Presidential Elections

Primaries and Caucuses

Primary elections and caucuses are used to narrow the field of candidates in each major political party before a general election.

Learning Objectives

Summarize the primary system and how a primary differs from a caucus

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • In American politics, the two major political parties provide networks of voters and advocates and financial resources to candidates, therefore, candidates seek their nomination before entering general elections.
  • Primaries and caucuses occur at the state level and allow candidates to campaign on a smaller scale to seek nomination before entering the national campaign.
  • The structure of primaries and caucuses varies by state, with some contests requiring official affiliation with a party in order to cast a vote in the nominating election.

Key Terms

  • caucus: A meeting, especially a preliminary meeting, of persons belonging to a party, to nominate candidates for public office, or to select delegates to a nominating convention, or to confer regarding measures of party policy; a political primary meeting.
  • delegate: A person authorized to act as representative for another; in politics, a party representative allocated to nominate a party candidate.
  • closed primary: an election in which only party members are allowed to vote, and during which they choose their party’s candidates for an upcoming general election
  • general election campaign: an organized effort which seeks to influence who is voted into the office of presidency and other federal and state legislative offices
  • primary election: A preliminary election to select a political candidate of a political party.

In America’s two-party political system, political parties rely on primary elections and caucuses to nominate candidates for general elections. Political parties provide resources to the candidates they nominate, including endorsements, social contacts, and financial support. Consequently, attaining a party nomination by winning a primary election or caucus is a necessary step to becoming a major election candidate. Primaries are held on different dates in different states and give national candidates an opportunity to campaign to smaller audiences than during the general election. The candidate who wins each state vote is granted a certain number of delegates,depending on the state’s size, and the candidate with the most party delegates becomes the party’s general election nominee. Not every election is preceded by a primary season, but most major races, such as presidential and congressional races, use primaries to narrow the field of candidates.

Primary Elections

Primaries began to be widely used in the United States during the Progressive Era in the early 1900s. The impetus behind establishing them was to give more power to voters, rather than allowing behind the scenes political maneuverers to choose major candidates. In modern elections, primaries are seen as beneficial to both voters and parties in many ways – voters are able to choose between a range of candidates who fit within a broader liberal or conservative ideology, and parties are able to withhold support of a candidate until they have demonstrated an ability to gain public support.

Primary rules vary by state, as does the importance of their outcomes. Primaries may be classified as closed, semi-closed, semi-open, or open. In a closed primary, only voters who are registered with the party holding the primary are allowed to vote. In other words, registered Republicans can only vote to choose a candidate from the Republican field, and Democrats can only vote in the Democratic primary. In a semi-closed system, voters need not register with a party before the election, therefore independent voters may choose to vote in either the Democratic or Republican primary. In an open primary system, voters can vote in either primary regardless of affiliation. Open primaries are the most controversial form in American politics. Supporters argue that open primaries give more power to the voter and less to the party, since voters are not tied to voting for a party that does not produce a good candidate. Critics, however, argue that open primaries will lead to vote raiding, a practice in which party members vote in the opposing party’s primary in an attempt to nominate a weak candidate.

Caucuses

Whereas primaries follow the same polling practices as general elections, caucuses are structured quite differently. In nominating caucuses, small groups of voters and state party representatives meet to nominate a candidate. Caucuses vary between the states in which they are held, however, generally they include speeches from party representatives, voter debate, and then voting by either a show of hands or a secret ballot. Like primaries, caucuses result in state delegates being allocated to a particular candidate, to nominate that candidate to the general election. The vast majority of states use primaries to nominate a candidate, but caucuses are notably used in Iowa, which is traditionally the first state to vote in the primary/caucus season. Since Iowa is first, it has a large impact on the primary season, as it gives one candidate from each party an advantage as they move into other state votes. Due to its small population and the small-scale, intimate structure of its caucuses, Iowa is notorious for allowing lesser- known candidates to do unexpectedly well.

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Washington State Caucus: Caucuses occur in small settings and often include lively debate by party members.

