The student reading below reviews major steps in the campaign process and such issues as the money race, fairness, and problems with the new voting machines. Suggested discussion questions and other activities follow.
A U.S. presidential election is the culminating event in a lengthy process that seems to become lengthier every four years. In outline, this process—both official and unofficial—includes:
Exploration and Announcement
An individual who decides to run for president, or at least to consider it seriously, usually appoints an "exploratory committee" to determine the outlook for success-especially the prospects for raising money. The potential candidate begins the process of assembling a staff to deal with many details. Some candidates announced they were running almost two years before the November 2008 general election.
Money is the essential fuel for a campaign to win the nomination of a party and the election itself. During the primary season of 2004, incumbent president George Bush, who was certain of the Republican nomination, and John Kerry, who competed with other Democrats for that party's nomination, raised a collective total of nearly $500 million. After nomination by their parties, Bush and Kerry each received an additional $74.6 million in government financing for the general election. In return, they agreed not to raise or spend additional private funds.
Campaigns for the House and the Senate are also expensive. Successful elections in 2006 to the two legislative bodies cost an average of $1.3 million and $10 million, respectively.
Since campaigning is nonstop for many months, so are campaign expenses. They range from everyday administrative expenses like office rent, utilities, and staff to fundraising expenses. Traveling, polling, and advertising—especially TV advertising—are major expenses. But even small items like buttons and signs cost money.
The huge sums needed to run for public office and the potential corrupting effects have led to reform efforts aimed at getting elections to be entirely publicly financed. So far seven states, including Arizona, North Carolina, and Connecticut, have passed such reforms. Under these "clean election" systems, candidates who qualify can opt to receive a flat sum from the government to run their campaigns, and must agree not to raise money from private sources. If a candidate receiving public financing is outspent by a privately-funded opponent, he or she may receive additional public funds.
The Pew Research Center, Harris, Gallup and CBS, other media organizations and private firms hired by candidates frequently survey voters. They provide information on voter concerns, views of candidates' positions on issues, and how voters say they will vote.
A candidate may also assemble a dozen or so voters for a "focus group" discussion. Voters are asked questions aimed at helping the candidate figure out how best to position himself or herself on an issue; what language evokes the best responses; what the participants do or do not like about the candidate.
Party primaries and caucuses will begin early in 2008. Party primaries are state-wide party elections. Caucuses are meetings of party members. The object of both is to elect delegates committed to voting for a particular candidate at the national Republican or Democratic party conventions, which are held late in the summer.
Early in the 20th century, political reformers campaigned successfully for a primary system to promote greater voter participation in the nomination of a party's candidate. Primary election rules vary, but in all primary elections, voters go to the polls and vote just as they do in the November general election (in which voters choose between each party's nominee). Some states have "open" primaries in which the voter chooses which party primary to vote in. In "closed" primaries, only registered party members may vote.
Some candidates usually withdraw from the presidential campaign during the primary season. They usually do this because they've performed poorly in primaries and caucuses and, as a result, are unable to raise enough money to continue.
Iowa and New Hampshire are among the smaller states in population and therefore have a relatively small number of electoral votes. But since they have historically held the first caucus (Iowa) and the first primary (New Hampshire), they have received a great deal of media attention. In the past, winning in either state has given a candidate a big boost. Other states now have earlier primaries than New Hampshire. States have moved up their primary dates in the hopes of having more influence in the nomination process.
The schedule of caucuses and primaries is subject to change but now includes:
January 3: Iowa (D, R)
January 8: New Hampshire (D, R)
January 15: Michigan (D)
January 19: South Carolina (R), Nevada (D, R)
January 29: Florida (D, R), South Carolina (D)
February 1: Maine (R)
February 5: More than 20 states, including such big ones as California, Illinois, Texas,
Michigan, New York and Pennsylvania
The Democratic National Committee has said it will strip Florida and Michigan of all its convention delegates because their state legislatures moved primary dates to early dates that were unacceptable to the committee.
The final primary on June 3 in South Dakota is unlikely to have any impact. The primary campaigns in both parties will almost certainly be over well before then, possibly by the end of the day on February 5, and nominees will have been established.
The Democrats will hold their national convention on August 25-28, 2008, in Denver, Colorado. The Republican convention will take place September 1-4 in Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minnesota. Smaller parties as the Green Party, the Libertarian Party, and the Constitution Party have not yet decided on dates and places.
During the past 40 years, the primary system has eliminated any suspense over convention choices for party candidates. In 2008 the nominees may be known as early as February, almost certainly by the spring. The result is that the major party conventions have become choreographed events packed with speeches designed to have a rallying effect on the party faithful. The rest of the country pays little attention to them except, perhaps, to speeches by the nominees.
The conventions include a meeting of a platform committee, which works out a statement of the party's position on issues. But often the party's nominee pays little attention to the official platform, and may diverge from it significantly.
