18 Elections

Learning Objectives

By the end of this section, you will be able to:

  • Describe the stages in the election process
  • Compare the primary and caucus systems
  • Summarize how primary election returns lead to the nomination of the party candidates

Elections offer American voters the opportunity to participate in their government with little investment of time or personal effort. Yet voters should make decisions carefully. The electoral system allows them the chance to pick party nominees as well as office-holders, although not every citizen will participate in every step. The presidential election is often criticized as a choice between two evils, yet citizens can play a prominent part in every stage of the race and influence who the final candidates actually are.

Deciding to Run

Running for office can be as easy as collecting one hundred signatures on a city election form or paying a registration fee of several thousand dollars to run for governor of a state. However, a potential candidate still needs to meet state-specific requirements covering length of residency, voting status, and age. Potential candidates must also consider competitors, family obligations, and the likelihood of drawing financial backing. His or her spouse, children, work history, health, financial history, and business dealings also become part of the media’s focus, along with many other personal details about the past. Candidates for office are slightly more diverse than the representatives serving in legislative and executive bodies, but the realities of elections drive many eligible and desirable candidates away from running.[1]

Despite these problems, most elections will have at least one candidate per party on the ballot. In states or districts where one party holds a supermajority, such as Georgia, candidates from the other party may be discouraged from running because they don’t think they have a chance to win.[2]

Candidates are likely to be moving up from prior elected office or are professionals, like lawyers, who can take time away from work to campaign and serve in office.[3]

When candidates run for office, they are most likely to choose local or state office first. For women, studies have shown that family obligations rather than desire or ambition account for this choice. Further, women are more likely than men to wait until their children are older before entering politics, and women say that they struggle to balance campaigning and their workload with parenthood.[4]

Because higher office is often attained only after service in lower office, there are repercussions to women waiting so long. If they do decide to run for the U.S. House of Representatives or Senate, they are often older, and fewer in number, than their male colleagues. Only 24.4 percent of state legislators and 20 percent of U.S. Congress members are women.[5]

The number of women in executive office is often lower as well. It is thus no surprise that 80 percent of members of Congress are male, 90 percent have at least a bachelor’s degree, and their average age is sixty.[6]

A series of bar graphs titled Seekers of Elected Office by Demographic
Those who seek elected office do not generally reflect the demographics of the general public: They are often disproportionately male, white, and more educated than the overall U.S. population.

Another factor for potential candidates is whether the seat they are considering is competitive or open. A competitive seat describes a race where a challenger runs against the incumbent—the current office holder. An open seat is one whose incumbent is not running for reelection. Incumbents who run for reelection are very likely to win for a number of reasons, which are discussed later in this chapter. In fact, in the U.S. Congress, 95 percent of representatives and 82 percent of senators were reelected in 2014.[7] But when an incumbent retires, the seat is open and more candidates will run for that seat.

Many potential candidates will also decline to run if their opponent has a lot of money in a campaign war chest. War chests are campaign accounts registered with the Federal Election Commission, and candidates are allowed to keep earlier donations if they intend to run for office again. Incumbents and candidates trying to move from one office to another very often have money in their war chests. Those with early money are hard to beat because they have an easier time showing they are a viable candidate (one likely to win). They can woo potential donors, which brings in more donations and strengthens the campaign. A challenger who does not have money, name recognition, or another way to appear viable will have fewer campaign donations and will be less competitive against the incumbent.

Campaign Finance Laws

In the 2012 presidential election cycle, candidates for all parties raised a total of over $1.3 billion dollars for campaigns.[8] Congressional candidates running in the 2014 Senate elections raised $634 million, while candidates running for the House of Representatives raised $1.03 billion.[9]

This, however, pales in comparison to the amounts raised by political action committees (PACs), which are organizations created to raise and spend money to influence politics and contribute to candidates’ campaigns. In the 2014 congressional elections, PACs raised over $1.7 billion to help candidates and political parties.[10] How does the government monitor the vast amounts of money that are now a part of the election process?

