Selecting a President

Fundamentals of American Government (Volume 1)

Eleanor Clift and Matthew Spieler

Thomas Dunne Books



On a Tuesday evening in early November, Americans gather in front of their television sets for the grand finale of a political drama years in the making. Once every four years, the usual sitcoms, primetime dramas, and reality shows give way to special news coverage: America is electing a new president.
As Election Night unfolds, a map of the United States begins to take shape. States won by Democrats are colored in blue, while those won by Republicans are shaded red. Sometimes, the night unfolds at an agonizingly slow pace.
The first news of the night usually trickles in around 7 p.m., after a few states with early poll closings report their results. Vermont’s three electoral votes, not surprisingly, go to one party. The other standard-bearer wins Kentucky, as expected. An hour or two later, if all goes smoothly and it’s not an especially close election, the networks declare winners in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Michigan, and the outcome becomes clearer.
Election night can be filled with drama and surprises. Some candidates will win states they were projected to lose, and vice versa. Alternatively, Election Night can be a rather dull affair, as the outcome may not have been in doubt for months leading up to the voting.
On Election Day, the presidency is far from the only important political office up for grabs. All members of the House of Representatives and roughly one third of U.S. senators must also stand for election on that same day. But in presidential election years, the race for the White House is undoubtedly the main event.
Election Day in the United States is the culmination of a long, grueling process that tests those who seek the highest office in the land—and the leadership of the free world. While most Americans may only have been paying attention to the campaign for a matter of weeks, it has, in fact, been more than two years in the making.
Mere days after a new president takes office (or returns to office if he was reelected) the media turns its attention to the next campaign. Whether they’re reporters, bloggers, or talking heads, the media will pontificate about what the next campaign will look like. Familiar names are mentioned, and leading critics of the president will give speeches and interviews in which they try to assume the leadership of the “loyal opposition.”
Two years into a president’s term, the presidential race comes into clearer focus. Following the midterm elections (which occur every two years, and in which members of both houses of Congress, as well as governors and state legislatures are elected), presidential aspirants form what are called “exploratory committees.” Exploratory committees allow candidates to test the waters for a national campaign. At this early stage of a campaign, presidential hopefuls hire pollsters who gauge their popularity, and meet with local elected officials and political activists around the country. They raise money—and they will need to raise a lot of it in order to be taken seriously as a viable candidate to carry the Democratic or Republican banner in the presidential election.
There are, of course, third parties and independent candidates who run under no party label at all. Occasionally, these independent candidates have a major impact on the presidential race. By advocating such progressive policies as an eight-hour workday and voting rights for women, Teddy Roosevelt’s Bull Moose Party garnered 27 percent of the vote in 1912, insuring the defeat of Republican president Howard Taft and helping to elect Democrat Woodrow Wilson. In 1992, third party candidate Ross Perot (who ran under the Reform Party banner) received nearly 20 percent of the vote. However, every U.S. president has been a Democrat or Republican since 1857. Thus, for all intents and purposes, voters have two major political parties from which to choose their president.
Some argue that third party candidates play the role of “spoiler.” (In elections, the term “spoiler” refers to a candidate who has little or no chance of winning but draws enough votes away from a major candidate to cost him the election.) While the chances of a third party candidate winning the presidency may be remote, these dark horses can have an impact at the margins. For example, many Democrats still believe that Ralph Nader’s share of the vote in Florida cost Al Gore the presidency in 2000. Nader ran under the Green Party banner, and attracted support from disaffected liberals who believed Gore had failed to stand up for progressive ideals.
This early period of the campaign marks the beginning of the “primary season.” During the primaries, each state holds its own election. In closed primaries, voters choose from their own party. Registered Democratic voters choose from a field of Democratic candidates. Republican voters, meanwhile, vote for their preferred politician among an exclusively Republican field of candidates.
The rules governing the primaries vary by state. In New York, for example, only Democratic voters may vote in the Democratic primary, while the Republican primary is closed to all except registered Republican voters. In New Hampshire’s “open primary,” however, independent voters (who are not registered with either party) can vote in whichever primary they choose. (Of course, even in open primaries, voters may only cast one ballot—they may vote in either the Democratic or the Republican primaries, but not both contests.)
Fourteen states—Alaska, Colorado, Idaho, Kansas, Minnesota, North Dakota, Iowa, Nevada, Nebraska, Washington, Maine, Wyoming, Texas, and Utah hold “caucuses” on Election Day, where political activists assemble to openly lobby for candidates and divvy up their support. The Iowa caucuses kick off the primary season and have achieved outsized influence in the presidential selection process for the small, mostly rural state. Texas also has a primary, making it the only state where residents can legally vote twice.