The National Convention

Political parties hold national conventions to nominate candidates for the presidency and to decide on a platform.

Learning Objectives

Compare contemporary political conventions with those in middle 19th-century

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • National party conventions are designed to officially nominate the party’s candidate and develop a statement of purpose and principles called the party platform. Informally, political parties use the conventions to build support for their candidates.
  • From the point of view of the parties, the convention cycle begins with the Call to Convention. Usually issued about 18 months in advance, the Call is an invitation from the national party to the state and territory parties to convene to select a presidential nominee.
  • Each party sets its own rules for the participation and format of the convention. Broadly speaking, each U.S. state and territory party is apportioned a select number of voting representatives, individually known as delegates and collectively as the delegation.
  • The convention is typically held in a major city selected by the national party organization 18–24 months before the election is to be held.
  • Each convention produces a statement of principles known as its platform, containing goals and proposals known as planks. Relatively little of a party platform is even proposed as public policy.
  • The evening’s speeches – designed for broadcast to a large national audience—are reserved for major speeches by notable, respected public figures.

Key Terms

  • party platform: A statement of principles and purpose issued by a political party.
  • national convention: a political convention held in the United States every four years by political parties fielding candidates in the upcoming presidential election.
  • planks: Planks refer to the goals and proposals in the platform of a political party.

Introduction

A national convention is a political convention held in the United States every four years by political parties fielding candidates in the upcoming presidential election. National party conventions are designed to officially nominate the party’s candidate and develop a statement of purpose and principles called the party platform. Informally, political parties use the conventions to build support for their candidates.

Major political parties in the early 1830s were the first to use the political convention. These were often heated affairs, with delegates from each state playing a major role in determining the party’s national nominee. The term “dark horse candidate” was coined at the 1844 Democratic National Convention when little-known Tennessee politician James K. Polk emerged as the candidate after the leading candidates failed to secure the necessary two-thirds majority vote.

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Democratic National Convention (1876): An image from a newspaper article about the 1876 Democratic National Convention in St. Louis, MO.

There is no such suspense at modern conventions. Due to primaries and increased access to national news, each party essentially knows who its candidate will be before the convention. Instead, modern conventions serve to rally support for the candidate. Conventions today are largely ceremonial events with little influence on the presidential campaign beyond how the convention is received in the press.

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Democratic Party, 2008: An image of future President Barack Obama and Vice-President Joe Biden after they were officially nominated for the Democratic ticket at the 2008 Democratic National Convention.

Logistics

From the point of view of the parties, the convention cycle begins with the Call to Convention. Usually issued about 18 months in advance, the Call is an invitation from the national party to the state and territory parties to convene to select a presidential nominee. It also sets out the number of delegates to be awarded to each, as well as the rules for the nomination process. One reason for the late conventions has to do with campaign finance laws, which allow the candidates to spend an unlimited amount of money before the convention, but forbid fundraising after the convention, in order for the parties to receive federal campaign funds.

Each party sets its own rules for the participation and format of the convention. Broadly speaking, each U.S. state and territory party is apportioned a select number of voting representatives, individually known as delegates and collectively as the delegation. Each party uses its own formula for determining the size of each delegation, factoring in such considerations as population, proportion of that state’s Congressional representatives or state government officials who are members of the party, and the state’s voting patterns in previous presidential elections. The selection of individual delegates and their alternates, too, is governed by the bylaws of each state party, or in some cases by state law. The 2004 Democratic National Convention counted 4,353 delegates and 611 alternates.

The convention is typically held in a major city selected by the national party organization 18–24 months before the election is to be held. As the two major conventions have grown into large, publicized affairs with significant economic impact, cities today compete vigorously to be awarded host responsibilities, citing their meeting venues, lodging facilities, and entertainment as well as offering economic incentives.

