Chapter Study Outline

Elections in America

  1. In democratic systems, elections can be used to replace current officeholders as well as being institutions of legitimation.
  2. Elections also help to promote government accountability and are a source of protection for groups in society.
  3. In the American federal system, the responsibility for organizing elections rests largely with state and local governments.
  4. Three types of elections are held in the United States: primary elections, general elections, and runoff elections. Americans occasionally also participate in a fourth voting process, the referendum, but the referendum is not actually an election. Eighteen states also have legal provisions for recall elections. The recall is an electoral device that allows voters to remove governors and other state officials from office prior to the expiration of their terms.
  5. Most general elections in the United States use the plurality system, a type of electoral system in which, to win a seat in the parliament or other representative body, a candidate need only receive the most votes in the election, not necessarily a majority of votes cast.
  6. State legislators routinely seek to influence electoral outcomes by manipulating the organization of electoral districts.
  7. Prior to the 1890s, voters cast ballots according to political parties. The advent of the neutral ballot allowed voters to choose individual candidates rather than a political party as a whole.
  8. Americans do not vote directly for presidential candidates. Rather, they choose electors who are pledged to support a party’s presidential candidate.

Election Campaigns

  1. Surveys of voter opinion, often called public opinion polls, provide the basic information that candidates and their staffs use to craft campaign strategies—that is, to select issues, to assess their own strengths and weaknesses as well as those of the opposition, to check voter response to the campaign, and to measure the degree to which various constituent groups may respond to campaign appeals.
  2. The first step in campaigning involves the organization of supporters to help the candidate raise funds and create public name recognition.
  3. The next steps of campaigning involve hiring experts—campaign managers, media consultants, pollsters, and others—to aid in developing issues and a message and communicating them to the public.
  4. Because most of the time a major-party nomination is necessary for electoral success, candidates must seek a party’s nomination in primary elections.

Presidential Elections

  1. Presidential candidates secure a party’s nomination by running in state party primaries and caucuses.
  2. Nominations of presidential candidates were first made in caucuses of a party’s members of Congress. This system was replaced in the 1830s by nominating conventions, which were designed to be a more democratic, deliberative method of nominating candidates.
  3. Contemporary conventions merely ratify a party’s presidential and vice-presidential nominations, although conventions still draft the party platform and adopt rules governing the party and its future conventions.
  4. In capital-intensive campaigns, the main technique is to use the broadcast media to present the electorate with themes and issues that will induce them to support one candidate over another.
  5. In recent years, the role of the parties during the general campaign has been transformed by the introduction of high-tech campaign techniques, including polls, use of broadcast media, phone banks, direct mail, professional public relations, and the Internet.

How Voters Decide

  1. Three factors influence voters’ decisions at the polls: partisan loyalty, issues, and candidate characteristics.
  2. The impact of issues and policy preferences on electoral choice is diminished if competing candidates do not differ substantially or do not focus their campaigns on policy matters.
  3. Partisan loyalty predisposes voters in favor of their party’s candidates and against those of the opposing party.
  4. Candidates’ attributes and personality characteristics always influence voters’ decisions.
  5. The salience of these three bases of electoral choice varies from contest to contest and from voter to voter.

The 2008 and 2010 Elections

  1. In 2008, for the first time in the nation’s history, Americans elected an African American to the White House. The 2008 presidential election was also notable because of the prominence of a female candidate (Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton).
  2. The 2008 campaigns also brought about a significant shift in the electoral map, as states like Virginia and North Carolina that hadn’t supported a Democratic candidate in decades went from “red” to “blue.”
  3. [Placeholder for the 2012 elections]

Money and Politics

  1. Campaign funds in the United States are provided by small, direct-mail contributions, large gifts, PACs, political parties, 527s, candidates’ personal resources, and public funding.
  2. Campaign finance is regulated by the Federal Elections Campaign Act of 1971. Following the 1996 and 2000 elections, the role of soft money was scrutinized. The Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, a bipartisan attempt to restrict soft money contributions and issue advocacy, became law in 2002.
  3. The role played by private money in American politics affects the relative power of social groups. As a result, less affluent groups have considerably less power in the political system.

Thinking Critically about the Electoral Process

  1. Most Americans are wary of the high cost of campaigns and the apparently sinister role of campaign contributions in the political process. Although reform of spending practices may appear to advance the goal of political equality, it might do so at the expense of liberty.