The history of campaign finance monitoring has its roots in a federal law written in 1867, which prohibited government employees from asking Naval Yard employees for donations.[11] In 1896, the Republican Party spent about $16 million overall, which includes William McKinley’s $6–7 million campaign expenses.[12]

This raised enough eyebrows that several key politicians, including Theodore Roosevelt, took note. After becoming president in 1901, Roosevelt pushed Congress to look for political corruption and influence in government and elections.[13]

Shortly after, the Tillman Act (1907) was passed by Congress, which prohibited corporations from contributing money to candidates running in federal elections. Other congressional acts followed, limiting how much money individuals could contribute to candidates, how candidates could spend contributions, and what information would be disclosed to the public.[14]

While these laws intended to create transparency in campaign funding, government did not have the power to stop the high levels of money entering elections, and little was done to enforce the laws. In 1971, Congress again tried to fix the situation by passing the Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA), which outlined how candidates would report all contributions and expenditures related to their campaigns. The FECA also created rules governing the way organizations and companies could contribute to federal campaigns, which allowed for the creation of political action committees.[15]

Finally, a 1974 amendment to the act created the Federal Election Commission (FEC), which operates independently of government and enforces the elections laws. While some portions of the FECA were ruled unconstitutional by the courts in Buckley v. Valeo (1976), such as limits on personal spending on campaigns by candidates not using federal money, the FEC began enforcing campaign finance laws in 1976.[16]

Even with the new laws and the FEC, money continued to flow into elections. By using loopholes in the laws, political parties and political action committees donated large sums of money to candidates, and new reforms were soon needed. Senators John McCain (R-AZ) and Russ Feingold (former D-WI) cosponsored the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 (BCRA), also referred to as the McCain–Feingold Act. McCain–Feingold restricts the amount of money given to political parties, which had become a way for companies and PACs to exert influence. It placed limits on total contributions to political parties, prohibited coordination between candidates and PAC campaigns, and required candidates to include personal endorsements on their political ads. It also limited advertisements run by unions and corporations thirty days before a primary election and sixty days before a general election.[17]

Soon after the passage of the McCain–Feingold Act, the FEC’s enforcement of the law spurred court cases challenging it. The first, McConnell v. Federal Election Commission (2003), resulted in the Supreme Court’s upholding the act’s restrictions on how candidates and parties could spend campaign contributions. But later court challenges led to the removal of limits on personal spending and ended the ban on ads run by interest groups in the days leading up to an election.[18]

In 2010, the Supreme Court’s ruling on Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission led to the removal of spending limits on corporations. Justices in the majority argued that the BCRA violated a corporation’s free speech rights.[19]

The court ruling also allowed corporations to place unlimited money into super PACs, or Independent Expenditure-Only Committees. These organizations cannot contribute directly to a candidate, nor can they strategize with a candidate’s campaign. They can, however, raise and spend as much money as they please to support or attack a candidate, including running advertisements and hosting events.[20]

In 2012, the super PAC “Restore Our Future” raised $153 million and spent $142 million supporting conservative candidates, including Mitt Romney. “Priorities USA Action” raised $79 million and spent $65 million supporting liberal candidates, including Barack Obama. The total expenditure by super PACs alone was $609 million in the 2012 election and $345 million in the 2014 congressional elections.[21]

Several limits on campaign contributions have been upheld by the courts and remain in place. Individuals may contribute up to $2,700 per candidate per election. This means a teacher living in Nebraska may contribute $2,700 to Bernie Sanders for his campaign to become to the Democratic presidential nominee, and if Sanders becomes the nominee, the teacher may contribute another $2,700 to his general election campaign. Individuals may also give $5,000 to political action committees and $33,400 to a national party committee. PACs that contribute to more than one candidate are permitted to contribute $5,000 per candidate per election, and up to $15,000 to a national party. PACs created to give money to only one candidate are limited to only $2,700 per candidate, however.[22]

The amounts are adjusted every two years, based on inflation. These limits are intended to create a more equal playing field for the candidates, so that candidates must raise their campaign funds from a broad pool of contributors.

