Chapter 7: Voting and Elections



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.


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 Oklahoma, 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 (Figure 7.11). In 2015, only 24.4 percent of state legislators and 20 percent of U.S. Congress members were women.[5] However, in the 2018 midterm elections, a record number of women and younger members were elected to national office. Today, while still lagging men’s representation, women make up almost 27 percent of the 117th Congress, and 31 percent of state legislative seats are held by women.[6]

A series of bar graphs titled “Seekers of Elected Office by Demographic”. The first bar graph is titled “Gender”. Under the label “General public”, approximately 49% are men and approximately 51% are women. Under the label “Sough Elected Office”, approximately 75% are men and approximately 25% are women. The second bar graph is titled “Race”. Under the label “General public”, approximately 66% are White, 15% are Hispanic, and 12% are Black. Under the label “Sough Elected Office”, approximately 82% are White, 6% are Hispanic, and 5% are Black. The third bar graph is titled “Education”. Under the label “General public”, approximately 42% have high school or less, 31% have some college, 17% are college graduates, and 10% have some post-graduate education. Under the label “Sought Elected Office”, approximately 19% have high school or less, 36% have some college, 29% are college graduates, and 16% have some post-graduate education. At the bottom of the graphs, a source is listed: “2014 Political Polarization in the American Public; general public demographic data from 2012 American Community Survey (1% IPUMS)”.
Figure 7.11 Those who seek elected office do not generally reflect the demographics of the general public: They are often disproportionately White men who are 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 —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 chestWar 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.


In the 2020 presidential election cycle, candidates for all parties raised a total of 5.7 billion dollars for campaigns. Congressional candidates raised $8.7 billion.[8] The amount raised by , which are organizations created to raise and spend money to influence politics and contribute to candidates’ campaigns, was approximately $2.7 billion.[9] 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.[10] In 1896, the Republican Party spent about $16 million overall, which includes William McKinley’s $6–7 million campaign expenses.[11] 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.[12] 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.[13]

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.[14] 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. [15] 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.[16]

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.[17] 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.[18]

The court ruling also allowed corporations to place unlimited money into , 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.[19] In 2020, the Senate Leadership Fund, a conservative super PAC, spent $293.7 million supporting conservative candidates while the Senate Majority PAC spent $230.4 million supporting liberal candidates. The total expenditure by super PACs alone was $2.13 billion in the 2020 election.[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 $2,900 per candidate per election. This means a teacher living in Nebraska may contribute $2,900 to a candidate for their campaign to become to the Democratic presidential nominee, and if that candidate becomes the nominee, the teacher may contribute another $2,900 to their general election campaign. Individuals may also give $5,000 to political action committees and $36,500 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 $2,900 per candidate, however (Figure 7.12).[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.

A table titled “Contribution Limits for 2021-2022 Federal Elections”. The rows are labeled “Donors” and the columns are labeled “Recipients”. Under the column “Candidate Committee” are the values “Individual: $2,900* per election”, “Candidate Committee: $2,000 per election”, “PAC-multicandidate: $5,000 per election”, “PAC-Nonmulticandidate: $2,900 per election, “State/District/Local Party Committee: $5,000 per election (combined)”, and “National Party Committee: $5,000 per election (3)”. Under the column “PAC (1) (SSF and Nonconnected)” are the values “Individual: $5,000 per year”, “Candidate Committee: $5,000 per year”, “PAC-multicandidate: $5,000 per year”, “PAC-Nonmulticandidate: $5,000 per year”, “State/District/Local Party Committee: $5,000 per election (combined)”, and “National Party Committee: $5,000 per year”. Under the column “State/District/Local Party Committee” are the values “Individual: $10,000 per year (combined)”, “Candidate Committee: Unlimited Transfers”, “PAC-multicandidate: $5,000 per year (combined)”, “PAC-Nonmulticandidate: $10,000 per year (combined)”, “State/District/Local Party Committee: Unlimited Transfers”, and “National Party Committee: Unlimited Transfers”. Under the column “National Party Committee” are the values “Individual: $36,500* per year”, “Candidate Committee: Unlimited Transfers”, “PAC-multicandidate: $15,000 per year”, “PAC-Nonmulticandidate: $36,500* per year”, “State/District/Local Party Committee: Unlimited Transfers”, and “National Party Committee: Unlimited Transfers”. Under the column “Additional National party Committee Accounts (2)” are the values “Individual: $109,500* per account, per year”, “PAC-Multicandidate: $45,000 per account, per year”, and “PAC-Nonmulticandidate: $109,500* per account per year”. At the bottom of the table the following footnotes are listed: *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 $51,200 combined per campaign to each Senate candidate. At the bottom of the table, a source is listed: “Federal Election Commission. “Contribution Limits for 2021-2022 Federal Elections.” June, 2021”.
Figure 7.12 The Federal Election Commission has strict federal election guidelines on who can contribute, to whom, and how much.


