Elections in America Popular selection of public officials in competitive elections is the essence of democracy. However, in recent decades many Americans have not bothered to vote, and some of our electoral practices seem inconsistent with equality. While our current system clearly favors wealthy individuals and groups, promoting equality may require limiting freedom of expression.
What functions do elections serve in the political process? Elections in democratic nations allow for opposition to compete against and even replace current officeholders. Authoritarian regimes use elections to mobilize popular enthusiasm for the government, persuade foreigners that the government is legitimate, and allow an outlet for discontent. Elections also promote leadership accountability, because the threat of defeat at the polls exerts pressure on those in government to conduct themselves in a responsible manner.
What different types of elections are held in the United States? What rules determine who wins elections? Three types of elections are held in the United States: primary elections, general elections, and runoff elections. Some states also provide for referendum and recall elections. Most European nations employ an electoral system that uses proportional representation. American elections are either plurality (general elections) or absolute majority (primaries with runoffs) system.
How does the government determine the boundaries of electoral districts? The boundaries for congressional and state legislative districts in the United States are redrawn by the states every ten years in response to population changes determined by the decennial census. During the process of redistricting, political groups try to gerrymander the boundaries to serve their interests. The Republican Party has recently pushed for until-now unusual mid-decade redistricting to get more Republicans in the House. The use of race to draw congressional district boundaries has been ruled unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court.
How is the ballot determined? Before the 1890s, parties printed their own ballots and voters cast ballots along party lines. The neutral ballot allows voters to cast straight-ticket or split-ticket ballots. Criticism of the butterfly ballots in Florida prompted a switch to electronic ballots, which have created a new set of problems.
How is the ballot determined? The president is chosen by the electoral college, reflecting the framers’ mistrust of the people’s ability to choose their leader. This was designed to give Congress ultimate authority to choose the president. However, since the rise of the two main parties, one candidate has received the majority of the electoral college votes and no presidential election since 1824 has been decided in the House.
Election Campaigns: What are the steps in a successful election campaign? A campaign is an effort by political candidates and their supporters to win the backing of donors, political activists, and voters in their quest for political office. Candidates must first organize groups of supporters who will help them raise funds and bring their name to the attention of the media and potential donors. The next step is to recruit advisors and create a formal campaign organization. Public opinion polling is now a major part of any campaign. Candidates must successfully campaign and win the party’s nomination in the primary.
Figure 10.1: The Typical Organization of a National Political Campaign
Figure 10.2: Average House and Senate Campaign Expenditures, 1980 - 2006 (top)
Figure 10.2: Average House and Senate Campaign Expenditures, 1980 - 2006 (bottom)
Presidential Elections: How is the president elected? Presidential candidates must compete in state primaries and caucuses that occur in the first six months of an election year to gain the party’s nomination. The candidate who successfully gains the majority of convention delegates is named as the party’s candidate in the general election. National conventions technically select the party’s nominee for president; however, modern conventions simply affirm the winner of the primary season. The national convention also serves as an opportunity to display party unity and strength, adopt a party platform, and establish party rules.
Figure 10.3: The 2008 Presidential Election Season (top)
Figure 10.3: The 2008 Presidential Election Season (bottom)
What factors have the greatest impact on a general election campaign? Modern presidential elections are driven by polling, the media, public relations, and by new technologies such as phone banks, direct mail, and the Internet; Campaigns and elections have shifted from being labor-intensive to capital-intensive. The increasing importance of money has an impact on political equality, lessening the advantage of a large grassroots base and giving a huge advantage to wealthier interests.
How Voters Decide: What are the principal influences on voters’ decisions? The types of factors that influence voting decisions include: Partisan loyalty Issues, especially the economy and consumer confidence Candidate characteristics
Figure 10.4: The Effect of Party Identification on the Vote, 2008
Figure 10.5: Consumer Confidence and Presidential Elections
The 2008 Election Barack Obama, the first African American elected as president in the history of the United States, won 53 percent of the popular vote and secured a 364-174 majority in the Electoral College. Race was a key element of the presidential race, as was gender. The electoral map also changed, as previously “red” states such as Virginia shifted to “blue state” status.
