When looking at the factors that determine the outcome of Presidential elections we must first look at the credentials a candidate needs in order to even consider running for office. As affirmed in Article II of the Constitution they need to be a natural-born US citizen, at least 35 years of age, and have been a resident in the US for at least 14 years. (After 1951, an amendment was passed stating that a person cannot serve more than 2 terms as president).
US Presidential elections are used to choose representatives for a fixed-term period in office (of four years). There are always held on the Tuesday after the first Monday in November and the system employed is FPTP, a simple majority system.
A presidential election can be split up into two distinct stages; the first being concerned with choosing the candidates; and the second is concerned with electing the President.
Because the parties in the US don’t have ‘leaders’ in the way UK parties do, and it is therefore necessary for them to choose a suitable candidate to carry forward into phase two of the process stand in the presidential election.
The race for the presidency begins unofficially with what are known as the ‘invisible primaries’ – a period in which a candidate strives to gain name recognition, personnel, positive media attention and finance for your campaign. The idea being that this gives your campaign a flying start when it comes to the pre-nomination phase (this has led to what is known as ‘front loading’) which begins in January and runs right though until the NPC’s held some time in the summer, where the party formally announces their chosen candidate.
The procedures used by the two main political parties for selecting a presidential candidate are either a caucus or primary election held at state level. The results of these primaries of caucuses in the different states determine the delegates who attend the NPC. This stage of the campaign is very expensive and fund-raising is vital. Only a candidate who has built up enough momentum during the ‘invisible primary’ and performs well in the early stages of the primary season will attract the funds required to keep their campaign going all the way through till the NPC.
(Candidates may run for office without the support of a political party, as Independents).
Once the candidates are chosen, with the backing of PAC’s (Political Action Committees – whose primary function is to help finance election contests), candidates now tend to run their own campaigns, since the role of parties in electioneering has somewhat diminished in recent years.
(Another purpose of the campaign is not only to reach out to as many people as possible, but also to ensure that those people actually turnout and vote – the parties and PAC’s play an important role in trying to rectify this problem).
Sources of income for Presidential elections come from the individual candidate, interested individuals, interest groups operating through PAC’s and political parties.
The role of money in US Presidential elections has long been a controversial, as have the sources of funding. Concerns that money is too influential in determining election outcomes and that individual donor’s might expect political favors in return for their money have come to head in the 1970’s.
Since FECA in 1974, there have been various attempts of further reform. Senators McCain and Feingold tried unsuccessfully for a number of years, and finally got the 2002 Bipartisan Act (banning ‘soft money’) passed on the basis that restrictions on how money is spent is unconstitutional as it is an infringement on the right to freedom of expression.
Some now describe the media as ‘the fourth branch of government’. Managing the media involves ensuring the right people get the right information.
Today, television has taken over campaigning, but the purpose still remains, to encourage the electorate to support the personality and policy platform on polling day. The process of ‘electioneering’ has always demanded certain qualities from the candidate – a pleasing voice, being a good orator, the ability to sell ones personality and to persuade people of the virtues of a particular case. Today, a lack of any of these qualities, or mistakes made during the campaign are quickly identified and exploited (sometimes through negative campaigning from opponents), whereas before it was not as much of an issue as most people were unaware of whom they were voting for (as seen with FDR who was a cripple; a circumstance that would have surely excluded him from the running if it were publicly known at the time).
The presidential and vice-presidential debates now play a huge part in the outcome of elections (as seen with Nixon in the 1960’s when his appearance lost him the election).
Elections nowadays are more ‘candidate-centered’, thus focusing more on his (or her) positive qualities and/or failings than on party labels – ‘partisan dealignment’. In order to overcome this, candidates must ensure there are sufficient funds to allow them to get the message across as widely as possible, so that everyone knows who they are and what they stand for. A way of doing this is through using the new campaign technology, professionals, specialist’s etc. to exploit the potential of the candidate and downplaying those of an opponent. (These tactics first came to real prominence during the Clinton years).
Each presidential nominee has to select a vice-presidential candidate and they are then presented to the electorate as a team or ‘ticket’. Traditionally, Presidential candidates have chosen a running mate who compliments himself both in background, style and policy – i.e. so that they are a ‘balanced ticket’ (e.g. GWB and Cheney). This is important (although not essential as seen with Clinton and Gore) as it helps the candidate ascertain the political ‘middle ground’ in conjunction to the concept of ‘Triangulation’. (Hence, the Democrats need to show ‘social conservatism’ as much as possible and similarly the Republicans need to pursue ‘compassionate conservatism’). This can also be achieved through projected policies and political stances on certain issues. It has been proved that the candidate, who occupies the political ‘middle ground’ the best, wins elections.
In conclusion, those who do vote, do so in the light of various influences, of which their long-term party identification has traditionally been the most important. However, in a television age, in which campaigning is conducted in a more visible way then ever before and in which the amount of information available has dramatically increased, the merits of the candidate and issues of the time have become particularly relevant, and ultimately decides elections.