What is the process by which Americans elect their president? How do parties, the media, primary elections, interest groups, money, etc. influence campaigning and elections in the U.S.? You should be able to trace the election process from primary battles for the nomination through the Electoral College.
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Pohnpei397’s answer to the question is right on the mark. He has succinctly and accurately described the process by which the American public elects its presidents. Article II of the U.S. Constitution spells out in detail the process by which the president of the United States is to be elected. Following protracted and occasionally contentious debates at the Constitutional Convention regarding the question of electing a president. As we all know, the United States is not a pure democracy in the sense of every eligible citizen voting on every piece of legislation and on every policy the agencies of the federal government are expected to follow. The Framers of the Constitution believed that representative democracy, a republic, was essential to the survival of a true democracy, as paradoxical as that may seem. A pure democracy would leave the population vulnerable to itself. A pure democracy would, as James Madison believed, leave the country vulnerable to a tyranny of the majority. As Madison wrote in Federalist Paper #48
“An elective despotism was not the government we fought for; but one which should not only be founded on free principles, but in which the powers of government should be so divided and balanced among several bodies of magistracy, as that no one could transcend their legal limits, without being effectually checked and restrained by the others.”
Article I of the Constitution, of course, established the Legislature, or Congress. Congress, particularly the House of Representatives, was intended to be the public’s closest form of representation. The Framer’s contemplated having the Congress elect a president, but rejected that option out of concern for the very balance of power that lies at the heart of the final document. If Congress were to elect the president, there would, again, be concerns about the process and outcome with regard to a fair and reasonable representation of the electorate. The final draft of the Constitution, therefore, established what is known as the Electoral College, established in Article II, Section 1:
“Each State shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a Number of Electors, equal to the whole Number of Senators and Representatives to which the State may be entitled in the Congress: but no Senator or Representative, or Person holding an Office of Trust or Profit under the United States, shall be appointed an Elector.”
So, we now know that the President is technically elected by the Electoral College, and questions have arisen regarding the possibility of the College ignoring the representative system in deference to the popular vote in the rare event that the electoral vote does not reflect the popular vote, as occurred in Bush v. Gore (as Pohnpei397 pointed out).
Once upon a time, political campaigns were confined to a relatively brief period of time ahead of the actual election. Those days are long over. Today, politicians begin campaigning years ahead of the election. Presidential candidates cannot call themselves “candidates” right away, as campaign finance laws restrict certain fund-raising practices pending certain administrative procedures, but the campaigning begins the second the last election ends. The process by which candidates are selected is party-driven, and differs from state to state. Most states hold primaries, which are elections utilizing secret ballots within the political parties to determine which candidate that state’s party members endorse for the presidency. States that hold primaries may have closed primaries in which only registered members of that party can vote for the candidate of their choice (in other words, only Republicans can vote in the Republican primary; only Democrats can vote in the Democratic primary). Other states, and there are a surprising number of them, hold open primaries in which any registered voter can vote in either party’s primary, which allows for manipulation of the process when one party encourages its members to vote for a specific candidate in the other party’s primary with the hopes of getting the weakest such candidate chosen. In any event, the winner of each state’s primary “wins” that state for purposes of electing a nominee to represent that party in the major election. The months between the national conventions, which usually occur in late-summer, and the elections in early November are periods of intense activity for the candidates the parties. The outcome of the national election essentially produces a new president-elect (so-called because he or she has not yet been sworn into office), but, technically, the process isn’t over until the Electoral College meets the following month to officially cast their its votes.
Other states, and there are 10 of them, hold caucuses, which are smaller events in terms of scale, and involve only party members who gather to elect a preferred nominee. The Iowa Caucus is traditionally the first caucus or primary in the nation, which lends it a symbolic importance very much out of proportion to that state’s number of voters. Because of the media and candidate attention Iowa receives for being the first, other states have contemplated moving the dates of their primaries and caucuses ahead of Iowa to boost the importance of their own process.
Once all of the primaries and caucuses have been held, each party holds its national conventional, at which time the party’s nominee is officially selected. During the conventions, each state’s local representatives announce their state party’s choice of a candidate. The convention ends with the formal announcement of the nominee and his or her acceptance speech.
