Public events like rallies and speeches are also a critical component of a modern campaign, but their function has morphed since the days when James "Pa" Ferguson's captivating personality and rhetorical flair wowed crowds on the campaign trail.
At least since the advent of television as a campaign tool in the 1950s a development that, in Texas, coincided with the start of rapid urbanization and economic diversification candidates have sought more technologically intensive and efficient ways of reaching large numbers of voters.
It used to be that political rallies and public speeches were the only ways that voters could see candidates and hear their voices. Newspapers might carry a photo and use quotes from a speech or an interview. But these were of limited circulation and many voters could not afford the cost of a newspaper, or were not able or inclined to read it. So direct, unmediated contact with voters in public forums where candidates orated and debated was a central campaign activity of old-time politics. It also gave candidates and their campaigns the opportunity to learn about and discuss local concerns.
Today campaigns can use mass communications media and sophisticated techniques for identifying and tracking voters (through telephone based survey research, exit polls on election day, and now monitoring visitor traffic on candidates' Web site). Events like political rallies and public speeches are just one way to reach voters. Other techniques central to a modern multi-pronged publicity campaign offer cheaper, less time-consuming, more efficient ways to reach voters.
But political rallies and speeches continue to be a staple of campaigns. Campaigns design such events to earn media coverage, not just to reach the audience in attendance. Efforts to generate media coverage with such events have spawned a terminology of their own, as the Talking Politics feature on the terms "free media" and "earned media" examines. For campaign strategists, the target audience is not only or even primarily those in attendance, but the much larger television audience which sees only short excerpts on the state and local news.
The use of public appearances for the purpose of garnering television coverage has become a staple of statewide campaigns in Texas. Candidates seek local and regional news coverage by traveling around the state. Such uses of public appearances were already well established by 2002 when Governor Rick Perry geared up for reelection, as former Perry chief of staff Barry McBee discussed in an interview prior to that election. Presidential campaigns also use this tactic. For example, in the final weeks of the 2004 presidential elections, both candidates hopped from town to town in six or seven key states.
Encounters between candidates and the public are no longer spontaneous interactions. They are no longer designed to help a candidate understand the problems and concerns of particular individuals or groups. Instead, they tend to be carefully staged and scripted events often attended by an equally carefully selected audience designed to reinforce the images campaigns are trying to promote.