Proceedings

Each convention produces a statement of principles known as its platform, containing goals and proposals known as planks. Relatively little of a party platform is even proposed as public policy. Much of the language is generic, while other sections are narrowly written to appeal to factions or interest groups within the party. Unlike electoral manifestos in many European countries, the platform is not binding on either the party or the candidate. Because it is ideological rather than pragmatic, however, the platform is sometimes itself politicized. For example, defenders of abortion lobbied heavily to remove the Human Life Amendment plank from the 1996 Republican National Convention platform, a move fiercely resisted by conservatives despite the fact that no such amendment had ever come up for debate. Given the same routines and repetition of proceedings, presidential nominating conventions have become predictable for observers of the political process.

Minor figures in the party are given the opportunity to address the floor of the convention during the daytime, when only the small audiences of C-SPAN and other cable television outlets are watching. The evening’s speeches – designed for broadcast to a large national audience—are reserved for major speeches by notable, respected public figures; the speakers at the 2004 Democratic convention included Ted Kennedy, a forty-year veteran of the United States Senate, and Jimmy Carter, a former Democratic President, while at the Republican convention speakers included Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger of California and Governor George Pataki of New York, two of the largest states in the nation.

The General Election Campaign

The presidential general election occurs after the primary season and is the process through which a national vote chooses the president.

Learning Objectives

Describe the steps involved in conducting a presidential campaign

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The general election campaign lasts from the end of the primary season in June until the general vote in November and is a contest between the nominated candidate from each major political party.
  • General election campaigns tend to focus their efforts on swing states, or states in which there is no clear Democratic or Republican majority, because state Electoral College electors are allocated on a winner-takes-all basis.
  • General election campaigns are extremely expensive, so candidates exert substantial effort to convince not only voters but also donors to support their candidacy.

Key Terms

  • primary season: The first stage of a presidential election, in which candidates from each party compete against members from their own party for the party’s nomination.
  • general election: An election, usually held at regular intervals, in which candidates are elected in all or most constituencies or electoral districts of a nation.
  • electoral college: A set of electors who are selected to elect a candidate to a particular office, allocated based on statewide votes.

In the United States, a presidential election is held every four years and includes both a primary season and a general election. During the primary season, the two major political parties narrow the field of candidates through state votes to nominate the party’s candidate for the general election. Because parties provide candidates with voter and staff networks and material resources, they have an incentive to present a unified front and only support one candidate, hence, winning the primary season is a necessary first step to becoming a major candidate in a general election. In the primary season, candidates compete against other members of their party to win a majority of votes from voters within their own party. By contrast, in the general election, candidates from each party compete against each other, and voters are able to vote for either candidate at the polls.

The winner of a presidential general election is not simply the person who receives the majority of votes nationwide. Instead, votes are allocated indirectly through members of the Electoral College. Under this system, statewide elections take place in which voters cast ballots for candidates. Whichever candidate wins the majority of votes in the state receives that state’s Electoral College votes. Electoral College votes are divided proportionally based on state population, meaning that larger states have more influence in the election than smaller ones. Because a candidate only needs to win a majority of votes in the state to receive all of its Electoral College votes, this system has lead to election strategies in which states with a solid Republican or Democratic majority are not contested by candidates. Instead, candidates focus their campaigns on so-called “swing states. ” Swing states are those without a clear majority party, in which all of the state’s Electoral College votes are therefore up for grabs. The most notorious swing states in recent years have been Florida and Ohio, since each is generally unpredictable, and each has a significant number of Electoral College electors.

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Electoral College (2008): In the presidential general election, the winner is determined based on who receives the greatest number of votes in the Electoral College system.

Because candidates in the general election must appeal to vast numbers of voters across a large geographic range, general elections are immensely expensive. Candidates tend to fund their campaigns in part with their personal wealth but also by fundraising extensively. Fundraising may include appealing to wealthy large donors, organizing grassroots campaigns to amass small donations from large numbers of voters, or tapping into political party funds. In recent years, PACs or political action committees, have arisen to amass large funds and produce campaign advertisements on behalf of their favored candidates. A 2010 Supreme Court decision in the case known as Citizens United further paved the way for PACs to exert a large influence in general elections. According to Citizens United, contributions to PACs are not limited so long as the PACs are not directly affiliated with a candidate. Consequently, the 2012 election has witnessed a rise of “super-PACs,” political action committees with unprecedented purchasing power who have produced numerous expensive TV and print ads.