Contribution Limits for 2015–2016 Federal Elections
Candidate Committee PAC1 (SSF and Nonconnected) State/District/Local Party Committee National Party Committee Additional National Party Committee Accounts2
Individual $2,700* per election $5,000 per year $10,000 per year (combined) $33,400* $100,200* per account, per year
Candidate Committee $2,000 per election $5,000 per year Unlimited Transfers Unlimited Transfers
PAC-Multicandidate $5,000 per election $5,000 per year $5,000 per year (combined) $15,000 per year $45,000 per account, per year
PAC-Nonmulticandidate $2,700 per election $5,000 per year $10,000 per year (combined) $33,400* $100,200* per account, per year
State/District/Local Party Committee $5,000 per election $5,000 per year Unlimited Transfers
National Party Committee $5,000 per election3 $5,000 per year

* Indexed for inflation in odd-numbered years.

1 “PAC” here refers to a committee that makes contributions to other federal political committees. Independent-expenditure-only political committees (sometimes called “super PACs”) may accept unlimited contributions, including from corporations and labor organizations.

2 The limits in this column apply to a national party committee’s accounts for: (i) the presidential nominating convention; (ii) election recounts and contests and other legal proceedings; and (iii) national party headquarters buildings. A party’s national committee, Senate campaign committee and House campaign committee are each considered separate national party committees with separate limits. Only a national party committee, not the parties’ national congressional campaign committees, may have an account for the presidential nominating convention.

3 Additionally, a national party committee and its Senatorial campaign committee may contribute up to $46,800 combined per campaign to each Senate candidate.

Source: Federal Election Commission. “Contribution Limits for 2015–2016 Federal Elections.” June 25, 2015.

Nomination Stage

Although the Constitution explains how candidates for national office are elected, it is silent on how those candidates are nominated. Political parties have taken on the role of promoting nominees for offices, such as the presidency and seats in the Senate and the House of Representatives. Because there are no national guidelines, there is much variation in the nomination process. States pass election laws and regulations, choose the selection method for party nominees, and schedule the election, but the process also greatly depends on the candidates and the political parties.

States, through their legislatures, often influence the nomination method by paying for an election to help parties identify the nominee the voters prefer. Many states fund elections because they can hold several nomination races at once. In 2012, many voters had to choose a presidential nominee, U.S. Senate nominee, House of Representatives nominee, and state-level legislature nominee for their parties.

The most common method of picking a party nominee for state, local, and presidential contests is the primary. Party members use a ballot to indicate which candidate they desire for the party nominee. Despite the ease of voting using a ballot, primary elections have a number of rules and variations that can still cause confusion for citizens. In a closed primary, only members of the political party selecting nominees may vote. A registered Green Party member, for example, is not allowed to vote in the Republican or Democratic primary. Parties prefer this method, because it ensures the nominee is picked by voters who legitimately support the party. An open primary allows all voters to vote. In this system, a Green Party member is allowed to pick either a Democratic or Republican ballot when voting.

For state-level office nominations, or the nomination of a U.S. Senator or House member, some states use the top-two primary method. A top-two primary, sometimes called a jungle primary, pits all candidates against each other, regardless of party affiliation. The two candidates with the most votes become the final candidates for the general election. Thus, two candidates from the same party could run against each other in the general election. In one California congressional district, for example, four Democrats and two Republicans all ran against one another in the June 2012 primary. The two Republicans received the most votes, so they ran against one another in the general election in November.[23] More often, however, the top-two system is used in state-level elections for non-partisan elections, in which none of the candidates are allowed to declare a political party.

In general, parties do not like nominating methods that allow non-party members to participate in the selection of party nominees. In 2000, the Supreme Court heard a case brought by the California Democratic Party, the California Republican Party, and the California Libertarian Party.[24] The parties argued that they had a right to determine who associated with the party and who participated in choosing the party nominee. The Supreme Court agreed, limiting the states’ choices for nomination methods to closed and open primaries.

