Campaign Techniques Remain Consistent Throughout Centuries

Campaign Techniques Remain Consistent Throughout Centuries

Originally Written Dec. 5th 2016 by  Barry Seward

Campaign Techniques Remain Consistent Throughout Centuries

Modern political campaigning has changed very little since Quintus Tillius Cicero penned a letter of advice to his older brother Marcus Tillius Cicero in 64 BC as he ran for consul, the highest office in ancient Rome. In this essay the political techniques of recent American candidates such as Donald Trump and Barack Obama will be compared to portions of the 1972 film The Candidate, (starring Robert Redford and directed by Michael Ritchie) while simultaneously being compared to five (out of 10) of Cicero’s action steps that Phillip Freeman highlighted as important in his introduction of How to Win an Election: An Ancient Guide for Modern Politicians, which is the book form of Cicero’s brilliant and well thought out letter to his brother.

The 5 political strategies out of Cicero’s roughly 50 strategies to be compared are: (1.) Make sure you have the backing of your family and friends. (2.) Surround yourself with the right people. (3.) Call in favors. (4.) Build a wide base of support. (5.) Don’t leave town.

The first piece of advice is to make sure you have the backing of your family and friends (Cicero & Freeman, 2012). In the most recent presidential election, we saw that Donald Trump had the support of his family who became an extremely important part of his inner circle of political advisors. We later witnessed Gov. Chris Christie give an endorsement to Trump soon after he dropped out of contention to become the Republican Presidential nominee.

In The Candidate, Bill McKay was rumored to not have his father’s support which would have been a big blow to his campaign, however, at the end of the Senatorial debate his aides were frustrated with a gaff McKay made, his father came to his aid with a hug and an unequivocal endorsement of his son that helped grow the tide of support. From 64 BC through 1972 and to the 2016 presidential election we see that Cicero’s advice of having the backing of family and friends stands the test of time.

Surround yourself with the right people (Cicero & Freeman, 2012) was the next of Cicero’s advice. President Barack Obama did this by surrounding himself with his Chief Strategist David Axelrod and many other political advisors that helped guide him to the White House. David Axelrod stated in an interview with David Muir what he looked for in people that would surround Sen. Obama as he ran for President, “First of all I was lucky because when we began the campaign in late 2006–early 2007 we really didn’t have a big team – Obama only ran for the Senate in 2004. At the start, it was me and a small group. Robert Gibbs (communications director) was there, but no one else. David Plouffe got involved later as a campaign manager. So when Obama decided to run, I was like Danny Ocean in Ocean’s 11. I went around to the best people I knew in various disciplines and said, ‘are you in or are you out?’

I made a point of two things: firstly, of course, they had to be very talented; secondly, I really put an emphasis on people who didn’t work in Washington. I did that partly because it was hard to find people in Washington willing to take on the Clintons, but really because I myself had made a career working outside the beltway, and I thought that gave you a better gauge on the public, on the voters, living in a place where people weren’t discussing every night. So I assembled a group that I thought would be both strong and coherent, and also just people I liked” (Muir, 2013, P. 246).

In The Candidate, the fictional Bill McKay was approached by Marin Lucas (played by Peter Boyle) to run for a US Senate spot. Lucas guaranteed McKay would lose even though he knew that he had a chance to win. McKay was advised by a campaign specialist with a plan that helped guide the young candidate to victory (Ritchie, "The candidate").

President Obama heeded the advice of Cicero while McKay stumbled into it. The advice though proves to hold true as much today as it did in the election of ancient Romans.

The third of Cicero’s advice is to call in all favors. Cicero stated, “It’s time to gently (or not so gently) remind everyone you have ever helped that they owe you. If someone isn’t under obligation to you, let them know that their support now will put you in debt in the future. And as an elected official, you will be well placed to help them in their time of need” (Cicero & Freeman, 2012).

In addition to Chris Christie endorsing Donald J. Trump to become the Republican Presidential nominee, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan did so as well.  Although reluctant to endorse Trump at first, Ryan did so because he could accomplish more with Trump in the White House compared to what he could accomplish with the Democrat’s nominee, Hillary Clinton.  Ryan wrote in an editorial in his hometown newspaper that “The concept from the start was simple: If we had a Republican president ready to sign bills into law, what would we do?