What is the history of the GOP’s Southern Strategy? The significance of the 2008 presidential election is rooted in the history of race and racial politics in the United States. The civil rights movement of the 1960s, and democratic support for black voting rights and affirmative action, prompted Richard Nixon to pursue his “southern strategy” in the 1968 election.
What is the history of the GOP’s Southern Strategy? Disaffected white southern voters shifted their allegiance to the Republican party, and the once solidly Democratic South became the solidly Republican South. In the 1980s, Ronald Reagan employed religious and patriotic symbols and rhetoric that appealed to white southerners and blue-collar white northerners. The Republican “base” was built on a foundation of “family values” and patriotic issues.
What is the history of the Democrats’ racial dilemma? Support for civil rights expanded political power for liberals within the Democratic party, but undermined the party’s fortunes in national elections.
How did the 2000 and 2004 elections factor into the changing nature of race in politics? In the 2000 and 2004 presidential elections, the Republican base rallied around George W. Bush on the basis of social issues, despite flagging poll numbers due to sluggish economic growth and growing problems in Iraq. The Bush presidency witnessed a decline in the racial polarization of American politics which can be traced to Reagan’s focus on patriotism and religious values (as opposed to the racially-charged rhetoric of the Nixon era).
How did the 2000 and 2004 elections factor into the changing nature of race in politics? Other factors, such as increasing integration of blacks and whites and the huge influx of immigrants from foreign countries, contributed to the blurring of once clear-cut racial divisions.
What were the dynamics of the 2008 presidential primaries? The Republican candidates in the primary race for the nomination included John McCain, Mitt Romney, Mike Huckabee, Ron Paul, Rudy Guliani, and Fred Thompson. Of these candidates, McCain, Romney, and Huckabee generated the most interest. After losing in the Iowa caucus and struggling to raise money early in his campaign, McCain managed to secure the nomination by early March. However, a large segment of the GOP’s conservative base remained uninspired by McCain.
How did Clinton fare against Obama? At the start of the primary season, Hillary Clinton appeared to be the clear front-runner, due to her Washington connections, the popularity of Bill Clinton among Democrats, and her ability to generate campaign contributions. The pool of Democratic candidates for the nomination also included John Edwards, Bill Richardson, Dennis Kucinich, Mike Gravel, Joe Biden, Chris Dodd, and Barack Obama.
How did Clinton fare against Obama? Of these candidates, the first-term senator Obama was the surprise, and throughout the course of the primary debates, he distinguished himself through his consistently articulate command of the issues. Obama’s presence in the race electrified liberal Democrats, excited young voters, intrigued the media, and ignited the enthusiasm of black Democrats. By late spring, it was clear that Obama would secure the nomination, with the party’s superdelegates shifting their support to Obama. Clinton withdrew her nomination and supported Obama in the race.
What were the strategies used by Obama and McCain in the general election? Obama garnered support from all sides of the Democratic party, and chose Joe Biden as his running mate. Biden’s presence on the ticket was expected to appeal to blue-collar voters, whom the Democrats needed in such battleground states as Ohio and Pennsylvania.
What were the strategies used by Obama and McCain in the general election? McCain chose little-known Alaskan governor Sarah Palin as his running mate. Palin’s presence on the ticket excited many Republicans who had been cool toward McCain, since she was a religious conservative who opposed abortion. Palin’s speech at the Republican National Convention attracted more than 50 million viewers and catapulted her into the national spotlight, yet subsequent television interviews prompted doubts about her knowledge of political issues and her readiness for a national campaign.
What were the strategies used by Obama and McCain in the general election? The Obama campaign declined general election public funding, and opted for grassroots fundraising efforts which produced over 700 million dollars for the campaign McCain, who had struggled to gain donations from traditional GOP donors, accepted public funding and was left at a financial disadvantage in the campaign.
How did the presidential debates create an advantage for Obama? Both Obama and McCain demonstrated knowledge of key issues and intelligence surrounding the challenges facing America in the future. However, Obama had more to prove to his audience, since McCain’s experience in Washington was considered an asset. Obama’s manner during the debates—cool, calm, and reassuring—contrasted with McCain’s, which was often twitchy. Obama’s approval ratings rose after the presidential debates, while McCain’s ratings faltered.