Despite the common use of the primary system, at least five states (Alaska, Hawaii, Idaho, Colorado, and Iowa) regularly use caucuses for presidential, state, and local-level nominations. A caucus is a meeting of party members in which nominees are selected informally. Caucuses are less expensive than primaries because they rely on voting methods such as dropping marbles in a jar, placing names in a hat, standing under a sign bearing the candidate’s name, or taking a voice vote. Volunteers record the votes and no poll workers need to be trained or compensated. The party members at the caucus also help select delegates, who represent their choice at the party’s state- or national-level nominating convention.

The Iowa Democratic Caucus is well-known for its spirited nature. The party’s voters are asked to align themselves into preference groups, which often means standing in a room or part of a room that has been designated for the candidate of choice. The voters then get to argue and discuss the candidates, sometimes in a very animated and forceful manner. After a set time, party members are allowed to realign before the final count is taken. The caucus leader then determines how many members support each candidate, which determines how many delegates each candidate will receive.

The caucus has its proponents and opponents. Many argue that it is more interesting than the primary and brings out more sophisticated voters, who then benefit from the chance to debate the strengths and weaknesses of the candidates. The caucus system is also more transparent than ballots. The local party members get to see the election outcome and pick the delegates who will represent them at the national convention. There is less of a possibility for deception or dishonesty. Opponents point out that caucuses take two to three hours and are intimidating to less experienced voters. These factors, they argue, lead to lower voter turnout. And they have a point—voter turnout for a caucus is generally 20 percent lower than for a primary.[25]

Regardless of which nominating system the states and parties choose, states must also determine which day they wish to hold their nomination. When the nominations are for state-level office, such as governor, the state legislatures receive little to no input from the national political parties. In presidential election years, however, the national political parties pressure most states to hold their primaries or caucuses in March or later. Only Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina are given express permission by the national parties to hold presidential primaries or caucuses in January or February. Both political parties protect the three states’ status as the first states to host caucuses and primaries, due to tradition and the relative ease of campaigning in these smaller states.

Image A is of Bernie Sanders speaking to a group of seated people. Image B is of John Ellis
Presidential candidates often spend a significant amount of time campaigning in states with early caucuses or primaries. In September 2015, Senator Bernie Sanders (a), a candidate for the Democratic nomination, speaks at the Amherst Democrats BBQ in Amherst, New Hampshire. In July 2015, John Ellis “Jeb” Bush (b), former Republican governor of Florida, greets the public at the Fourth of July parade in Merrimack, New Hampshire. (credit a, b: modification of work by Marc Nozell)

Other states, especially large states like California, Florida, Michigan, and Wisconsin, often are frustrated that they must wait to hold their presidential primary elections later in the season. Their frustration is reasonable: candidates who do poorly in the first few primaries often drop out entirely, leaving fewer candidates to run in caucuses and primaries held in February and later. In 2008, California, New York, and several other states disregarded the national party’s guidelines and scheduled their primaries the first week of February. In response, Florida and Michigan moved their primaries to January and many other states moved forward to March. This was not the first time states participated in frontloading and scheduled the majority of the primaries and caucuses at the beginning of the primary season. It was, however, one of the worst occurrences. States have been frontloading since the 1976 presidential election, with the problem becoming more severe in the 1992 election and later.[26]

Political parties allot delegates to their national nominating conventions based on the number of registered party voters in each state. California, the state with the most Democrats, will send 548 delegates to the 2016 Democratic National Convention, while Wyoming, with far fewer Democrats, will send only 18 delegates. When the national political parties want to prevent states from frontloading, or doing anything else they deem detrimental, they can change the state’s delegate count, which in essence increases or reduces the state’s say in who becomes the presidential nominee. In 1996, the Republicans offered bonus delegates to states that held their primaries and caucuses later in the nominating season.[27]

In 2008, the national parties ruled that only Iowa, South Carolina, and New Hampshire could hold primaries or caucuses in January. Both parties also reduced the number of delegates from Michigan and Florida as punishment for those states’ holding early primaries.[28] Despite these efforts, candidates in 2008 had a very difficult time campaigning during the tight window caused by frontloading.