The presidential general election lasts from the end of the primary season, usually in June, until the vote on the first Tuesday of November. Since the president is the most visible elected official in the country, the election season is so long, and so much money is spent on advertising, the presidential general election has greater voter turnout than any other U.S. election. Even so, voter turnout usually hovers at or below 60% of eligible voters. In some cases, voter turnout strongly impacts the outcome of elections. As a general rule, white elderly voters turnout more reliably than any other demographic group, and they vote consistently Republican. Thus, some analysts argue that high turnout favors Democratic candidates, since the turnout increase usually indicates greater number of young and minority voters.

The Electoral College

The Electoral College is the 538 person body that elects the President and the Vice President of the United States.

Learning Objectives

Assess the compatibility of the Electoral College system with the nation’s federalist and democratic commitments

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The Electoral College is an example of indirect election, or a proces in which voters in an election do not actually choose between candidates for an office but rather elect persons who will then make the choice.
  • American presidential elections are not decided by popular vote.
  • The members of the Electoral College are divided by represented states and are scaled based on the population from each state.

Key Terms

  • swing state: A state which may vote Democratic or Republican, in a given election or generally; a purple state.
  • indirect election: a process in which voters in an election do not actually choose between candidates for an office but rather elect persons who will then make the choice.

Indirect Election

The Electoral College is an example of indirect election, when a democratic government is voted into power by a representative vote, rather than by the entirety of the electorate. The Electoral College consists of 538 electors who officially elect the President and Vice President of the United States. The number of electors equals the total voting membership of the United States Congress, with one elector for each of the current 435 Representatives and 100 Senators. The Electoral College also includes three electors from the District of Columbia, which were approved in the Twenty-third Amendment to the Constitution, in 1961. That results in 538 total electors.

Allocation of Electors

Each state is awarded the same number of electoral votes as the number of its Representatives, plus two votes to match its Senatorial count. Since the most populous states have the most seats in the House of Representatives, they also have the most electors. The six states with the most electors are California (55), Texas (38), New York (29), Florida (29), Illinois (20), and Pennsylvania (20). The seven smallest states by population in the Electoral College (Alaska, Delaware, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Vermont, and Wyoming) have three electors. Each state’s number of Representatives is determined every 10 years by the US Census, thus determining the number of electoral votes for each state.

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Electoral College (2008): In the presidential general election, the winner is determined based on who receives the greatest number of votes in the Electoral College system.

Thus, though many people do not realize it, Presidential and Vice-Presidential elections are determined not by a popular vote. Although ballots list the names of the presidential candidates, voters within the 50 states and Washington, D.C. actually choose electors for their state when they vote for President and Vice President. These presidential electors in turn cast electoral votes for those two offices. Even though the aggregate national popular vote is calculated by state officials and media organizations, the national popular vote is not the basis for electing a President or Vice President.

A faithless elector is a member of the United States Electoral College who, for whatever reason, does not vote for the presidential or vice presidential candidate for whom he or she had pledged to vote. They may vote for another candidate or not vote at all. Faithless electors are pledged electors and thus different from unpledged electors. Although there have been 157 cases of faithlessness, faithless electors have not changed the outcome of any presidential election to date.

Exceptions

Voters in each state and the District of Columbia cast ballots selecting electors pledged to presidential and vice presidential candidates. In nearly all states, electors are awarded to the candidate who wins the most votes in that state on a winner-take-all basis. This means that if Candidate A wins 51% of the popular vote in a given state and Candidate B wins 49%, Candidate A would take all of the Electoral College votes for this state. Only Maine and Nebraska award Electoral College votes on a proportional basis. Although electors are not required by federal law to honor a pledge, in the overwhelming majority of cases they vote for the candidate to whom they are pledged.

