United States presidential election
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The election of the President and the Vice President of the United States is an indirect vote in which citizens cast ballots for a slate of members of the U.S. Electoral College; these electors in turn directly elect the President and Vice President. Presidential elections occur quadrennially (the count beginning with the year 1792) on Election Day, the Tuesday between November 2 and 8, coinciding with the general elections of various other federal, states and local races. The most recent was the 2012 election, held on November 6. The next election will be the 2016 election, which will be held on November 8, 2016.
The process is regulated by a combination of both federal and state laws. Each state is allocated a number of Electoral College electors equal to the number of its Senators and Representatives in the U.S. Congress. Additionally, Washington, D.C. is given a number of electors equal to the number held by the smallest state. U.S. territories are not represented in the Electoral College.
Under the U.S. Constitution, each state legislature is allowed to designate a way of choosing electors. Thus, the popular vote on Election Day is conducted by the various states and not directly by the federal government. Once chosen, the electors can vote for anyone, but – with rare exceptions like an unpledged elector or faithless elector – they vote for their designated candidates and their votes are certified by Congress, who is the final judge of electors, in early January.
The nomination process, including the primary elections and the nominating conventions, was never specified in the Constitution, and was instead developed by the states and the political parties. This too is also an indirect election process, where voters cast ballots for a slate of delegates to a political party's nominating convention, who then in turn elect their party's presidential nominee.
- 1 History
- 2 Procedure
- 3 Trends
- 4 Criticisms
- 5 Electoral college results
- 6 Voter turnout
- 7 Financial disclosures
- 8 Presidential coattails
- 9 See also
- 10 Notes
- 11 External links
Article Two of the United States Constitution originally established the method of presidential elections, including the Electoral College. This was a result of a compromise between those constitutional framers who wanted the Congress to choose the president, and those who preferred a national popular vote.
Each state is allocated a number of electors that is equal to the size of its delegation in both houses of Congress combined. With the ratification of the 23rd Amendment to the Constitution in 1969, the District of Columbia is also granted a number of electors, equal to the number of those held by the least populous state. However, U.S. territories are not represented in the Electoral College.
Constitutionally, the manner for choosing electors is determined within each state by its legislature. During the first presidential election in 1789, only 6 of the 13 original states chose electors by any form of popular vote. Gradually throughout the years, the states began conducting popular elections to help choose their slate of electors, resulting in the overall, nationwide indirect election system that it is today.
Under the original system established by Article Two, electors could cast two votes to two different candidates for president. The candidate with the highest number of votes (provided it was a majority of the electoral votes) became the president, and the second-place candidate became the vice president. This presented a problem during the presidential election of 1800 when Aaron Burr received the same number of electoral votes as Thomas Jefferson and challenged Jefferson's election to the office. In the end, Jefferson was chosen as the president because of Alexander Hamilton's influence in the House of Representatives. This added to the deep rivalry between Burr and Hamilton which resulted in their famous 1804 duel.
In response to the 1800 election, the 12th Amendment was passed, requiring electors to cast two distinct votes: one for President and another for Vice President. The Amendment also established rules when no candidate wins a majority vote in the Electoral College.
In the presidential election of 1824, Andrew Jackson received a plurality, but not a majority, of electoral votes cast. The election was thrown to the House of Representatives, and John Quincy Adams was elected to the presidency. A deep rivalry was fermented between Andrew Jackson and House Speaker Henry Clay, who had also been a candidate in the election.
Although the nationwide popular vote does not directly determine the winner of a presidential election, it does strongly correlate with who is the victor. In 52 of the 56 total elections held so far (about 93 percent), the winner of the Electoral College vote has also carried the national popular vote. However, candidates can fail to get the most votes in the nationwide popular vote in a Presidential election and still win that election. In the 1824 election, Jackson won the popular vote, but no one received the majority of electoral votes. According to the 12th Amendment in the Constitution, the House of Representatives must choose the president out of the top 3 people in the election. Clay had come fourth, so he threw his support to Adams, who then won. Because Adams later named Clay his Secretary of State, Jackson's supporters claimed that Adams gained the presidency by making a deal with Clay. Charges of a "corrupt bargain" followed Adams through his term. Then in 1876, 1888 and 2000, the winner of electoral vote lost the popular vote outright. Numerous constitutional amendments have been submitted seeking to replace the Electoral College with a direct popular vote, but none has ever successfully passed both Houses of Congress. Another alternate proposal is the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, an interstate compact whereby individual participating states agree to allocate their electors based on the winner of the national popular vote instead of just their respective statewide results.
