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The debut of a brand-new civics series for high school seniors and college freshmen, that clearly, concisely and cleverly explains how the United States elects its president
Selecting a President explains the nuts and bolts of our presidential electoral system while drawing on rich historical anecdotes from past campaigns. Among the world's many democracies, U.S. presidential elections are unique, where presidential contenders embark on a grueling, spectacular two-year journey that begins in Iowa and New Hampshire, and ends at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Modern presidential campaigns are a marked departure from the process envisioned by America's founders. Yet while they've evolved, many of the basic structures of our original electoral system remain in place—even as presidential elections have moved into the modern era with tools like Twitter and Facebook at their disposal—they must still compete in an election governed by rules and mechanisms conceived in the late eighteenth century. In this book, Clift and Spieler demonstrate that presidential campaigns are exciting, hugely important, disillusioning at times but also inspiring.
About the Author
Eleanor Clift is a political reporter, television pundit and author. She is currently a contributing editor for Newsweek magazine, a regular panelist on The McLaughlin Group, and is also a political contributor for the Fox News Channel. She is the author of Selecting a President.
Matthew Spieler is a former social policy analyst for Congressional Quarterly (CQ). He currently works as a political writer for Voterpunch.org, and Oakland-based non-profit organization. He is co-author of Selecting a President.
Read an Excerpt
Selecting a President
By Eleanor Clift, Matthew Spieler
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2012 Eleanor Clift and Matthew Spiele
All rights reserved.
The Presidential Election Year: A Snapshot
On a Tuesday evening in early November, Americans gather in front of their television sets for the grand finale of a political drama years in the making. Once every four years, the usual sitcoms, primetime dramas, and reality shows give way to special news coverage: America is electing a new president.
As Election Night unfolds, a map of the United States begins to take shape. States won by Democrats are colored in blue, while those won by Republicans are shaded red. Sometimes, the night unfolds at an agonizingly slow pace.
The first news of the night usually trickles in around 7 p.m., after a few states with early poll closings report their results. Vermont's three electoral votes, not surprisingly, go to one party. The other standard-bearer wins Kentucky, as expected. An hour or two later, if all goes smoothly and it's not an especially close election, the networks declare winners in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Michigan, and the outcome becomes clearer.
Election night can be filled with drama and surprises. Some candidates will win states they were projected to lose, and vice versa. Alternatively, Election Night can be a rather dull affair, as the outcome may not have been in doubt for months leading up to the voting.
On Election Day, the presidency is far from the only important political office up for grabs. All members of the House of Representatives and roughly one third of U.S. senators must also stand for election on that same day. But in presidential election years, the race for the White House is undoubtedly the main event.
Election Day in the United States is the culmination of a long, grueling process that tests those who seek the highest office in the land — and the leadership of the free world. While most Americans may only have been paying attention to the campaign for a matter of weeks, it has, in fact, been more than two years in the making.
Mere days after a new president takes office (or returns to office if he was reelected) the media turns its attention to the next campaign. Whether they're reporters, bloggers, or talking heads, the media will pontificate about what the next campaign will look like. Familiar names are mentioned, and leading critics of the president will give speeches and interviews in which they try to assume the leadership of the "loyal opposition."
Two years into a president's term, the presidential race comes into clearer focus. Following the midterm elections (which occur every two years, and in which members of both houses of Congress, as well as governors and state legislatures are elected), presidential aspirants form what are called "exploratory committees." Exploratory committees allow candidates to test the waters for a national campaign. At this early stage of a campaign, presidential hopefuls hire pollsters who gauge their popularity, and meet with local elected officials and political activists around the country. They raise money — and they will need to raise a lot of it in order to be taken seriously as a viable candidate to carry the Democratic or Republican banner in the presidential election.
There are, of course, third parties and independent candidates who run under no party label at all. Occasionally, these independent candidates have a major impact on the presidential race. By advocating such progressive policies as an eight-hour workday and voting rights for women, Teddy Roosevelt's Bull Moose Party garnered 27 percent of the vote in 1912, insuring the defeat of Republican president Howard Taft and helping to elect Democrat Woodrow Wilson. In 1992, third party candidate Ross Perot (who ran under the Reform Party banner) received nearly 20 percent of the vote. However, every U.S. president has been a Democrat or Republican since 1857. Thus, for all intents and purposes, voters have two major political parties from which to choose their president.
Some argue that third party candidates play the role of "spoiler." (In elections, the term "spoiler" refers to a candidate who has little or no chance of winning but draws enough votes away from a major candidate to cost him the election.) While the chances of a third party candidate winning the presidency may be remote, these dark horses can have an impact at the margins. For example, many Democrats still believe that Ralph Nader's share of the vote in Florida cost Al Gore the presidency in 2000. Nader ran under the Green Party banner, and attracted support from disaffected liberals who believed Gore had failed to stand up for progressive ideals.