Evaluations of the Electoral System

Critics argue that the Electoral College is inherently undemocratic and gives swing states disproportionate influence in electing the President and Vice President. Swing states are those that are up for grabs in any given election; historically, they have swung back and forth between Democrats and Republicans. However, many of them have large numbers of Electoral College votes, meaning that candidates play to voters in swing states more than in other states. Further, some maintain that it is a doctrinal problem that presidential elections in the United States are not decided by popular vote.

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Campaign Attention to Swing States (2004): These maps show the amount of attention the Bush and Kerry campaigns (considered together) gave to each state during the final five weeks of the 2004 election: At the top, each waving hand represents a visit from a presidential or vice-presidential candidate during the final five weeks of the election. (Candidates’ visits to their own home states are not counted. ) At the bottom, each dollar sign represents one million dollars spent on TV advertising by the campaigns during the same time period. This shows the influence of the Electoral College on the prominence of swing states, those with small populations but large Electoral College votes.

Proponents argue that the Electoral College is an important, distinguishing feature of federalism in the United States and that it protects the rights of smaller states. Many proponents of the Electoral College see its negative effect on third parties as a good thing. They argue that the two party system has provided stability through its ability to change during times of rapid political and cultural change. They believe it protects the most powerful office in the country from control by what these proponents view as regional minorities until they can moderate their views to win national election.

Presidential Candidates

Presidential candidates seek the highest office of the executive branch of government and carry out campaigns in pursuit of election.

Learning Objectives

Assess the costs and benefits — to candidates and the public — of the two party system

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The U.S. has a two party political system in which most influential presidential candidates have the endorsement of a major political party.
  • Presidential candidates in the United States must conduct extensive fundraising efforts to successfully acquire advertising time and campaign staffs.
  • The U.S. Constitution places restrictions on who can run for presidential office, including that they must be 35 years old and a natural-born citizen.

Key Terms

  • election: A process of choosing a leader, members of parliament, councillors or other representatives by popular vote.
  • candidate: A person who is running in an election or who is applying to a position for a job.
  • PAC: A political action committee, which is any organization in the United States that campaigns for or against political candidates, ballot initiatives, or legislation.

Background

In democratic countries, the head of state or the head of the executive branch of government, is often called the president. Presidents are usually elected to office by a democratic election. Elections may depend upon a candidate, or a person who is seeking presidential office, winning the popular vote. Likewise, elections can also depend on the candidate winning a certain proportion of a vote as determined by election guidelines. For example, in the United States, presidential candidates must win a majority of votes as allocated by the electoral college, which depends upon the candidate winning the popular vote in individual states rather than in the nation at large. By contrast, in France a candidate must win over 50% of the popular vote to be elected to office. This means that if there are more than two candidates in the race and they split the popular vote, there is often a runoff election to determine who becomes the president.

U.S. Presidential Candidates

The United States has generally embraced a two party political system, in which two primary candidates seek the office of president. Historically, the two parties have changed many times, but elections have usually involved a conservative and a liberal party — in modern days, the Republican and Democratic parties. There are some notable exceptions in which third party candidates had an impact on elections, such as the candidacy of Theodore Roosevelt in 1912 and Ross Perot in 1992, but by and large candidates must have the backing of a major party in order to be influential. The benefits of party membership include a pre-existing voter base, but perhaps more significantly, access to a fundraising network. The endorsement of a political party ensures that presidential candidates have access to a powerful network of political strategists and wealthy donors.

The importance of financial resources cannot be underestimated when talking about United States presidential candidates. Presidential campaigns cost substantial amounts of money because candidates need print, radio, and television ads, as well as large staffs of campaign organizers, in order to be successful. However, in recent years the role of fundraising has increased, as campaign contributions have grown. Political action committees, commonly known as PACs, are groups of donors and advocates who band together to fund advertisements and events on behalf of candidates. The 2010 Supreme Court decision in the case of Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission further paved the way for large campaign contributions by allowing unlimited contributions to so-called “super PACs,” or political action committees that are not directly connected to candidates. As a result of the decision, there is no limit on the size of allowable campaign contributions. Super PACs generally support a candidate by attaining large contributions for expensive television ads. Since they are not directly tied to candidates, super PACs often produce attack ads, or negative ads against opposing candidates, that the primary parties would not explicitly endorse.