The presidential election day was established on a Tuesday in the month of November because of the factors involved (weather, harvests and worship). When voters used to travel to the polls by horse, Tuesday was an ideal day because it allowed people to worship on Sunday, ride to their county seat on Monday, and vote on Tuesday–all before market day, Wednesday. The month of November also fit nicely between harvest time and harsh winter weather, which could be especially bad to people traveling by horse and buggy.
Until 1937, presidents were not sworn in until March 4 because it took so long to count and report ballots, and because of the winner's logistical issues of moving to the capital. With better technology and the 20th Amendment being passed, presidential inaugurations were moved to noon on January 20–allowing presidents to start their duties sooner.
Article Two of the United States Constitution stipulates that for a person to serve as President, the individual must be a natural-born citizen of the United States, at least 35 years old, and a resident of the United States for a period of no less than 14 years. A candidate may start running his or her campaign early before turning 35 years old or completing 14 years of residency, but must meet the age and residency requirements by Inauguration Day. The Twenty-second Amendment to the Constitution also sets a term limit: a President cannot serve more than two terms.
In addition, the Twelfth Amendment requires that the Vice-President must meet all of the qualifications of being a President.
The modern nominating process of U.S. presidential elections currently consists of two major parts: a series of presidential primary elections and caucuses held in each state, and the presidential nominating conventions held by each political party. This process was never included in the United States Constitution, and thus evolved over time by the political parties to clear the field of candidates.
The primary elections are run by state and local governments, while the caucuses are organized directly by the political parties. Some states hold only primary elections, some hold only caucuses, and others use a combination of both. These primaries and caucuses are staggered between January and June before the federal election, with Iowa and New Hampshire traditionally holding the first presidential state caucus and primary, respectively.
Like the general election, presidential caucuses or primaries are indirect elections. The major political parties officially vote for their presidential candidate at their respective nominating conventions, usually all held in the summer before the federal election. Depending on each state's law and state's political party rules, when voters cast ballots for a candidate in a presidential caucus or primary, they may be voting to award delegates "bound" to vote for a candidate at the presidential nominating conventions, or they may simply be expressing an opinion that the state party is not bound to follow in selecting delegates to their respective national convention.
Unlike the general election, voters in the U.S. territories can also elect delegates to the national conventions.
Along with delegates chosen during primaries and caucuses, state delegations to both the Democratic and Republican conventions also include "unpledged" delegates who can vote for whomever they want. For Republicans, these include top party officials. Democrats have a more expansive group of unpledged delegates called "superdelegates", who are party leaders and elected officials.
Each party's presidential candidate also chooses a vice presidential nominee to run with them on the same ticket, and this choice is rubber-stamped by the convention.
The popular vote on Election Day
Under the United States Constitution, the manner of choosing electors for the Electoral College is determined by each state's legislature. Although each state currently designates electors by popular vote, other methods are allowed. For instance, a number of states formerly chose presidential electors by a vote of the state legislature itself.
However, federal law does specify that all electors must be selected on the same day, which is "the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November," i.e. a Tuesday no earlier than November 2 and no later than November 8. Today, the states and the District of Columbia each conduct their own popular elections on Election Day to help determine their respective slate of electors. Thus, the presidential election is really an amalgamation of separate and simultaneous state elections instead of a single national election run by the federal government.
Like any other election in the United States, the eligibility of an individual for voting is set out in the Constitution and regulated at state level. The Constitution states that suffrage cannot be denied on grounds of race or color, sex or age for citizens eighteen years or older. Beyond these basic qualifications, it is the responsibility of state legislatures to regulate voter eligibility.
Generally, voters are required to vote on a ballot where they select the candidate of their choice. The presidential ballot is a vote "for the electors of a candidate" meaning that the voter is not voting for the candidate, but endorsing a slate of electors pledged to vote for a specific Presidential and Vice Presidential candidate.