One of the criticisms of the modern nominating system is that parties today have less influence over who becomes their nominee. In the era of party “bosses,” candidates who hoped to run for president needed the blessing and support of party leadership and a strong connection with the party’s values. Now, anyone can run for a party’s nomination. The candidates with enough money to campaign the longest, gaining media attention, momentum, and voter support are more likely to become the nominee than candidates without these attributes, regardless of what the party leadership wants.

This new reality has dramatically increased the number of politically inexperienced candidates running for national office. In 2012, for example, eleven candidates ran multistate campaigns for the Republican nomination. Dozens more had their names on one or two state ballots. With a long list of challengers, candidates must find more ways to stand out, leading them to espouse extreme positions or display high levels of charisma. Add to this that primary and caucus voters are often more extreme in their political beliefs, and it is easy to see why fewer moderates become party nominees. The 2016 campaign by Donald Trump shows that grabbing the media’s attention with fiery partisan rhetoric can get a campaign started strong. This does not guarantee a candidate will make it through the primaries, however.

link to learningTake a look at Campaigns & Elections to see what hopeful candidates are reading.


Convention Season

Once it is clear who the parties’ nominees will be, presidential and gubernatorial campaigns enter a quiet period. Candidates run fewer ads and concentrate on raising funds for the fall. This is a crucial time because lack of money can harm their chances. The media spends much of the summer keeping track of the fundraising totals while the political parties plan their conventions. State parties host state-level conventions during gubernatorial elections, while national parties host national conventions during presidential election years.

Party conventions are typically held between June and September, with state-level conventions earlier in the summer and national conventions later. Conventions normally last four to five days, with days devoted to platform discussion and planning and nights reserved for speeches. Local media covers the speeches given at state-level conventions, showing speeches given by the party nominees for governor and lieutenant governor, and perhaps important guests or the state’s U.S. senators. The national media covers the Democratic and Republican conventions during presidential election years, mainly showing the speeches. Some cable networks broadcast delegate voting and voting on party platforms. Members of the candidate’s family and important party members will generally speak during the first few days of a national convention, with the vice presidential nominee speaking on the next-to-last night and the presidential candidate on the final night. The two chosen candidates will then hit the campaign trail for the general election. The party with the incumbent president will hold the later convention, so in 2016, the Democrats will hold their convention after the Republicans.

Image A is of Reince Priebus standing at a podium in front of a crowd of people. Behind Priebus is an elephant symbol, colored red and blue with three white stars along its back. Image B is of a hat with an American flag, red and blue stars, and a political pin attached to it.
Reince Priebus, chairman of the Republican National Committee, opens the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Florida, on August 28, 2012 (a). Pageantry and symbolism, such as the flag motifs and political buttons shown on this Wisconsin attendee’s hat (b), reign supreme during national conventions. (credit a, b: modification of work by Mallory Benedict/PBS NewsHour)

There are rarely surprises at the modern convention. Thanks to party rules, the nominee for each party is generally already clear. In 2008, John McCain had locked up the Republican nomination in March by having enough delegates, while in 2012, President Obama was an unchallenged incumbent and hence people knew he would be the nominee. The naming of the vice president is generally not a surprise either. Even if a presidential nominee tries to keep it a secret, the news often leaks out before the party convention or official announcement. In 2004, the media announced John Edwards was John Kerry’s running mate. The Kerry campaign had not made a formal announcement, but an amateur photographer had taken a picture of Edwards’ name being added to the candidate’s plane and posted it to an aviation message board.

Despite the lack of surprises, there are several reasons to host traditional conventions. First, the parties require that the delegates officially cast their ballots. Delegates from each state come to the national party convention to publicly state who their state’s voters selected as the nominee.