As a result of the cost of presidential campaigns, many U.S. presidential candidates tend to be wealthy. However, there are other restrictions on candidacy that also impact who runs. The U.S. Constitution requires that candidates are natural-born U.S. citizens who are at least 35 years old at the time of election. Unofficially, presidents tend to be educated at elite institutions, and only one U.S. president has practiced a religion other than that of the mainstream protestant faith (John F. Kennedy was Catholic). Some evidence indicates that historical candidacy trends may be changing, though. For example, President Barack Obama was the first non-white U.S. president to be elected. Also, 2012 Republican candidate Mitt Romney is Mormon, which is considered by many to be a fringe protestant denomination. While no women have been elected to the highest office in the U.S., Hillary Clinton’s ran in  2008, and in 2016 was the Democratic Party’s first female nominee, indicating the “glass ceiling” may soon be shattered.

Campaigning: Traditional Media, New Media, and Campaign Advertisements

Campaigns seek to engage the public through traditional forms of media, such as television and the press, and more recently, social media.

Learning Objectives

Compare and contrast traditional and contemporary ways in which candidates interact with the media and the public

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Presidential campaigns have always worked closely with journalists to present a particular image of the candidate.
  • Today, candidates are expected to be fluent in social media. President Barack Obama used social media effectively in the 2008 election to reach out to young voters.
  • Campaign television ads are used to reach broad audiences. Ads can either be positive, supporting the views of the particular candidate buying the air time, or negative, deriding the candidate’s opponent.

Key Terms

  • campaign advertisements: Television ads sponsored by political campaigns to reach broad audiences and convince the masses to vote for the sponsoring candidate.
  • social media: Interactive forms of media that allow users to interact with and publish to each other, generally by means of the Internet.

Engaging with the media is an essential part of any presidential campaign. Usually, the candidate’s campaign manager is tasked with engaging with the media. Although people often assume that candidates are elected because of their policy positions, many presidential elections are won and lost based on likability of the candidate. Americans only “get to know” a candidate through the representation of the candidate in the media.

Throughout the history of American elections, journalists have followed candidates as they advertised their positions, gave speeches, and visited American towns. This tradition continues today, with certain journalists being given the sole responsibility of following candidates. In the 2008 campaign, Republican candidate Senator John McCain created a unique space to engage with journalists, inviting them to travel with him throughout the course of his campaign on his campaign bus, called “the Straight Talk Express” in reference to his engagement with journalists.

Campaign journalism has developed with the times. With the advent of television, TV reporters were sent to cover elections. Campaign engagement with the media has changed again with the proliferation of social media. Today, candidates are expected to have Facebook and Twitter accounts and to be fluent in the language of social media. This was particularly clear by then-candidate Senator Barack Obama’s use of social media in the 2008 election. The campaign relied heavily on social media to engage voters, recruit campaign volunteers and raise funds. It brought the spotlight on the importance of using the internet in a new age of political campaigning by utilizing various forms of social media such as Facebook and YouTube to reach targeted audiences. In the 2008 and 2012 elections, Barack Obama supporters could sign up for volunteer shifts and donate funds through apps on their mobile phones. The campaign’s social website, my.BarackObama.com, utilized a low cost and efficient method of mobilizing voters and increasing participation among various voter populations. President Obama’s efforts to reach out through new media are credited with bringing in the support of young Americans and contributing to his 2008 victory. This practice has now become standard; Republican candidate Governor Mitt Romney also released an app in 2012.

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President Obama Tweeting: This image shows President Obama answering tweets, demonstrating his proficiency with social media and appealing to younger voters.

But even with the rise of new media, campaigns continue to spend hundreds of millions of dollars buying air time on television networks to put on campaign advertisements. Television ads have been popular because they are an effective way to reach millions of voters at once. Campaign ads can either be positive, supporting the views of the particular candidate buying the air time, or negative, deriding the candidate’s opponent. Television campaign ads have been accused of being manipulative, but have been incredibly successful in influencing voter perceptions of the candidates.