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 2020, 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 , 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  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 , 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] In 2016, thirty-four candidates filed to run to replace Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA). In the end, two Democratic women of color emerged to compete head-to-head in the general election. California attorney general Kamala Harris eventually won the seat on Election Day, helping to quadruple the number of women of color in the U.S. Senate overnight. She subsequently ran for vice president in 2020 on the Democratic ticket and now serves in that capacity. More often than not, 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 six states (Alaska, Colorado, Hawaii, Idaho, Iowa, and Nevada) regularly use caucuses for presidential, state, and local-level nominations. A  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 , 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 (Figure 7.13). 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 “Jeb” Bush shaking hands with another person.
Figure 7.13 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, sent 494 delegates to the 2020 Democratic National Convention, while Wyoming, with far fewer Democrats, sent only 14 delegates.[27] 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.[28] 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.[29] 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 primary campaign by President 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. In 2020, the most moderate of the front-runners (Joe Biden) won the Democratic nomination.


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


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 (Figure 7.14). 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 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 then hit the campaign trail for the general election. The party with the incumbent president holds the later convention, so in 2016, the Democrats held their convention after the Republicans. In 2020, wIth the COVID-19 pandemic raging, both major parties modified their conventions to involve fewer people. The Republicans had some in-person gatherings, but mostly met virtually, while the Democrats were almost entirely virtual.[30]

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.
Figure 7.14 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. In 2016, both apparent nominees (Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Donald Trump) faced primary opponents who stayed in the race even when the nominations were effectively sewn up—Democrat Bernie Sanders and Republican Ted Cruz—though no “convention surprise” took place. 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. In 2020, strong rumors circulated about Senator Kamala Harris (D-CA) being tapped for the ticket, with confirmation of that choice coming days later.[31]

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 . 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.


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.[32] In 2016, both candidates sensed shifts in the electorate that led them to visit states that were not recently battleground states. Clinton visited Republican stronghold Arizona as Latino voter interest surged. Defying conventional campaign movements, Trump spent many hours over the last days of the campaign in the Democratic Rust Belt states, namely Michigan and Wisconsin. President Trump ended up winning both states and industrial Pennsylvania by narrow margins, allowing him to achieve a comfortable majority in the Electoral College. In 2020, during the COVID-19 pandemic, the two major-party nominees adopted very different approaches. In seeking re-election, President Trump eschewed CDC recommendations for social distancing and held large in-person rallies, while Joe Biden made fewer public appearances, which were largely carried to audiences virtually.[33]

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 (Figure 7.15).

An image of three people watching a television. On the television screen are Mitt Romney and Barack Obama.
Figure 7.15 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.[34] 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 them. Is the candidate 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.[35]

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.”[36] 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.[37] 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.[38] 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.


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  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. However, since the Permanent Apportionment Act of 1929, the total number of representatives in Congress has been fixed at 435. Accordingly, for the 2024 presidential election, there will be 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 election night 2016 played out after the polls closed, one such scenario was in play for a tie. However, the states that Hillary Clinton needed to make that tie were lost narrowly to Trump. Had the tie occurred, the Republican House would have likely selected Trump as president anyway. As Election Day 2020 neared, the context favored Biden, yet it was still possible that Trump might narrowly win key battleground states and find a way to win the Electoral College. This did not occur, as Biden won the popular vote and the Electoral College decisively. Still, based on the erroneous assumption that the election had been stolen, thousands of Trump supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol building to prevent the House and Senate from completing a final tabulation of Biden’s victory. The bloody attempted insurrection did not succeed, however, and the votes were finalized in the early overnight hours of January 7th with Vice President Mike Pence presiding.

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 (Figure 7.16) and misspelled the candidate’s last name in the process. Some believe this was a result of confusion rather than a political statement. In the 2016 election, after a campaign to encourage faithless electors in the wake of what some viewed as controversial results, there were seven faithless electors: four in the state of Washington, two in Texas, and one in Hawaii. 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.
Figure 7.16 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 . 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.[39] In 2020, Republican Donald Trump won one congressional district in Maine, and therefore one electoral vote, even though Joe Biden won the state overall, receiving a total of three electoral votes from Maine. This Electoral College voting method is referred to as the .


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  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 , 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 2018 election, in which control of the House returned to the Democratic Party after eight years of Republican control.


See the Chapter 7.3 Review for a summary of this section, the key vocabulary, and some review questions to check your knowledge.