Many voting ballots allow a voter to “blanket vote” for all candidates in a particular political party or to select individual candidates on a line by line voting system. Which candidates appear on the voting ticket is determined through a legal process known as ballot access. Usually, the size of the candidate's political party and the results of the major nomination conventions determine who is pre-listed on the presidential ballot. Thus, the presidential election ticket will not list every candidate running for President, but only those who have secured a major party nomination or whose size of their political party warrants having been formally listed. Laws are in effect to have other candidates pre-listed on a ticket, provided that enough voters have endorsed the candidate, usually through a signature list.
The final way to be elected for president is to have one's name written in at the time of election as a write-in candidate. This is used for candidates who did not fulfill the legal requirements to be pre-listed on the voting ticket. It is also used by voters to express a distaste for the listed candidates, by writing in an alternative candidate for president such as Mickey Mouse or comedian Stephen Colbert (whose application was voted down by the South Carolina Democratic Party). In any event, a write-in candidate has never won an election for President of the United States.
Because U.S. territories are not represented in the Electoral College, U.S. citizens in those areas do not vote in the general election for President. Guam has held straw polls for president since the 1980 election to draw attention to this fact.
Most state laws establish a winner-take-all system, wherein the ticket that wins a plurality of votes wins all of that state's allocated electoral votes, and thus has their slate of electors chosen to vote in the Electoral College. Maine and Nebraska do not use this method, opting instead to give two electoral votes to the statewide winner and one electoral vote to the winner of each Congressional district.
Each state's winning slate of electors then meets at their respective state's capital on the first Monday after the second Wednesday in December to cast their electoral votes on separate ballots for President and Vice President. Although Electoral College members can technically vote for anyone under the U.S. Constitution, 24 states have laws to punish faithless electors, those who do not cast their electoral votes for the person whom they have pledged to elect.
In early January, the total Electoral College vote count is opened by the sitting Vice President, acting in his capacity as President of the Senate, and read aloud to a joint session of the incoming Congress, which was elected at the same time as the President.
If no candidate receives a majority of the electoral vote (currently at least 270), the President is determined by the rules outlined by the 12th Amendment. Specifically, the selection of President would then be decided by a ballot of the House of Representatives. For the purposes of electing the President, each state has only one vote. A ballot of the Senate is held to choose the Vice President. In this ballot, each senator has one vote. The House of Representatives has chosen the victor of the presidential race only twice, in 1800 and 1824; the Senate has chosen the victor of the vice-presidential race only once, in 1836.
If the President is not chosen by Inauguration Day, the Vice President-elect acts as President. If neither are chosen by then, Congress by law determines who shall act as President, pursuant to the 20th Amendment.
Unless there are faithless electors, disputes, or other controversies, the events in December and January mentioned above are largely a formality since the winner can be determined based on the state-by-state popular vote results. Between the general election and Inauguration Day, this apparent winner is referred to as the "President-elect" (unless it is a sitting President that has won re-election).
The entire presidential campaign and election process usually takes almost two years. The typical periods of this process are as follows:
- Spring of the previous calendar year – Candidates announce their intentions to run
- Summer to December of the previous calendar year – Primary and caucus debates
- January to June – Primaries and caucuses
- July to early September – Nominating conventions (including those of the minor third parties)
- Late September and October – Presidential election debates
- Early November – Election Day
- December – Electors cast their electoral votes
- Early January of the following calendar year – Congress counts the electoral votes
- January 20 of the following calendar year – Inauguration Day
A number of trends in the political experience of presidents have been observed over the years. In recent decades, the presidential nominees of the Democratic and Republican parties have been either incumbent presidents, sitting or former vice presidents, sitting or former U.S. Senators, or sitting or former state Governors. The last major nominee from either party who had not previously served in such an office was General Dwight D. Eisenhower, who won the Republican nomination and ultimately the presidency in the 1952 election. Chester A. Arthur had held no federal or statewide office, before becoming Vice President and then President following the assassination of President James A. Garfield in 1881.
