In this lesson, we will review the difference between presidential and congressional campaigns. We will take a closer look at their differences and how they affect the campaign.


Campaigning in politics is the act of running for office. This can include using media, polling, and fundraising in order to get a candidate’s name and the reasons why he or she should be elected out to the masses. The process is expensive and time consuming.

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There are different factors that are important for presidential elections as opposed to congressional elections. This lesson will take a closer look at the differences between the two.

Term Limit Differences

Presidential campaigns tend to be more aggressive and competitive than congressional campaigns due to the differing term limits. Term limits are the length of time that a person may hold an office. Once someone has been elected to the office of president, he or she may only remain in office for two terms. This is not true of Congress. People elected to Congress often hold their offices for decades, giving them a significant incumbency advantage.

An incumbent is a person who has previously been elected and holds the office during the term prior to the new election. It’s easier for incumbents to reach out to the people in their home states and talk about all of the work they have done in the past and their achievements in office. Since congressmen don’t have term limits, they’re more likely to remain in office for a long time and enjoy this advantage at each new election. Candidates for the presidency have such a small term limit that they’re far less likely to be incumbents and have to work harder to show their past accomplishments.

Campaign Expenses

A presidential campaign takes several years and a significant sum of money. This money is used to pay a large staff and coordinate volunteers, hire media consultants who will create advertisements and buy airtime on television, pay polling firms to survey voters on various issues, put out websites and direct mailers, and many other things.

Although a presidential candidate may have held a local or state office before, it’s likely that his or her message and accomplishments aren’t well known to voters across the country, making these big publicity steps necessary. It is rare for these individuals to have the same name recognition, or large amount of people who know of a politician, as a congressperson who is only campaigning in one state. Therefore, it costs more to get presidential candidates’ names and messages known and recognized.

The expense of a congressional campaign is quite different. As noted above, because there are no term limits in Congress, many of the individuals running for Congress across the country are incumbents. In addition to the advantages listed above, incumbents are also working with people who have successfully gotten them elected previously. This staff already has the connections to people who will donate and the benefit of knowing what works and, more importantly, what doesn’t.

Additionally, incumbents and their staff have been making contacts throughout their current terms. These contacts can support the congressional candidate financially during a reelection campaign, which they are more likely to do if the incumbent is making decisions in Congress that the donors approve of. All of these are reasons that running a campaign for Congress is less expensive.

Voter Turnout

Presidential elections occur every four years, and congressional elections occur every two years. Historically, voter turnout is significantly smaller in congressional elections unless they fall on a presidential election year. Therefore, in congressional elections, encouraging people to show up and actually vote becomes an important part of the campaign. This is not a concern in presidential election campaigns.


During a campaign, it is much easier for a congressional candidate to deflect blame than a presidential candidate. During a campaign, a congressional candidate can explain away mishaps from years before by placing the fault with other members of Congress, the president, or even other members of his or her political party. The prospective president does not have this luxury, particularly if he or she is the incumbent. During a presidential campaign, the candidate takes the blame for many nationwide issues.

Lesson Summary

Campaigning in politics is the act of running for office. Campaigns are run in different ways for presidential elections and for congressional elections, and among these differences are:

  • Presidential campaigns tend to be more aggressive than congressional campaigns due to differing term limits.
  • Presidential campaigns are more expensive and take longer than congressional campaigns.
  • Presidential and congressional campaign spending tend to be different.
  • Voter turnout rates are higher during presidential campaigns than congressional campaigns.

Lastly, during a campaign, it is much easier for a congressional candidate to deflect blame than a presidential candidate.

Learning Outcomes

Study this lesson as you develop the ability to:

  • Outline the process of campaigning
  • Indicate the ways in which congressional campaigns are different from presidential campaigns