Second, delegates will bring state-level concerns and issues to the national convention for discussion, while local-level delegates bring concerns and issues to state-level conventions. This list of issues that concern local party members, like limiting abortions in a state or removing restrictions on gun ownership, are called planks, and they will be discussed and voted upon by the delegates and party leadership at the convention. Just as wood planks make a platform, issues important to the party and party delegates make up the party platform. The parties take the cohesive list of issues and concerns and frame the election around the platform. Candidates will try to keep to the platform when campaigning, and outside groups that support them, such as super PACs, may also try to keep to these issues.

Third, conventions are covered by most news networks and cable programs. This helps the party nominee get positive attention while surrounded by loyal delegates, family members, friends, and colleagues. For presidential candidates, this positivity often leads to a bump in popularity, so the candidate gets a small increase in favorability. If a candidate does not get the bump, however, the campaign manager has to evaluate whether the candidate is connecting well with the voters or is out of step with the party faithful. In 2004, John Kerry spent the Democratic convention talking about getting U.S. troops out of the war in Iraq and increasing spending at home. Yet after his patriotic and positive convention, Gallup recorded no convention bump and the voters did not appear more likely to vote for him.

General Elections and Election Day

The general election campaign period occurs between mid-August and early November. These elections are simpler than primaries and conventions, because there are only two major party candidates and a few minor party candidates. About 50 percent of voters will make their decisions based on party membership, so the candidates will focus on winning over independent voters and visiting states where the election is close.[29]

Debates are an important element of the general election season, allowing voters to see candidates answer questions on policy and prior decisions. While most voters think only of presidential debates, the general election season sees many debates. In a number of states, candidates for governor are expected to participate in televised debates, as are candidates running for the U.S. Senate. Debates not only give voters a chance to hear answers, but also to see how candidates hold up under stress. Because television and the Internet make it possible to stream footage to a wide audience, modern campaign managers understand the importance of a debate.

An image of three people watching a television. On the television screen are Mitt Romney and Barack Obama.
Sailors on the USS McCampbell, based out of Yokosuka, Japan, watch the first presidential debate between President Barack Obama and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney on October 4, 2012.

In 1960, the first televised presidential debate showed that answering questions well is not the only way to impress voters. Senator John F. Kennedy, the Democratic nominee, and Vice President Richard Nixon, the Republican nominee, prepared in slightly different ways for their first of four debates. Although both studied answers to possible questions, Kennedy also worked on the delivery of his answers, including accent, tone, facial displays, and body movements, as well as overall appearance. Nixon, however, was ill in the days before the debate and appeared sweaty and gaunt. He also chose not to wear makeup, a decision that left his pale, unshaven face vulnerable.[30] Interestingly, while people who watched the debate thought Kennedy won, those listening on radio saw the debate as more of a draw.

Inside the Debate

Debating an opponent in front of sixty million television voters is intimidating. Most presidential candidates spend days, if not weeks, preparing. Newspapers and cable news programs proclaim winners and losers, and debates can change the tide of a campaign. Yet, Paul Begala, a strategist with Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign, saw debates differently.

In one of his columns for CNN, Begala recommends that candidates relax and have a little fun. Debates are relatively easy, he says, more like a scripted program than an interview that puts candidates on the spot. They can memorize answers and deliver them convincingly, making sure they hit their mark. Second, a candidate needs a clear message explaining why the voters should pick him or her. Is he or she a needed change? Or the only experienced candidate? If the candidate’s debate answers reinforce this message, the voters will remember. Third, candidates should be humorous, witty, and comfortable with their knowledge. Trying to be too formal or cramming information at the last minute will cause the candidate to be awkward or get overwhelmed. Finally, a candidate is always on camera. Making faces, sighing at an opponent, or simply making a mistake gives the media something to discuss and can cause a loss. In essence, Begala argues that if candidates wish to do well, preparation and confidence are key factors.[31]

Is Begala’s advice good? Why or why not? What positives or negatives would make a candidate’s debate performance stand out for you as a voter?

