

The answer lies in the inherent and enduring power of communicating with voters, funders, and other political leaders face-to-face. Despite having a multitude of new communications channels that provide up-to-date information 24 hours a day, these groups appear to want the same kind of direct interaction and in-person engagement as they always have – not only with candidates, but also with campaign surrogates and like-minded peers.

The desire for face-to-face is palpable in communities across the U.S., but may be most widely acknowledged in the early primary and caucus states, Iowa and New Hampshire. As you may recall, on February 1, then-Republican presidential hopeful Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzOvernight Health Care — Presented by Carequest — Colin Powell's death highlights risks for immunocompromised The Senate confirmation process is broken — Senate Democrats can fix it Australian politician on Cruz, vaccines: 'We don't need your lectures, thanks mate' MORE proudly accomplished the “Full Grassley” by visiting all 99 of Iowa counties.

At the time, Sen. Cruz and his campaign understood better than almost anyone else, that in politics as in life, Americans respond best to personal connections and tailored communication with others to form major decisions. This is the essence of retail politics, not only for presidential contenders but for candidates at every level of government.

Retail politics is about much more than door knocks, diner visits, and kissing babies. It’s about showing up for people who will show up for you, and taking the time to engage directly with those who will go out, hold signs, distribute literature, drive voters to the polls, go to caucuses, donate to your campaign, attend your party’s convention, and perhaps most importantly – cast their ballots in your favor.

For many candidates, face-to-face meetings and events offer an important opportunity to get out into the field and hear firsthand about the issues voters care about. While some have tried to replace these interactions with intel derived from polling or campaign staffers, there is no substitute for direct engagement. Perhaps this is the reason why Sec. Clinton and Mr. Trump have invested so heavily in their party conventions this year, where in addition to giving televised keynotes, they’ll engage with more than 2,000 delegates from their respective parties.

Face-to-face allows them to showcase their personalities, talents, and families in a way that feels natural and authentic. It is also among the most effective ways to reach out to voters, who are often persuaded by personal contact and emotional connections, rather than the content of any specific message.

So while the formula for a winning campaign is not the same as it was 10, 20 or 30 years ago, it no doubt still includes a healthy dose of retail politics and face-to-face communication to support a candidate’s message.

Roger Dow is president and CEO of the U.S. Travel Association, the Washington, D.C.-based national umbrella organization representing all segments of travel in America—an industry responsible for generating $2.1 trillion in annual economic output.


The views expressed by Contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.