The U.S. Secretary of State used to be a stepping-stone to the White House, with five of the six Presidents who served between 1801 and 1841 previously holding that office. However, since 1841, only one Secretary of State has gone on to be President (James Buchanan).
Fourteen Presidents have previously served as Vice President. However only John Adams (1796), Thomas Jefferson (1800), Martin Van Buren (1836), Richard Nixon (1968) and George H. W. Bush (1988) began their first term after winning an election. Among the remaining nine who began their first term as President according to the presidential line of succession after their respective predecessor died or resigned from office, Theodore Roosevelt, Calvin Coolidge, Harry S. Truman, and Lyndon B. Johnson were reelected. John Tyler, Millard Fillmore, Andrew Johnson, Chester A. Arthur, and Gerald Ford served as President but never won any presidential election. Ford had been appointed to the Vice Presidency through the processes of the Twenty-fifth Amendment and lost the 1976 presidential election, making him the only President to have never been elected to national office.
In the 2008 election, the nominees of both major parties, Barack Obama and John McCain, were sitting U.S. Senators. Before 2008, fifteen presidents previously served in the Senate, including four of the five Presidents who served between 1945 and 1974. However, only two out of those fifteen were sitting U.S. Senators at the time they were elected president (Warren G. Harding in 1920 and John F. Kennedy in 1960). Major-party candidate Senators Andrew Jackson (1824), Lewis Cass (1848), Stephen Douglas (1860), Barry Goldwater (1964), George McGovern (1972), and John Kerry (2004) all lost their elections. Only one sitting member of the House of Representatives has been elected president (James A. Garfield in 1880), although eighteen presidents have been former members of the House.
Despite Obama's tenure, contemporary electoral success has clearly favored state governors. Of the last six presidents, four (Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush) have been governors of a state. Geographically, these presidents were from either very large states (California, Texas) or from a state south of the Mason-Dixon Line and east of Texas (Georgia, Arkansas). In all, sixteen presidents have been former governors, including seven who were in office as governor at the time of their election to the presidency. Other major-party candidates who were also state governors include Michael Dukakis (1988), and Mitt Romney (2012).
After leaving office, one President, William Howard Taft, served as Chief Justice of the United States. Only two Presidents, John Quincy Adams (serving in the House) and Andrew Johnson (serving in the Senate), have served in Congress after being President. John Quincy Adams however is the only former President to be elected to federal office; when Andrew Johnson served as a Senator, state legislatures appointed the Senators.
Technology and media
Advances in technology and media have also affected presidential campaigns. The invention of both radio and television have given way to the reliance of national political advertisements across those methods of communication. National advertisements such as Lyndon B. Johnson's 1964 commercial "Daisy", Ronald Reagan's 1984 commercial "Morning in America", and George H.W. Bush's 1988 commercial "Revolving Door" became major factors in those respective elections. In 1992, George H. W. Bush's broken promise of "Read my lips: no new taxes" was extensively used in the commercials of Bill Clinton and Bush's other opponents with significant effect during the campaign.
Since the development of the Internet in the mid-90s, Internet activism has also become an invaluable component of presidential campaigns, especially since 2000. The internet was first used in the 1996 presidential elections, but primarily as a brochure for the candidate online. It was only used by a few candidates and there is no evidence of any major effect on the outcomes of that election cycle.
In 2000, both candidates (George W. Bush and Al Gore) created, maintained and updated their campaign website. But it was not until the 2004 presidential election cycle was the potential value of the internet seen. By the summer of 2003, ten people competing in the 2004 presidential election had developed campaign websites. Howard Dean’s campaign website from that year was considered a model for all future campaign websites. His website played a significant role in his overall campaign strategy. It allowed his supporters to read about his campaign platform and provide feedback, donate, get involved with the campaign, and connect with other supporters. A Gallup poll from January 2004 revealed that 49 percent of Americans have used the internet to get information about candidates, and 28 percent said that they use the internet to get this information frequently.
In 2008, the internet became a grassroots and a voice of the people tool-a way for the users to connect with each other and with the campaign, like Dean’s website had done in 2004. All of the major candidates had a website and utilized social networking like facebook and myspace. The popularity of a candidate could be measured by the number of ‘friends’ on these sites as well as on websites like Hitwise, which listed the number of hits all of the presidential candidate’s websites had each week.