This early period of the campaign marks the beginning of the "primary season." During the primaries, each state holds its own election. In closed primaries, voters choose from their own party. Registered Democratic voters choose from a field of Democratic candidates. Republican voters, meanwhile, vote for their preferred politician among an exclusively Republican field of candidates.
The rules governing the primaries vary by state. In New York, for example, only Democratic voters may vote in the Democratic primary, while the Republican primary is closed to all except registered Republican voters. In New Hampshire's "open primary," however, independent voters (who are not registered with either party) can vote in whichever primary they choose. (Of course, even in open primaries, voters may only cast one ballot — they may vote in either the Democratic or the Republican primaries, but not both contests.)
Fourteen states — Alaska, Colorado, Idaho, Kansas, Minnesota, North Dakota, Iowa, Nevada, Nebraska, Washington, Maine, Wyoming, Texas, and Utah hold "caucuses" on Election Day, where political activists assemble to openly lobby for candidates and divvy up their support. The Iowa caucuses kick off the primary season and have achieved outsized influence in the presidential selection process for the small, mostly rural state. Texas also has a primary, making it the only state where residents can legally vote twice.
Early "straw polls" shape perceptions of the strength of the various candidates, but are not binding. The Ames, Iowa, straw poll on behalf of the Republican Party is the most famous. Held on a Saturday in August the year before the election, it has become a costly venture for candidates who build their numbers by busing people in and providing free food and entertainment. GOP frontrunner Mitt Romney, who spent more than a million dollars to win a narrow victory in 2007, skipped the Iowa caucus in 2011, ceding prime space in the arena to Representative Ron Paul, who paid $31,000 to the Republican state party for the honor.
By campaigning during the primaries, candidates are vying to win delegates from each state. The ultimate goal is to win enough delegates to clinch the Democratic or Republican nomination. After all of the primary elections and caucuses are over, each political party holds a convention and nominates the candidate who receives the support of the most delegates. (This process is actually more complicated, and will be explained in greater detail later.)
By the end of the primary season, voters in every state of the Union (as well as territories such as Puerto Rico) have cast their votes for the nominees of America's two major political parties. Only after every state has completed this process can the general election begin in which the Democratic candidate faces off against the Republican.
After the Democratic and Republican parties nominate their candidates, in late August and early September, the general election begins in earnest. The two candidates "barnstorm the country," standard-bearers for America's two major political philosophies in a battle for control of the White House. The Republican will run on a platform of lower taxes, scaling back or eliminating some programs, and less government regulation of business and financial dealings. The Democrat generally runs on a platform of maintaining or perhaps expanding the social safety net, aid to the poor, environmental protection, and support for organized labor. Differences over foreign policy can also define the two candidates. Republicans are often seen as backing a more hawkish, aggressive foreign policy that emphasizes military strength, while the Democrat might be more inclined to emphasize international cooperation and diplomacy.
Following the two parties' conventions, the general election kicks into high gear. Both candidates spend their time campaigning almost exclusively in states that are considered "toss-ups," or "swing states" — in other words, states that do not lean strongly toward one political party in presidential elections. The Democratic candidate, for example, will not campaign in heavily Democratic Massachusetts during the general election. The Republican will not waste time campaigning in Idaho, which is safely Republican.
Ohio residents, meanwhile, will see a lot of both candidates. So will Pennsylvanians, Michiganders, and Floridians. Meanwhile, the voters of Vermont, New York, Hawaii, Alaska, and South Carolina are all but forgotten, as their votes are seldom seen as up for grabs.
During this period of the campaign — usually in late September and October — the presidential candidates will participate in a live, nationally televised debate. While these debates rarely doom a candidate or rescue him from a badly ailing campaign — they can prove to be consequential. Just weeks before voters go to the polls, viewer perceptions of presidential candidates take shape and solidify as the two contenders go toe-to- toe.
On Election Day, presidential campaigning comes to an end. (The Constitution requires that Election Day be held on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November.) Voters go to the polls and later settle into their living rooms to watch the election returns on television. The two candidates, with much fanfare, visit their local polling place and wave to the cameras before casting their ballot — presumably for themselves. Then they retreat into seclusion with their families and closest advisors until a winner is declared. At last, it is time to give a victory or concession speech.
Once the presidential election has a clear victor, the loser concedes defeat. He graciously calls on his supporters to stand behind the nation's new president. The winner — now the "president-elect" — attempts to rally the entire country behind him and prepares for a transition. This transition, in which one presidential administration passes the reins of power to the next, begins the day after the election and culminates with the new president being sworn into office on January 20. On that day — Inauguration Day — the presidentelect gives a speech before both houses of Congress, various dignitaries, and the public, and takes the presidential oath of office. At the conclusion of that oath, the president-elect becomes the president of the United States.
To recap, there are essentially five stages of presidential elections:
Stage I (January–August) — The primaries, in which the two political parties choose their candidates. (In reality, candidates begin campaigning in the primaries long before January, but the first caucus or primary election generally takes place during this month.
Stage II (August–September) — The political parties' conventions, in which the winners of the primaries are nominated for president.