Throughout this long, drawn-out process, the news media is a constant presence, reporting on the outcomes of each caucus and primary as they occur, which provides a sense of momentum for the candidates who are doing well and casts a pallor over the candidacies of those whose support is clearly flagging or nonexistent. Whether the media influences the outcome of elections is a subject of considerable debate. This educator’s opinion, however, is that the media most definitely influences elections by the manner in which it chooses to cover, or not cover, individual candidates and in the way it reports political trends and developments. The fact remains that most journalists and most editors are politically liberal. These journalists and editors argue that their personal politics do not intrude on their reporting. Having spent decades working for politicians, and interacting with the media, I will argue that their personal ideological “filters” do not work as well as these journalists may think. During the campaigns of Senators John McCain and Barack Obama, I was contacted twice by reporters with the New York Times who were actively seeking negative information on McCain, one of my former employers. One of those reporters did not attempt to conceal his political bias, boasting that his paper “got” McCain in a story that turned out to be completely without substance. Reporters and editors do go after politicians they do not like, and will write or broadcast stories that subtly or not-so-subtly reflect those biases.
One way in which politicians and parties from both ends of the political spectrum agree the media affects the outcome of elections is the television coverage of election day. News organizations pride themselves on being the first to report “breaking” news, including the outcome of voting in individual states. During elections, they poll voters leaving polling stations and then report their findings, which obviously occurs well-before the election is officially over. Because of time differences across the nation, voters on the West Coast often feel marginalized by reporting of the potential outcomes on the East Coast and in the Midwest. In other words, why go to the polls in California or Oregon or Washington if news reports indicate that the election has already been decided on the basis of television network predictions based upon those “exist polls.”
With regard to money, there is no question that candidates who are more successful at raising large amounts money than others are more likely to be elected. Money buys organization and television, radio and newspaper advertisements. The more money a campaign raises, the more exposure it can purchase and the more professional campaign staffers it can hire. As importantly, the more money a candidate raises, the more he or she intimidates the other candidates who aren’t so fortunate. Parties think in terms of candidates with track records of prolific fund raising, as money is simply a major part of the political process. Furthermore, attempts by some organizations and politicians to place strict controls on political fundraising have repeatedly been rejected by the U.S Supreme Court, leaving powerful donors free to continue to manipulate the political process. [See on the Supreme Court issue the cases of Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission and McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission] Even before the Supreme Court decisions rejecting campaign finance laws, however, special interest groups were successfully circumventing what regulations did exist through loopholes like the use of so-called “527” organizations, “527” being the section of the U.S. Internal Revenue Code being exploited for this purpose. Political Action Committees (PACs) exist in various forms according to the legal restrictions on each type’s ability to contribute financially to political causes, including campaigns.
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The official part of the presidential election system is not terribly complicated. Each party (we will only consider the two major parties since relevant third parties are exceedingly rare) holds a series of primary elections. Any number of candidates can enter these races. The primary process selects one candidate from each of the major parties. Those candidates then compete in the general election which is held on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November. The popular vote that is cast on that day does not technically decide who will be president. Instead, each state has a number of electoral votes equal to the number of people it has in Congress. States typically give all of their electoral votes to whoever wins the popular vote in their state. This means that it is possible for a person to win the popular vote and lose the electoral vote. This happened in 2000 when Al Gore got more votes than George Bush but lost the election.
There are many things that affect the way campaigns are run. The most important of these is the need for money. Political parties do not have a great deal of influence on the elections. They have some power over the primaries since they can set up how the primaries are conducted. However, they cannot do much to force candidates to take certain political positions. The greater influence belongs to the interest groups. They have power because they are the major source of money in today’s system. With recent court rulings, interest groups (and rich individuals) can spend large amounts of money promoting or opposing a particular candidate. This has made it so that candidates have to be sure to get the approval of various interest groups that have a great deal of money. The media is important in the process, but it is not as important as interest groups. The media can change public perceptions of the candidates and the issues to some degree, but they cannot really determine how people think.
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