A study done by the Pew Internet & American Life Project in conjunction with Princeton Survey Research Associates in November 2010 shows that 54 percent of adults in the United States used the internet to get information about the 2010 midterm elections and about specific candidates. This represents 73 percent of adult internet users. The study also showed that 22 percent of adult internet users used social network sites or Twitter to get information about and discuss the elections and 26 percent of all adults used cell phones to learn about or participate in campaigns.
E-campaigning as it has come to be called, is subject to very little regulation. On March 26, 2006 the Federal Election Commission voted unanimously to “not regulate political communication on the Internet, including emails, blogs and the creating of Web sites” This decision made only paid political ads placed on websites subject to campaign finance limitations. A comment was made about this decision by Roger Alan Stone of Advocacy Inc. that explain this loophole in the context of a political campaign, "A wealthy individual could purchase all of the e-mail addresses for registered voters in a congressional district . . . produce an Internet video ad, and e-mail it along with a link to the campaign contribution page..Not only would this activity not count against any contribution limits or independent expenditure requirements; it would never even need to be reported”
Today, the presidential election process remain controversial, with critics arguing that it is inherently undemocratic, and discourages voter participation and turnout in many areas of the country. Because of the staggered nature of the primary season, voters in Iowa, New Hampshire and other small states which traditionally hold their primaries and caucuses first in January usually have a major impact on the races. Campaign activity, media attention, and voter participation are usually higher in these states, as the candidates attempt to build momentum and generate a bandwagon effect in these early primaries. Conversely, voters in California and other large states which traditionally hold their primaries last in June usually end up having no say in who the presidential candidates will be. The races are usually over by then, and thus the campaigns, the media, and voters have little incentive to participate in these late primaries. As a result, more states vie for earlier primaries to claim a greater influence in the process. However, compressing the primary calendar in this way limits the ability of lesser-known candidates to effectively corral resources and raise their visibility among voters, especially when competing with better-known candidates who have more financial resources and the institutional backing of their party's establishment. Primary and caucus reform proposals include a National Primary held on a single day; or the Interregional Primary Plan, where states would be grouped into six regions, and each of the regions would rotate every election on who would hold their primaries first.
With the primary races usually over before June, the political conventions have mostly become scripted, ceremonial affairs. As the drama has left the conventions, and complaints grown that they were scripted and dull pep rallies, public interest and viewership has fallen off. After formerly offering gavel-to-gavel coverage of the major party conventions in the mid-20th Century, the Big Three television networks now only devote approximately three hours of coverage (one hour per night).
Critics also argue that the Electoral College is archaic and inherently undemocratic. With all but two states (the exceptions being Maine and Nebraska) using a winner-take-all system, both the Democratic Party and the Republican Party candidates are all but certain to win all the electoral votes from the predominately Democratic and Republican states, respectively. This encourages presidential candidates to focus exponentially more time, money, and energy campaigning in a few so-called "swing states", states in which no single candidate or party has overwhelming support. Such swing states like Ohio are inundated with campaign visits, saturation television advertising, get-out-the-vote efforts by party organizers, and debates. Meanwhile, candidates and political parties have no incentive to mount nationwide campaign efforts, or work to increase voter turnout, in predominately Democratic "safe states" like California or predominately Republican "safe states" like Texas. In practice, the winner-take-all system also both reinforces the country's two-party system and decreases the importance of third and minor political parties. Furthermore, a candidate can win the electoral vote without securing the greatest amount of the national popular vote, such as during the 1824, 1876, 1888, and 2000 elections. In theory, it is possible to secure the necessary 270 electoral votes from just the top 11 populous states and then ignore the rest of the country.