Stage III (September–November) — The general election campaign, in which the winners of the primaries compete against each other. This part of the presidential campaign, for all intents and purposes, is usually a two-person race between a Democrat and a Republican.
Stage IV (November) — Election Day.
Stage V (January 20) — Inauguration Day — the newly elected president is sworn into office.CHAPTER 2
In the dead of winter, Iowans gather in local schools, libraries, and churches. At these small gatherings with their friends and neighbors, they debate the issues of the day: war, health care reform, education policy, taxes, and — most importantly — their preferred candidates for the highest office in the land. For years now, this marks the official kickoff of the "presidential primaries," in which Democratic and Republican voters choose their respective standard-bearers.
The small meetings, collectively, are the Iowa Caucuses — home to the first votes cast for president of the United States. These votes are a far cry from a secret ballot. Iowans not only cast their votes publicly, but also lobby undecided caucusgoers, and build coalitions to put their man or woman over the top. Iowa's first-in-the nation status during the primaries gives the state considerable influence over whom the two political parties choose as their presidential nominees.
For a brief period — perhaps from the late fall through the winter preceding an election year — Iowa becomes the center of the national media's attention. Vote-rich California and New York see little in the way of campaigning, while a Midwestern state perhaps known best for its corn becomes the focal point of the U.S. presidential election.
The Iowa Caucuses have catapulted dark horse candidates and contenders who were left for dead all the way to the nomination. In the fall and winter of 2003, for example, former Vermont Governor Howard Dean looked to be riding a wave of liberal discontent to the Democratic nomination.
Shortly after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq (which most Democratic presidential candidates supported), antiwar Democrats flocked to Dean — the only major candidate to oppose the war. Massachusetts Senator John Kerry, who had once been the presumptive frontrunner for the Democratic nomination, saw his support dwindle among rank and file Democrats. Political pundits declared his candidcy dead. But Iowa's "late-deciders" (previously undecided voters who make up their minds just before the caucuses begin) rallied to Kerry in the final days leading up to the vote. The Bay State Democrat's come-from-behind first place finish shocked the political establishment and propelled him to a victory in the New Hampshire primary (which follows the Iowa Caucuses) and eventually all the way to the nomination.
Meanwhile, Senator John Edwards — a Democrat from North Carolina — surprised political observers by finishing second. Dean, meanwhile, finished a distant third and his campaign never recovered. (His only victory during the primary season was in his home state of Vermont, long after Kerry had locked up the Democratic nomination.)
The power of the Iowa Caucuses to winnow the field was perhaps most evident in the case of Representative Richard Gephardt, who represented a district in neighboring Missouri. Gephardt had run for president in 1988 and won the Iowa Caucuses. After a humiliating fourth place finish there in 2004, Gephardt abandoned his presidential ambitions for good.
Conventional wisdom once held that the presidential primaries only allowed for "three tickets" out of Iowa. These tickets were reserved for the winner, and the second and third place finishers. For years, a strong second or third place finish in Iowa could keep candidates in the running in future nominating contests. In 1972, George McGovern, a Democratic senator from South Dakota, navigated a successful path to the Democratic nomination after finishing third in Iowa and second in New Hampshire. Even though Maine Senator Ed Muskie actually won both the Iowa Caucuses and New Hampshire primary that year, his weaker-than-expected performance in those states damaged his campaign, and allowed McGovern to overtake him.
The Iowa Caucuses are also important because a victory or strong showing can boost a candidate who is unknown in much of the country. On January 3, 2008, Barack Obama — then a first term senator from Illinois — won an upset victory over front-runner Hillary Rodham Clinton, a second term senator from New York and former First Lady. Obama won Iowa by an 8-point margin, while Clinton finished a disappointing third behind Obama and John Edwards. Obama, aided by the positive media coverage that stems from a major electoral victory, quickly erased Clinton's lead in the national polls. He had proven he was a contender, and won over previously skeptical Democratic primary voters.
Yet a victory in Iowa is no guarantee of a sustained winning streak, much less the nomination. Obama soon learned this lesson when Clinton rallied to a surprising victory in New Hampshire, reclaiming the front-runner mantle. (A month later, in early February, Obama overtook Clinton in both delegates and public perception as the leading candidate for the Democratic nomination.)
Similarly, former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee won the Iowa Caucuses in the 2008 Republican primaries, but went on to lose the New Hampshire primary to Arizona Senator John McCain. While Huckabee did win a number of subsequent primaries (particularly in the South), he failed to mount a sustained, serious challenge to McCain for the nomination.
Excerpted from Selecting a President by Eleanor Clift, Matthew Spieler. Copyright © 2012 Eleanor Clift and Matthew Spiele. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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Table of Contents
1. The Presidential Election Year: A Snapshot,
2. The Primaries,
3. The Conventions: Clinching the Nomination,
4. The General Election,
5. Election Day,
6. Inauguration Day,
The Presidential Oath of Office,
Past Presidential Elections,
Speeches in Presidential Campaigns,
Also by Eleanor Clift,
About the Authors,
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