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Campaigns and Elections in the United States

Presidential Elections in the United States

Nominating Presidential Candidates

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.

In modern politics, nominating campaigns for the presidency are long, complex affairs when a party does not have a sitting president seeking reelection. These campaigns begin with an informal, behind-the-scenes activity. Called the money primary, or invisible primary, this is the early process of narrowing down the probable candidates based on who can raise the most funds for the campaign. Early in the presidential campaign, there may be many candidates for a party's nomination. Because presidential campaigns are extremely expensive operations, one measure of assessing a candidate's chance of election is their fundraising ability. This stage does not determine who will win the nomination; a candidate able to raise large sums of money does not necessarily capture the enthusiasm and votes of party members. Still, candidates who struggle to raise enough money are unlikely to be successful.

In the year before the presidential election, candidates also begin courting voters by making appearances across the country. Iowa and New Hampshire typically have been the first two states to cast votes in the presidential nominating process, with contests generally in early February of a presidential election year. Because Iowa's caucus is the first test of candidate strength, candidates—particularly those who might be less well-known—often begin visiting the state years before the first ballots are cast. In the months leading up to the Iowa caucus, the candidates crisscross the state in hopes of gaining momentum. New Hampshire's first-in-the-nation primary generally falls eight days after the Iowa caucuses, and that state also receives a great deal of attention from candidates. Some states have bristled against the outsize influence of Iowa and New Hampshire—particularly because of their lack of demographic diversity—and have sometimes tried to move their primaries earlier in the process. As a result, the parties allowed more diverse states such as Nevada and South Carolina to hold their contests shortly after New Hampshire, and the parties also started putting rules on the primary calendar to stop other states from moving their contests up too early. Beginning in the 1980s, as many as two dozen states hold their presidential primaries on the same date early in March, a day known as "Super Tuesday." Candidates who do poorly on Super Tuesday are unlikely to win their party's presidential nomination, and many candidates performing poorly that day drop out.

The presidential primary and caucus season lasts from early February to some time in June. The months of campaigning are marked by rallies with supporters, town hall meetings with voters, prime-time televised debates among groups of candidates, and a plethora of television campaign ads, particularly in key states. Primaries and caucuses held later in the campaign may have little or no influence on the outcome of the nomination if one candidate has clearly won the backing of enough delegates to win the nomination. Incumbent presidents running for reelection often run unopposed for their party's nomination, making primaries pro forma exercises. Sometimes, though, rivals challenge a sitting president. Senator Eugene McCarthy's strong showing in the New Hampshire primary in 1968 convinced President Lyndon Johnson to withdraw from the race. Senator Edward Kennedy's campaign in 1980 posed a significant challenge to President Jimmy Carter's reelection effort.

The rules for allocating delegates based on primary results vary from state to state. In the "winner-take-all" system typically used by the Republican Party, the candidate who wins the largest number of votes in the primary gets all the delegates at the national nominating convention. In the proportional system, which the Democratic Party requires, candidates get delegates based on their share of the primary vote. Parties also send a few superdelegates to the national convention. In the Republican Party, the superdelegates include the top three members of the state party committee, but they are committed to voting for the candidate who has the backing of the state party delegation. In the Democratic Party, these individuals include political office holders and influential party members, and they are not pledged to support a particular candidate. In 2018, bowing to criticism that these superdelegates might undemocratically skew the results of the primaries and caucuses, the Democrats changed their rules so that these superdelegates would only vote if no candidate won a majority on the first ballot at the national convention.

Presidential Campaign Issues

Historically, economic and national security issues have dominated presidential campaigns.

The specific issues in presidential campaigns can vary depending on current events, but the economy and national security are top issues that candidates must address. Candidates try to convince voters that their leadership will better promote economic growth, including tax policy and trade, and keep Americans safe from terrorism and other threats.

Particularly since the 1990s, health care policy and immigration have been central issues in presidential campaigns. On health care, candidates have put forth their ideas about how health care should be provided and kept affordable. On immigration, there have been intense debates over how to deal with undocumented immigrants, border security, and how to reform the entire U.S. immigration system.

Candidates' positions on certain hot-button issues (e.g., voting rights, gun control, abortion, and LGBTQ rights) often differ sharply. Because these issues involve questions that touch on fundamental rights, they can lead to lawsuits that reach the U.S. Supreme Court. Since presidents have the power to nominate new Supreme Court justices and generally select nominees who reflect their views, candidates' positions on these issues are important to many voters.