The culminating events of a convention are:
1) nominating and seconding speeches for the party's candidates
2) a vote by delegates (even though by now everyone knows who will win)
3) the nominee's announcement of his or her choice for a vice presidential running mate, and a convention vote to approve it
4) the two candidates' acceptance speeches
General Election Campaign
After Labor Day, the campaigns go into full gear. So do the campaigns by candidates for the U.S. Congress and for state and local offices. The entire House of Representatives is up for election or reelection every two years, as are one-third of the senators.
Election Day and the Electoral System
Election Day arrives on the first Tuesday in November, which in 2008 will be November 6. Strictly speaking, citizens at the polls will not vote for one of the candidates but for a slate of "electors." These electors are committed to supporting a particular candidate, but are not legally required to. The candidate with the highest number of popular votes in a state wins all of its electoral votes, even if the victory margin is just one vote.
The number of electors in each state is equal to the number of senators (2) and representatives (at least 1) to which it is entitled in Congress. States with relatively small populations have as few as 3 electors (for example, Delaware and each of the Dakotas). On the other hand, California has 55 electors, Texas 34 and New York 31.
The electoral system has been widely criticized in recent years. For example: 1) More than once the system has produced a winner with fewer popular votes than the loser-in the 2000 Bush-Gore election, for instance. 2) A smaller state can get disproportionate voting power. Wyoming's population, according to the last census, is 493,782; North Dakota's is 642,200. Each of these states gets 3 electoral votes. 3) The system violates the one person, one vote principle. In 2000, Bush got 4,567,429 votes in California; but Gore got 5,861,202 and all of the state's 55 electoral votes.
A current ballot initiative effort in California raises another fairness issue. As in 2000 and 2004, a majority of Californians is likely to vote for the Democratic candidate for president, giving that person all of the state's 55 electoral votes. In at least 20 districts, however, the Republican candidate will probably win. Now, Californians for Equal Representation has filed a ballot initiative to be voted on in June. It would award two of California's 55 electoral votes to the statewide winner. Every other electoral vote would be determined by the winner in each congressional district. The result would give the Republican candidate 20 or so electoral votes he or she wouldn't otherwise have had under the existing rules.
Maine and Nebraska have repealed the winner-take-all rule in presidential elections. Instead, one electoral vote is given to each congressional district.
Counting Citizens' Votes
Counting votes with the help of machines and keeping the process honest through official oversight seem simple enough to do.
But in recent years, polling places around the country have installed new machines, including direct recording electronic (DRE) machines on which voters use a touch screen. Problems with some of these machines have raised questions about whether votes are always being recorded and counted accurately. Studies demonstrate that hackers can change votes and election results. Voters in recent elections have also complained that touch screen machines sometimes flip votes cast for one candidate and give them to another. Some voting rights advocates are trying to ensure that in the 2008 election all machines produce a paper record verifiable by voters. However, such a paper trail will probably not exist at every polling place.
Another issue in vote-counting is conflict of interest by election officials. Sometimes a state official who oversees an election is also a candidate—or moves directly from a job as election administrator to a job as a lobbyist for the voting machine industry.
Electoral College Vote
At a December meeting of the "Electoral College," the electors vote to determine officially who the next president will be. This meeting, though, is only a formality, for the results have usually been known for more than a month.
Inauguration Day is January 20 in Washington, D.C. The new president takes an oath of office and delivers an inaugural address.
1. What questions do students have about the reading? How might they be answered?
2. Presidential campaigns cost a lot of money. Brainstorm for five minutes a list of items—in addition to those cited in the reading—that would cost a presidential candidate money.
3. Who are the candidates—Democrats? Republicans? Others?
4. What do students regard as the major issues in the 2008 presidential election? Why?
5. What do they know about candidate positions on each?
Consider independent, small group, and whole class inquiries. Have students frame questions on such issues as the following and analyze these questions for clarity and worth.
See "Thinking Is Questioning" and the doubting game section of "Teaching Critical Thinking" on this website for detailed suggestions on asking and analyzing questions. Also see "The Presidential Campaign: The Race for Money" on campaign finance, "Electronic Voting Machines: Is Your Vote Counted?" on the new machines.
Possible questions for student inquiry
- Campaign finance-rules, sources, issues
- Public financing of campaigns
- The polling process
- A study of a particular primary or caucus
- A study of a particular issue as viewed from multiple points of view
- Comparing party platforms
- New voting machines and problems with them
- The electoral system-why it was included in the Constitution; problems with the system; proposals to change it
- Researching a candidate (each has a website)
- The media (TV, newspapers, magazines radio, internet) and studies of how a particular newspaper or internet blog treats individual candidates or campaign issues; comparisons and contrasts
- A local campaign office-interviews of campaign workers on activities and issues of interest
- The local voting system; any problems with this system and how these problems are being addressed
This lesson was written for TeachableMoment.Org, a project of Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility. We welcome your comments. Please email them to: firstname.lastname@example.org