While debates are not just about a candidate’s looks, most debate rules contain language that prevents candidates from artificially enhancing their physical qualities. For example, prior rules have prohibited shoes that increase a candidate’s height, banned prosthetic devices that change a candidate’s physical appearance, and limited camera angles to prevent unflattering side and back shots. Candidates and their campaign managers are aware that visuals matter.

Debates are generally over by the end of October, just in time for Election Day. Beginning with the election of 1792, presidential elections were to be held in the thirty-four days prior to the “first Wednesday in December.”[32]

In 1845, Congress passed legislation that moved the presidential Election Day to the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November, and in 1872, elections for the House of Representatives were also moved to that same Tuesday.[33]

The United States was then an agricultural country, and because a number of states restricted voting to property-owning males over twenty-one, farmers made up nearly 74 percent of voters.[34]

The tradition of Election Day to fall in November allowed time for the lucrative fall harvest to be brought in and the farming season to end. And, while not all members of government were of the same religion, many wanted to ensure that voters were not kept from the polls by a weekend religious observance. Finally, business and mercantile concerns often closed their books on the first of the month. Rather than let accounting get in the way of voting, the bill’s language forces Election Day to fall between the second and eighth of the month.

The Electoral College

Once the voters have cast ballots in November and all the election season madness comes to a close, races for governors and local representatives may be over, but the constitutional process of electing a president has only begun. The electors of the Electoral College travel to their respective state capitols and cast their votes in mid-December, often by signing a certificate recording their vote. In most cases, electors cast their ballots for the candidate who won the majority of votes in their state. The states then forward the certificates to the U.S. Senate.

The number of Electoral College votes granted to each state equals the total number of representatives and senators that state has in the U.S. Congress or, in the case of Washington, DC, as many electors as it would have if it were a state. The number of representatives may fluctuate based on state population, which is determined every ten years by the U.S. Census, mandated by Article I, Section 2, of the Constitution. For the 2016 and 2020 presidential elections, there are a total of 538 electors in the Electoral College, and a majority of 270 electoral votes is required to win the presidency.

Once the electoral votes have been read by the president of the Senate (i.e., the vice president of the United States) during a special joint session of Congress in January, the presidential candidate who received the majority of electoral votes is officially named president. Should a tie occur, the sitting House of Representatives elects the president, with each state receiving one vote. While this rarely occurs, both the 1800 and the 1824 elections were decided by the House of Representatives.

As political parties became stronger and the Progressive Era’s influence shaped politics from the 1890s to the 1920s, states began to allow state parties rather than legislators to nominate a slate of electors. Electors cannot be elected officials nor can they work for the federal government. Since the Republican and Democratic parties choose faithful party members who have worked hard for their candidates, the modern system decreases the chance they will vote differently from the state’s voters.

There is no guarantee of this, however. Occasionally there are examples of faithless electors. In 2000, the majority of the District of Columbia’s voters cast ballots for Al Gore, and all three electoral votes should have been cast for him. Yet one of the electors cast a blank ballot, denying Gore a precious electoral vote, reportedly to contest the unequal representation of the District in the Electoral College. In 2004, one of the Minnesota electors voted for John Edwards, the vice presidential nominee, to be president and misspelled the candidate’s last name in the process. Some believe this was a result of confusion rather than a political statement. The electors’ names and votes are publicly available on the electoral certificates, which are scanned and documented by the National Archives and easily available for viewing online.

Image A is of a presidential elector certificate of vote form, showing a vote for John Kerry for president. Image B is of John Kerry and John Edwards.
In 2004, Minnesota had an error or faithless voter when one elector cast a vote for John Edwards for president (a). On July 8, 2004, presidential candidate John Kerry and his running mate John Edwards arrive for a campaign rally in Fort Lauderdale, Florida (b). (credit b: modification of work by Richard Block)

In forty-eight states and the District of Columbia, the candidate who wins the most votes in November receives all the state’s electoral votes, and only the electors from that party will vote. This is often called the winner-take-all system. In two states, Nebraska and Maine, the electoral votes are divided. The candidate who wins the state gets two electoral votes, but the winner of each congressional district also receives an electoral vote. In 2008, for example, Republican John McCain won two congressional districts and the majority of the voters across the state of Nebraska, earning him four electoral votes from Nebraska. Obama won in one congressional district and earned one electoral vote from Nebraska.[35] This Electoral College voting method is referred to as the district system.