Nominating Conventions

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.

The first presidential nominating convention was held by the Democratic Party in 1836 and produced Martin Van Buren—handpicked by the popular outgoing president, Andrew Jackson—as the nominee. During the 19th century and into the 20th century, conventions could be raucous affairs, with party bosses meeting behind the scenes to throw their support behind a candidate they favored. Speeches at the convention and demonstrations by delegates on the floor provided lively contests between the supporters of rival candidates. Because the outcome could be uncertain, delegates sometimes needed multiple ballots before coming to agreement. The 1924 Democratic National Convention went through 103 ballots before selecting a nominee, but the last convention to need even a second ballot to choose a nominee was the Republican meeting in 1952. The adoption of the primary system generally means the nominee is known before the convention begins.

As a result of this certainty, the nature of the convention has changed, and the event—which takes place over several days—is carefully planned to demonstrate party unity and the candidate's central campaign message. The candidate's campaign staff works closely with party leaders to plan virtually every moment of the convention to put the candidate in the most favorable light, particularly because major television news organizations show the evening proceedings live. Major speeches by important party leaders, the actual nomination ballot, and the acceptance speeches of the vice presidential and presidential candidates are all scheduled for the prime-time television hours to capture the widest possible viewing audience.

One of the first events in the convention is adoption of the party platform, a formal set of goals endorsed by a political party. The official party position on a host of issues, the platform generally reflects the eventual nominee's positions. As with other aspects of conventions, platform fights are things of the past, and platform debates generally take place during the day, away from the glare of the television spotlight.

The most important events are the acceptance speeches of the two candidates, with the vice presidential nominee generally coming first. In the earlier days of contested conventions, vice presidential nominees were often selected by party bosses with an eye to balancing the ticket geographically or attempting to unite different factions of the party. The presidential nominee did not always have a voice in the selection, and the choice often came on the last day of the convention. The process has changed completely. While the same political concerns of regional balance and party unity might spur the choice, the presidential candidate makes the selection and usually announces it in advance of the convention. Thus the vice presidential nominee comes to that meeting as a known quantity, and the acceptance speech is full of fulsome praise for the leader of the ticket, as well as attacks on the other party and its nominee. Closing out the convention, the presidential nominee delivers an acceptance speech that sets the themes and tone of the campaign to come.

General Election Campaign

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.

The presidential general election campaign generally gets underway after the party nominating conventions are over and ends on election eve. Candidates use similar methods of reaching voters to those they employed in the campaign to win the nomination—speeches, debates, meetings with voters, press conferences, and interviews. They also publish and post statements of their positions on various issues on their campaign website and various social media.

Even though technology has advanced, candidates still engage in traditional campaign tactics. They tour the country giving speeches and interviews with the press to put forth their positions on issues and criticize those of the opposing candidate. Advertisements, mailings, and press conferences are other ways campaigns convey their message. Advertisements on television and radio have long been common, but the advent of the Internet and social media has created new ways for campaigns to specifically target certain segments of the electorate.

During the general election campaign, candidates typically participate in a series of debates, generally with one debate devoted to the vice presidential candidates. These televised events provide candidates the opportunity to argue their position and address or refute the positions of their opponents before an audience. Debates may focus on one set of issues such as foreign policy or domestic policy; journalists ask the questions, though debates sometimes include questions asked by ordinary citizens.

The winner of the campaign is determined by the electoral college, the system by which the president and vice president of the United States are selected by electors from each state and the District of Columbia. Each state has the same number of electoral votes as it has representatives and senators in Congress; the District of Columbia has three. (Until ratification of the 23rd Amendment in 1961, the District of Columbia had no electoral votes.) Electors are selected by state party organizations before the popular vote is held. If their candidate wins the most popular votes in the state, that party's electors get to vote in the electoral college. Electors are generally not bound to vote for a particular candidate, and some elections have at least one faithless elector, a presidential elector who does not vote for the candidate that the elector is pledged to support. Faithless electors have never changed the winner of the electoral college vote.

States with small populations, such as Montana, Wyoming, and Alaska, have only one at-large member of the House, giving them three electors. More populous states, such as California, Texas, Florida, and New York, have more electoral votes. In the vast majority of states, the candidate who wins the popular vote wins all of that state's electoral votes. Maine and Nebraska give two votes—those corresponding to the state's two senators—to the statewide winner but allocate the other electoral votes to the popular vote winner in each congressional district.