Constitutional amendments, such as the Every Vote Counts Amendment, have been proposed seeking to replace the Electoral College with a direct popular vote, which proponents argue would increase turnout and participation. Other proposed reforms include the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, an interstate compact without Congressional authorization, include the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, an interstate compact whereby individual participating states agree to allocate their electors based on the winner of the national popular vote, instead of voting their respective statewide results. Another proposal is for every state to simply adopt the District system used by Maine and Nebraska: give two electoral votes to the statewide winner and one electoral vote to the winner of each Congressional district. The Automatic Plan would replace the Electors with an automatic tallying of votes to eliminate the faithless elector affecting the outcome of the election. The Proportional Plan, often compared to the District Plan, would distribute electoral votes in each state in proportion to the popular vote, introducing third party effects in election outcomes. The House Plan would require a constitutional amendment to allocate electors based on the House apportionment alone to lessen small state advantage. Direct election plans and bonus plans have in common a higher valuation on the popular vote for president.
Electoral college results
The following is a table of electoral college results:
- Political party of each candidate is indicated in parentheses
- * Winner received less than an absolute majority of the popular vote.
- † Losing candidate received a plurality of the popular vote.
- ‡ Losing candidate received an absolute majority of the popular vote.
- ** As the second place winner, was elected Vice President as per the law in effect prior to the ratification of the Twelfth Amendment.
Voter turnout in the 2004 and 2008 elections showed a noticeable increase over the turnout in 1996 and 2000. Prior to 2004, voter turnout in presidential elections had been decreasing while voter registration, measured in terms of voting age population (VAP) by the U.S. Census, has been increasing. The VAP figure, however, includes persons ineligible to vote — mainly non-citizens and ineligible felons — and excludes overseas eligible voters. Opinion is mixed on whether this decline was due to voter apathy   or an increase in ineligible voters on the rolls. The difference between these two measures are illustrated by analysis of turnout in the 2004 and 2008 elections. Voter turnout from the 2004 and 2008 election was "not statistically different," based on the voting age population used by a November 2008 U.S. Census survey of 50,000 households . If expressed in terms of vote eligible population (VEP), the 2008 national turnout rate was 61.7% from 131.3 million ballots cast for president, an increase of over 1.6 percentage points over the 60.1% turnout rate of 2004, and the highest since 1968.
Prior to 1967, many presidential candidates disclosed assets, stock holdings, and other information which might affect the public trust. In that year, Republican candidate George W. Romney went a step further and released his tax returns for the previous twelve years. Since then, many presidential candidates – including all major-party nominees since 1980 – have released some of their returns, although few of the major party nominees have equaled or exceeded George Romney's twelve.
Presidential elections are held on the same date as those for all the seats in the United States House of Representatives, the full terms for 33 or 34 of the 100 seats in the United States Senate, the governorships in several U.S. states, as well as many state and local elections. Presidential candidates tend to bring out supporters who then vote for his party's candidates for those other offices. Members of the U.S. Senate or House of Representatives are also more likely to be voted for on a year of the presidential election than a midterm. In effect, these other candidates are said to ride on his coattails.
Comparison with other U.S. General Elections
|Senate||Class I (33 seats)||No||Class II (33 seats)||No||Class III (34 seats)|
|House||All 435 seats||No||All 435 seats||No||All 435 seats|
DE, IN, MO, MT, NH, NC, ND, UT, VT, WA, WV
AL, AK, AZ, AR, CA, CO, CT, FL, GA, HI, ID, IL, IA, KS, ME, MD, MA, MI, MN, NE, NV, NH, NM, NY, OH, OK, OR, PA, RI, SC, SD, TN, TX, VT, WI, WY
KY, LA, MS
DE, IN, MO, MT, NH, NC, ND, UT, VT, WA, WV
|Other state and local offices||Varies from state-to-state, county-to-county, city-to-city, community-to-community, etc.|
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to United States presidential election.|
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- United States presidential nominating convention
- United States presidential election debates
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- Swing state
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- List of United States presidential elections by popular vote margin
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- The Living Room Candidate: A Compilation of Presidential Television Ads
- A New Nation Votes: American Election Returns 1787-1825
- How close were Presidential Elections? - Michael Sheppard, Michigan State University
- Better World Links on the U.S. Presidential Election
- Presidential Elections: Resource Guides from the Library of Congress
- U.S. Election Statistics: A Resource Guide from the Library of Congress
- "Electoral Votes". New International Encyclopedia. 1905. This is a tabulation of the electoral votes by election year, and also includes the results for Vice President.
- Statistical forecasts