Midterm Elections

Presidential elections garner the most attention from the media and political elites. Yet they are not the only important elections. The even-numbered years between presidential years, like 2014 and 2018, are reserved for congressional elections—sometimes referred to as midterm elections because they are in the middle of the president’s term. Midterm elections are held because all members of the House of Representatives and one-third of the senators come up for reelection every two years.

During a presidential election year, members of Congress often experience the coattail effect, which gives members of a popular presidential candidate’s party an increase in popularity and raises their odds of retaining office. During a midterm election year, however, the president’s party often is blamed for the president’s actions or inaction. Representatives and senators from the sitting president’s party are more likely to lose their seats during a midterm election year. Many recent congressional realignments, in which the House or Senate changed from Democratic to Republican control, occurred because of this reverse-coattail effect during midterm elections. The most recent example is the 2010 election, in which control of the House returned to the Republican Party after two years of a Democratic presidency.


The Federal Election Commission was created in an effort to control federal campaign donations and create transparency in campaign finance. Individuals and organizations have contribution limits, and candidates must disclose the source of their funds. However, decisions by the Supreme Court, such as Citizens United, have voided sections of the campaign finance law, and businesses and organizations may now run campaign ads and support candidates for offices. The cases also resulted in the creation of super PACs, which can raise unlimited funds, provided they do not coordinate with candidates’ campaigns.

The first stage in the election cycle is nomination, where parties determine who the party nominee will be. State political parties choose to hold either primaries or caucuses, depending on whether they want a fast and private ballot election or an informal, public caucus. Delegates from the local primaries and caucuses will go to state or national conventions to vote on behalf of local and state voters.

During the general election, candidates debate one another and run campaigns. Election Day is in early November, but the Electoral College formally elects the president mid-December. Congressional incumbents often win or lose seats based on the popularity of their party’s president or presidential candidate.

Practice Questions

  1. What problems will candidates experience with frontloading?
  2. Why have fewer moderates won primaries than they used to?
  3. How do political parties influence the state’s primary system?
  4. Why do parties prefer closed primaries to open primaries?
Show Selected Answers

2. Candidates with extreme viewpoints gain media attention, and primary voters are more ideologically motivated than voters in other elections.

4. Closed primaries do not allow voters affiliated with other parties to vote, thus keeping the decision inside the party.

Show Glossary

caucus a form of candidate nomination that occurs in a town-hall style format rather than a day-long election; usually reserved for presidential elections

closed primary an election in which only voters registered with a party may vote for that party’s candidates

coattail effect the result when a popular presidential candidate helps candidates from his or her party win their own elections

delegates party members who are chosen to represent a particular candidate at the party’s state- or national-level nominating convention

district system the means by which electoral votes are divided between candidates based on who wins districts and/or the state

Electoral College the constitutionally created group of individuals, chosen by the states, with the responsibility of formally selecting the next U.S. president

incumbent the current holder of a political office

midterm elections the congressional elections that occur in the even-numbered years between presidential election years, in the middle of the president’s term

open primary an election in which any registered voter may vote in any party’s primary or caucus

platform the set of issues important to the political party and the party delegates

political action committees (PACs) organizations created to raise money for political campaigns and spend money to influence policy and politics

super PACs officially known as Independent Expenditure-Only Committees; organizations that can fundraise and spend as they please to support or attack a candidate but not contribute directly to a candidate or strategize with a candidate’s campaign

top-two primary a primary election in which the two candidates with the most votes, regardless of party, become the nominees for the general election

winner-take-all system all electoral votes for a state are given to the candidate who wins the most votes in that state

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