Selecting a President

Fundamentals of American Government

Eleanor Clift and Matthew Spieler

Thomas Dunne Books




208 Pages



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Selecting a President completely and concisely explains the nuts and bolts of our presidential electoral system while drawing on rich historical anecdotes from past campaigns. Among the world's many democracies, U.S. presidential elections are unique, where presidential contenders embark on a grueling, spectacular two-year journey that begins in Iowa and New Hampshire, and ends at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Modern presidential campaigns are a marked departure from the process envisioned by America's founders. Yet while they've evolved, many of the basic structures of our original electoral system remain in place—even as presidential elections have moved into the modern era with tools like Twitter and Facebook at their disposal—they must still compete in an election governed by rules and mechanisms conceived in the late eighteenth century. In this book, Clift and Spieler demonstrate that presidential campaigns are exciting, hugely important, disillusioning at times but also inspiring.


Praise for Selecting a President

"The first in the publisher's Fundamentals of American Government series explains the machinery of our presidential electoral system. Political pundit Clift and policy analyst Spieler surely possess the firepower to compose a sophisticated, in-depth presentation about how Americans select their chief executive . . . Their primer aims at high-school students . . . Delivering all necessary rudimentary information, the authors briskly cover the elements of a presidential contest from the early caucuses and primaries through the conventions, general election campaign, Election Day and inauguration. Whatever the topic, the authors regularly draw on historical examples to add a bit of merciful color to their simple presentation. Both major parties receive equal time: For every invocation of Ronald Reagan, Richard Nixon, John McCain or Herbert Hoover, there's one of FDR, William Jennings Bryan, Jimmy Carter or Bill Clinton. In addition to the glossary of elementary political terms, the appendix contains the presidential oath of office, the electoral vote tally for all past presidential candidates, some suggestions for further reading and the complete text of four consequential pieces of campaign rhetoric, including Senator Obama's 2004 nominating speech on behalf of John Kerry that spotlighted the newcomer from Illinois, and Hubert Humphrey's anti-segregation 1948 convention address. For beginners, the ABCs of the curious, occasionally baffling way we go about the important business of choosing a president."—Kirkus Reviews

"By the time most voters in the U.S. get into the voting booth to elect a president, many crucial decisions have already been made with or without their participation. This guide offers information on the complete process, from the Iowa caucuses to the inauguration. Veteran political reporter Clift and policy analyst Spieler offer details on the election cycle, from the primaries through the party nominating conventions, from the counting of the popular vote to the pledging of delegates to the Electoral College. They detail the two-year process that begins with exploratory committees formed two years into a president's term and just after the midterm elections as prospective candidates begin to gauge the political climate and their chances. The book ends with the contest on a Tuesday in early November every four years. Along the way, Clift and Spieler offer historical perspective on the role of alternative parties, variations on primary election rules from state to state, campaign financing, and the controversies surrounding recent elections. Given that we're already in primary season, this is not the best-timed resource, but it is still valuable."—Vanessa Bush, Booklist

"Clift and Spieler present the first offering in a new series on how American government works, aimed primarily at high school seniors and college freshmen. The authors concisely and objectively explain the basic structure of America's electoral system and skillfully use anecdotes from past campaigns to explore how the process has changed from the election of George Washington to that of Barack Obama. The entire chain of events from primaries to election and taking office is covered, but the authors do not get overly technical. The book does a great job of bringing election history to life through stories and examples (e.g., the down-to-the-last-ballot Bush-Gore race of 2004 and the 2008 Democratic primary race), rather than sticking with a textbook formula found in more advanced academic tomes such as Nelson W. Polsby and others' Presidential Elections: Strategies and Structures of American Politics. This one is valuable for both high school students and adults looking for a simple explanation of the often complicated election process. Its focus makes it most appealing for current collections."—Carrie O'Maley, Library Journal

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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...

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  • Eleanor Clift and Matthew Spieler

  • Eleanor Clift is a political reporter, television pundit and author. She is currently a contributing editor for Newsweek magazine, a regular panelist on The McLaughlin Group, and is also a political contributor for the Fox News Channel.

    Matthew Spieler is a former social policy analyst for Congressional Quarterly (CQ). He currently works as a political writer for, and Oakland-based non-profit organization.

  • Eleanor Clift Bachrach
    Eleanor Clift
  • Matthew Spieler Shannon Spieler