Although it may seem logical that states with large numbers of electoral votes get more attention from presidential candidates, in practice this often does not happen. In some states, voters strongly favor one political party, making a victory for that party's candidate highly likely. Candidates from both parties may well ignore those states, even if they deliver many electoral votes. Instead, they focus on swing states. A swing state is a state in which no political party dominates, where elections are competitive and either major presidential party candidate has a chance to win. These dozen or so states, also called battleground states, may be larger states rich in electoral votes and thus can be key to forging an electoral majority of 270 electoral votes.

Party Strength in Presidential Elections, 2000-2016

Presidential candidates from both parties generally focus on swing states such as Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Nevada, Ohio, and Virginia.
The electoral college system makes it possible for a candidate to win the national popular vote but lose the vote in the electoral college, as occurred in 1824, 1876, 1888, 2000, and 2016. Candidates who win large popular majorities in very populous states inflate their popular vote total, but the greater margin of victory does not yield them any additional electoral votes. At the same time, winning a state rich in electoral votes by a narrow margin can give the less popular candidate all of that state's many electoral votes. Because electoral votes are generally allocated on a winner-take-all basis, it is even possible to win the presidency with only a plurality of the votes in a race with more than two candidates. This outcome has happened many times, most recently in 1996. The winner-take-all method of awarding electoral votes also means that electoral vote margins are often exaggerated. In 1980 Ronald Reagan captured 50.5 percent of the popular vote but won 90.9 percent of the electoral votes.

Range of Presidential Election Outcomes

Popular Vote Electoral Votes
Popular and Electoral Majority: Election of 1980
Ronald Reagan (winner) 43,643,00 (50.5%) 489 (90.9%)
Jimmy Carter 35,481,000 (41%) 49 (9.1%)
Popular Minority, Electoral Majority: Election of 2016
Donald J. Trump (winner) 62,985,000 (46.1%) 304 (56.5%)
Hillary Clinton 65,854,000 (48.2%) 227 (42.2%)
Popular Plurality, Electoral Majority with Third Party: Election of 1992
Bill Clinton (winner) 44,858,000 (42.9%) 370 (68.8%)
George Bush 38,799,000 (37.1%) 168 (31.2%)
H. Ross Perot 19,741,000 (18.9%) 0

Source: National Archives, U.S. Census Bureau, and Federal Election Commission

In mid-December following the election, the presidential electors meet in their states and cast their votes for president and vice president. Those votes are then sent to the U.S. Senate to be counted in the January following the election. If no candidate receives a majority of the electoral vote, then, according to the 12th Amendment, the U.S. House of Representatives chooses among the top three candidates, and the Senate chooses the vice president from among the top two candidates for that office. The House chose the president in the elections of 1800 and 1824.

Should the Electoral College Be Abolished?

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.

Some analysts criticize the electoral college as outdated and undemocratic. Proposals have been made both to reform and abolish the electoral college. One proposed reform would apportion a state's electoral vote according to the proportion of popular votes each candidate won in the state. This would eliminate the imbalance caused by the winner-take-all system of awarding electoral votes employed in most states, but it would not guarantee the popular vote winner would win the presidency. Another suggestion is to assign electors to the candidate that won specific congressional districts. Implementing either approach in all states would dramatically change presidential elections and cause candidates to focus their campaigns in different ways. States with many electoral votes, however, are unlikely to individually adopt such a change if other states do not also adopt it.

The possibility that a number of faithless electors could actually determine the outcome of the election, going against the popular will in one or more states, is another argument used against the electoral college. Though such an event has never occurred, it is offered as a possible negative outcome of reliance on the electoral college system.

Some people urge abolishing the electoral college outright and letting the winner of the popular vote be declared the winner. This would require a constitutional amendment, which is a difficult process. People in states with smaller populations—and fewer electoral votes—generally oppose this change, arguing that such a system would give undue influence to the states with larger populations. In addition, an extremely close and contested popular vote could result in a lengthy and acrimonious process of carrying out recounts in multiple states or even all the states.

The National Popular Vote Interstate Compact has been suggested as a way of making the electoral college irrelevant without amending the Constitution. Under this plan, states pledge, by state law, to award all of their electoral college votes to the candidate who won the popular vote nationwide. This would ensure that there could not be an election in which the winner of the popular vote lost in the electoral college. While at least 11 states have passed laws to abide by this agreement, the number of electoral votes they command does not total a majority. Should enough states enter into the compact and should that result in an election that overturns what would have been a traditional winner-take-all allocation of electoral votes, the outcome would most likely be contested in court.