This month, we’ll show the country what a better tax code looks like. We’ll outline a plan not just for repealing Obamacare but replacing it with a better system, more focused on patients, choices and lower costs. We’ll offer a plan to restore the Constitution and the separation of powers that decades of executive overreach have eroded. We’ll present the ideal national security and foreign policy to keep Americans safe. We’ll show how we can reform rules and regulations so they’re spurring the economy and creating jobs, not destroying them. And we’ll offer a better way to help lift people out of poverty and into lives of self-determination” (Ryan, 2016)

Trump, as a presidential candidate, was able to come to an understanding with Ryan that the Republican agenda would be carried out if he was elected. Cicero would have been proud.

Build a wide base of support is the fourth piece of advice that Freeman highlights as important in Cicero’s letter. In The Candidate, Robert Redford’s character builds a wide base of support by being less and less specific as he develops his stump speech. The stump speech is wonderful and yet so generic that it could have been a successful speech for a “real” candidate in 1972 as it could have been a successful stump speech for elected office in 2016.

In The Candidate, Bill McKay’s advisors steered him to refer to a five-point plan that would help him answer a debate question without really answering the question and alienating any support. Even though the five-point plan wasn’t fully created he was trying to follow Cicero’s advice and keep a wide base of support.

Donald Trump, interestingly enough, also has a five-point plan as well as 6,7 and 10 point plans to in some way, shape or form “Make America Great Again” as his campaign slogan states. What is interesting is that in many cases, when he was asked a question that he had trouble answering he would refer to his x-point plan without any specificity before the plan was released to the public. It appeared that he, or his advisors, had watched The Candidate and fictional movie writing from 1972 was being used as a campaign tactic in 2016.

Donald Trump later released this 5-point plan on ethics reform on his website.
“First: I am going to re-institute a 5-year ban on all executive branch officials lobbying the government for 5 years after they leave government service. I am going to ask Congress to pass this ban into law so that it cannot be lifted by executive order.

Second: I am going to ask Congress to institute its own 5-year ban on lobbying by former members of Congress and their staffs.

Third: I am going to expand the definition of lobbyist so we close all the loopholes that former government officials use by labeling themselves consultants and advisors when we all know they are lobbyists.

Fourth: I am going to issue a lifetime ban against senior executive branch officials lobbying on behalf of a foreign government.

Fifth: I am going to ask Congress to pass a campaign finance reform that prevents registered foreign lobbyists from raising money in American elections” (2016).
Why the plan is highlighted here is that, after it was released, it was designed to not offend voters and to help build a wide base of support as Cicero suggested. Every point has a provision against lobbyists. Voters are not going to object to that.

The fifth and final point that will be discussed in this paper is Cicero’s statement: “Don’t leave town. In Marcus Cicero’s day that meant sticking close to Rome. For modern politicians, it means being on the ground pressing the flesh wherever the key voters are at a particular moment. There is no such thing as a day off for a serious candidate. You can take a vacation after you win” (Cicero & Freeman, 2012).

This is an important lesson that was of extreme importance in the 2016 election. Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton, due to polls showing her in a commanding lead didn’t make as many final day campaigns stops as her opponent, Donald Trump did. Couple that with the many days she remained home due to the flu is what could have made a late difference with the voters in the state of Michigan that Trump visited while Clinton was at home.

Even in The Candidate, Bill McKay was campaigning so much that he became a little delirious when he rushed to get his message out on a local TV station and he could not control his laughter.  He even humorously mangled his stump speech while he was in the back of his car. Cicero didn’t have as far to travel as the real candidates in the 2016 race or days as long as the fictional candidates in movies but Cicero’s message hold strong, “Don’t Leave Town” (Cicero & Freeman, 2012).

It’s clear after comparing modern-day strategies to those used in ancient Rome that the tactics of campaigning for political office have not changed very much since 64 BC. As we looked at five important points of advice that those running for office practice, it is easy to see that in politics history most certainly repeats itself and that politicians find it easy and efficacious to regurgitate political themes, ideas, and strategies that have proved successful over the centuries. Cicero’s advice to his brother is exceptional advice for the modern politician.


Muir, David, and David Axelrod. "Obama Campaign: An Insider's View." Public Policy Research 19.4 (2013): 245-52. ProQuest. Web. 6 Dec. 2016.

Ryan, R. P. (2016). Paul Ryan: Donald Trump can help make reality of bold House policy agenda. Retrieved December 06, 2016, from

Cicero, Q. T., & Freeman, P. (2012). How to win an election: An ancient guide for modern politicians. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Ritchie, M. (Director). (n.d.). The candidate [Video file].

DONALD J. TRUMP’S FIVE-POINT PLAN FOR ETHICS REFORM. (2016, October 17). Retrieved December 06, 2016, from