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  2. “Partisan Composition of State Houses,” (November 4, 2015); Zach Holden. 20 November 2014. “No Contest: 36 Percent of 2014 State Legislative Races Offered No Choice,”
  3. “Legislators’ Occupations in All States,” (November 3, 2015).
  4. Jennifer L. Lawless and Richard L. Fox. 2010. It Still Takes a Candidate: Why Women Don’t Run for Office. Revised Edition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  5. “Women in State Legislatures for 2015,” 4 September 2015.
  6. "By the Numbers," Represent Women, (June 2021).
  7. “Reelection Rates Over the Years,” (November 12, 2015).
  8. Karl Evers-Hillstrom, "Most Expensive Ever: 2020 Election Cost $14.4 Billion,", 11 February 11,
  9. Katharina Buchholz, "Outside Spending Takes a Leap up in 2020 Election Cycle," Statista, 3 December 2020,
  10. Greg Scott and Gary Mullen, “Thirty Year Report,” Federal Election Commission, September 2005,
  11. Jonathan Bernstein, “They Spent What on Presidential Campaigns?,” Washington Post, 20 February, 2012.
  12. Jaime Fuller, “From George Washington to Shaun McCutcheon: A Brief-ish History of Campaign Finance Reform,” Washington Post, 3 April 2014.
  13. Federal Corrupt Practices Act of 1925; Hatch Act of 1939; Taft-Hartley Act of 1947
  14. Scott and Mullen, “Thirty Year Report.”
  15. Buckley v. Valeo, 424 U.S. 1 (1976).
  16. “Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002,” (November 11, 2015); Scott and Mullen, “Thirty Year Report.”
  17. “Court Case Abstracts,” (November 12, 2015); Davis v. Federal Election Commission, 554 U.S. 724 (2008).
  18. Citizens United v. FEC, 558 U.S. 310 (2010).
  19. “Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission,” (November 11, 2015); “Independent Expenditure-Only Committees,” (November 11, 2015).
  20. "2020 Outside Spending, by Super PAC," (June 1, 2021).
  21. “Super PACs,” (November 11, 2015).
  22. “Contribution Limits for the 2015–2016 Federal Elections,” (November 11, 2015).
  23. Harold Meyerson, “Op-Ed: California’s Jungle Primary: Tried it. Dump It,” Los Angeles Times, 21 June 2014.
  24. California Democratic Party v. Jones, 530 U.S. 567 (2000).
  25. “Voter Turnout,” (November 3, 2015).
  26. Josh Putnam, “Presidential Primaries and Caucuses by Month (1976),” Frontloading HQ (blog), February 3, 2009,
  27. "2020 Democratic Presidential Nomination," 270 to Win,
  28. William G. Mayer and Andrew Busch. 2004. The Front-loading Problem in Presidential Nominations. Washington D.C.: Brookings Institution.
  29. Joanna Klonsky, “The Role of Delegates in the U.S. Presidential Nominating Process,” Washington Post, 6 February 2008.
  30. Vanessa Friedman and James Poniewozik, "The 2020 Party Conventions Gave New Meaning to Political Theater," The New York Times, 28 August 2020,
  31. Tarini Parti and Ken Thomas, "Kamala Harris Named as Joe Biden's VP Pick," The Wall Street Journal, 11 August 2020,
  32. “Party Affiliation and Election Polls,” Pew Research Center, August 3, 2012.
  33. Christina Wilkie, "Trump Targets Adversaries in His Final Pitch, While Biden Focuses on Covid-19," CNBC,
  34. Shanto Iyengar. 2016. Media Politics: A Citizen’s Guide, 3rd ed. New York: W.W. Norton.
  35. Paul Begala. 1 October 2008. “Commentary: 10 Rules for Winning a Debate,”
  36. 2nd Congress, Session I, “An Act relative to the Election of a President and Vice President of the United States, and Declaring the Office Who Shall Act as President in Case of Vacancies in the Offices both of President and Vice President,” Chapter 8, section 1, image 239. (November 1, 2015).
  37. 28th Congress, Session II. 23 January 1845. “An Act to Establish a Uniform Time for Holding Elections for Electors of President and Vice President in all the States of the Union,” Statute II, chapter 1, image 721.; 42nd Congress, Session II, “An Act for the Apportionment of Representatives to Congress among the Several Sates According to the Ninth Census.” Chapter 11, section 3, (November 1, 2015).
  38. Donald Ratcliffe. 2013. “The Right to Vote and the Rise of Democracy, 1787–1828,” Journal of the Early Republic 33: 219–254; Stanley Lebergott. 1966. “Labor Force and Employment, 1800–1960,” In Output, Employment, and Productivity in the United States after 1800, ed. Dorothy S. Brady. Ann Arbor, Michigan: National Bureau of Economic Research,
  39. “Presidential Popular Vote Summary for All Candidates Listed on at Least One State Ballot,” (November 7, 2015).


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