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Campaigns and Elections in the United States



Over the course of U.S. history, the methods for choosing candidates for office have changed dramatically. In the 19th century, party leaders typically handpicked the candidates for most offices, using the system to reward party loyalists—and sometimes choosing individuals that the party bosses could control. Even presidential candidates, while selected at nominating conventions, were sometimes chosen by groups of party leaders working together to agree on a nominee, with the delegates they controlled following the leaders' directives when they voted. In today's system voters determine who the political candidates for a party will be, including the presidential candidates. The process of nominating candidates is often long and complex. Once nominated, candidates travel the country, state, or electoral district and use various forms of media to attract voter support. While the popular vote is used to fill most local, state, and federal elective offices, presidents and vice presidents are chosen by a group of electors called the electoral college. As a result, the candidate who wins the national popular vote does not always become president. Because many states consistently vote Republican or Democratic, presidential candidates tend to focus their attention on so-called swing states—states that may vote for candidates of either party. Some people argue that the electoral college system is undemocratic and that presidents should be elected based on the popular vote. Others argue this shift would reduce the influence of states with smaller populations, whose voice the framers of the Constitution aimed to protect with the electoral college system. Congressional elections are typically less competitive than presidential elections partly because of partisan control of redistricting and the power of incumbency, and fewer Americans turn out to vote in midterm elections, perhaps as a result.

As campaigns have grown longer and party loyalty has become less pronounced, fundraising has become increasingly important to electoral victory. Congress passed campaign finance laws to control the influence of money in federal campaigns, but the Supreme Court has ruled that such regulation cannot deprive organizations or individuals of their right to free speech. Voter turnout in elections is lower than in the past. Voting choices depend on a collection of factors that include the partisan identification and policy positions of voters; the political experience, policy positions, and image of a candidate; and current economic conditions.

At A Glance

  • The methods used to nominate candidates for federal office are more democratic than they once were; today, primaries that eligible voters can participate in have largely replaced the historical practice of caucuses or nominating conventions, meetings of party members that were controlled by party leaders.
  • In modern politics, most states use one of several types of primary election to select candidates, but voter turnout in primary elections is low and generally consists of the most committed members of a party.
  • The number of candidates competing for the presidential nomination is narrowed according to the campaign funds they can raise and their performance in primaries and caucuses. Then one candidate is officially nominated at the party's national convention.
  • Historically, economic and national security issues have dominated presidential campaigns.
  • Presidential nominating conventions have moved from being sometimes chaotic events at which party leaders effectively choose the nominee to being carefully staged celebrations of party unity and the campaign message of the presidential nominee and vice presidential running mate.
  • For presidential candidates, the general election campaign focuses on winning electoral votes, not the national popular vote, and campaign events and advertising are aimed particularly at winning the popular vote in key swing states to secure those states' electoral votes. Candidates can win an electoral college victory despite not winning the popular vote or by winning the popular vote with less than a majority.
  • Because the winner of the electoral college vote may not be the winner of the popular vote, critics of the electoral college have suggested changing the way presidents are elected, but defenders of the system say the system preserves an electoral voice for smaller states.
  • Congressional elections are often not competitive, and 80 percent or more of incumbent members of Congress are reelected. When there is an open seat, both parties tend to spend more time and resources trying to win it.
  • A constitutional requirement to periodically draw new district lines often results in gerrymandering—drawing district lines to favor a particular party—which contributes to the lack of competitiveness in campaigns to win seats in the House of Representatives.
  • Midterm elections occur between presidential election years. Thus the outcome of midterm elections is influenced by voters' perceptions of the current president, and the party in the White House generally loses seats in Congress in the midterms.
  • The Federal Election Commission oversees federal election campaigns and the money raised by those campaigns. Citing the 1st Amendment, the U.S. Supreme Court has overturned some restrictions on donations and spending that had been intended to control the influence of money in campaigns.
  • All American citizens 18 years and older can vote, but in most states they must register to do so. Registration laws vary by state, though most states allow it to be done online, and eligible voters can register when they obtain or renew a driver's license. Voters need proof of identity in order to register. American registration laws result in a quarter to a third of eligible voters not being registered to vote.
  • Voter turnout in the United States is low compared to that in other advanced democracies and has fallen over time, though turnout remains higher for presidential elections than midterm elections. Age, gender, race or ethnicity, and education are all factors that affect the likelihood that a person will vote.
  • Factors that influence voters' electoral choices include the voter's party identification, the voter's view of a candidate's political experience and image, current economic conditions, and specific social and foreign policy issues. Voters may vote retrospectively, based on past performance, or prospectively, based on future expectations.
  • Supporters of voter identification laws, which require voters to show a photo ID card when voting, claim they are necessary to prevent voting fraud. Opponents of these laws claim that they are unnecessary because of the extremely rare incidence of voter fraud and harmful because they unfairly impact the poor and members of minority groups.