How did Obama secure his victory in the 2008 election? The faltering economy, the public’s growing disfavor for the incumbent Republican president, and the Democrats’ enormous financial advantage all contributed to Obama’s victory in November 2008. Obama increased Democrats’ margins amongst various voting blocks as compared to John Kerry four years earlier. Obama polled 43 percent of the white vote, two points more than the percentage polled by Kerry. Obama also ran well among Latinos (66 percent), young people (66 percent), and among black voters, where he took 95 percent of the vote.
How did Obama secure his victory in the 2008 election? Two Democratic constituencies, women and Jews, who had favored Hillary Clinton in the primaries gave their support to Obama in the general election. Obama won 56 percent of the vote among women and 78 percent among Jews. Despite fears of a “Bradley effect”, both white and minority voters opted for an African-American president, which is reflective of a softening of racial antagonisms over the past fifty years and the delegitimization of overtly racist rhetoric in the public forum.
Figure 10.6: Distribution of Electoral Votes in the 2008 Election
Money and Politics Modern national political campaigns are fueled by enormous amounts of money. Campaign funds come from a variety of sources, including individual donors, political action committees, the candidates, nonprofit independent 527 and 501c(4) groups, the parties, and public funding. The 2002 Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act was an attempt to limit soft money and may strengthen the power of PACs and 527 and 501c(4) groups. The federal government attempts to regulate campaign finances through the Federal Election Commission (FEC).
Box 10.1: Federal Campaign Finance Reform (top)
Box 10.1: Federal Campaign Finance Reform (bottom)
How does money affect the ways certain social groups achieve electoral success? Wealthy groups clearly have more influence in the electoral process. However, many doubt the wisdom of limiting freedom to attain the goal of equality.
Thinking Critically about the Electoral Process Campaign finance produces a clash of values Americans are wary of the high cost of campaigns and the apparently sinister role of campaign contributions in politics, but limiting the flow of money to candidates and reforming spending practices may also discourage lively and vigorous political debate.
Clicker Questions Except in rare occasions, boundaries for congressional and state legislative districts in the United States are redrawn by the states every _______ years. a)two b)ten c)twenty d)twenty-five
Clicker Questions The right of candidates to spend their own money on running for office: a)is limited by a cap of $50 million b)is protected by the First Amendment right of free speech c)was forbidden by the Campaign Reform Act of 2002 d)is allowed only if the candidate could meet every personal dollar with a dollar of outside donations
Clicker Questions Which are organizations established by corporations, labor unions, or interest groups to channel the contributions of their members into political campaigns? a)special interest groups b)political action committees c)congressional campaign committees d)so-called soft money cartels
Clicker Questions Which of the following widely used systems had the effect of diminishing the power of American party leaders? a)proportional representation b)machine system c)primary system d)patronage system
Clicker Questions In most states, how do independent and third-party candidates qualify for the general election ballot? a)by paying a small filing fee with a state’s secretary of state b)by winning a primary election in which all independent and third-party candidates are on the ballot c)by obtaining thousands of petition signatures d)by qualifying automatically
Public Opinion Poll Which electoral system do you believe is best? a)A plurality system b)A proportional representation system
Public Opinion Poll Do you believe it is appropriate to use race and ethnicity as criteria for drawing legislative district boundaries? a)Yes b)No
Public Opinion Poll Do you believe the Democratic and Republican Parties should adopt a national primary to select their party’s presidential nominees? a)Yes b)No
Public Opinion Poll Do you think presidential candidate appearances on talk shows contribute to a more informed electorate? a)Yes b)No
Public Opinion Poll Do you believe the Internet has made electoral campaigns more democratic, less democratic, or has had no effect? a)More democratic b)Less democratic c)No effect
Public Opinion Poll Do you believe American political campaigns help voters make decisions or do they produce more confusion than enlightenment? a)Help voters make decisions b)Produce more confusion
Public Opinion Poll Do you support or oppose laws requiring voters to produce photo identification at the polls? a)Strongly oppose b)Oppose c)Support d)Strongly support
Public Opinion Poll Do you believe there should be limits on the amount of money candidates can spend on campaigns? a)Yes b)No
Public Opinion Poll Do you believe there should be limits on the amount of money individuals can contribute to campaigns? a)Yes b)No