Early “straw polls” shape perceptions of the strength of the various candidates, but are not binding. The Ames, Iowa, straw poll on behalf of the Republican Party is the most famous. Held on a Saturday in August the year before the election, it has become a costly venture for candidates who build their numbers by busing people in and providing free food and entertainment. GOP frontrunner Mitt Romney, who spent more than a million dollars to win a narrow victory in 2007, skipped the Iowa caucus in 2011, ceding prime space in the arena to Representative Ron Paul, who paid $31,000 to the Republican state party for the honor.
By campaigning during the primaries, candidates are vying to win delegates from each state. The ultimate goal is to win enough delegates to clinch the Democratic or Republican nomination. After all of the primary elections and caucuses are over, each political party holds a convention and nominates the candidate who receives the support of the most delegates. (This process is actually more complicated, and will be explained in greater detail later.)
By the end of the primary season, voters in every state of the Union (as well as territories such as Puerto Rico) have cast their votes for the nominees of America’s two major political parties. Only after every state has completed this process can the general election begin in which the Democratic candidate faces off against the Republican.
After the Democratic and Republican parties nominate their candidates, in late August and early September, the general election begins in earnest. The two candidates “barnstorm the country,” standard-bearers for America’s two major political philosophies in a battle for control of the White House. The Republican will run on a platform of lower taxes, scaling back or eliminating some programs, and less government regulation of business and financial dealings. The Democrat generally runs on a platform of maintaining or perhaps expanding the social safety net, aid to the poor, environmental protection, and support for organized labor. Differences over foreign policy can also define the two candidates. Republicans are often seen as backing a more hawkish, aggressive foreign policy that emphasizes military strength, while the Democrat might be more inclined to emphasize international cooperation and diplomacy.
Following the two parties’ conventions, the general election kicks into high gear. Both candidates spend their time campaigning almost exclusively in states that are considered “toss-ups,” or “swing states”—in other words, states that do not lean strongly toward one political party in presidential elections. The Democratic candidate, for example, will not campaign in heavily Democratic Massachusetts during the general election. The Republican will not waste time campaigning in Idaho, which is safely Republican.
Ohio residents, meanwhile, will see a lot of both candidates. So will Pennsylvanians, Michiganders, and Floridians. Meanwhile, the voters of Vermont, New York, Hawaii, Alaska, and South Carolina are all but forgotten, as their votes are seldom seen as up for grabs.
During this period of the campaign—usually in late September and October—the presidential candidates will participate in a live, nationally televised debate. While these debates rarely doom a candidate or rescue him from a badly ailing campaign—they can prove to be consequential. Just weeks before voters go to the polls, viewer perceptions of presidential candidates take shape and solidify as the two contenders go toe-to-toe.
On Election Day, presidential campaigning comes to an end. (The Constitution requires that Election Day be held on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November.) Voters go to the polls and later settle into their living rooms to watch the election returns on television. The two candidates, with much fanfare, visit their local polling place and wave to the cameras before casting their ballot—presumably for themselves. Then they retreat into seclusion with their families and closest advisors until a winner is declared. At last, it is time to give a victory or concession speech.
Once the presidential election has a clear victor, the loser concedes defeat. He graciously calls on his supporters to stand behind the nation’s new president. The winner—now the “president-elect”—attempts to rally the entire country behind him and prepares for a transition. This transition, in which one presidential administration passes the reins of power to the next, begins the day after the election and culminates with the new president being sworn into office on January 20. On that day—Inauguration Day—the president-elect gives a speech before both houses of Congress, various dignitaries, and the public, and takes the presidential oath of office. At the conclusion of that oath, the president-elect becomes the president of the United States.
To recap, there are essentially five stages of presidential elections:
STAGE I (JANUARY–AUGUST)—The primaries, in which the two political parties choose their candidates. (In reality, candidates begin campaigning in the primaries long before January, but the first caucus or primary election generally takes place during this month.
STAGE II (AUGUST–SEPTEMBER)—The political parties’ conventions, in which the winners of the primaries are nominated for president.
STAGE III (SEPTEMBER–NOVEMBER)—The general election campaign, in which the winners of the primaries compete against each other. This part of the presidential campaign, for all intents and purposes, is usually a two-person race between a Democrat and a Republican.
STAGE V (JANUARY 20)—Inauguration Day—the newly elected president is sworn into office.

Copyright © 2012 by Eleanor Clift and Matthew Spieler