How the U.S. election process works: David Jones

Written by  //  January 15, 2008  //  David/Terry Jones, People Meta, Wednesday Night Authors  //  Comments Off on How the U.S. election process works: David Jones

We are grateful to David for his excellent election primer for all who are confused by the process (particularly the role of the Electoral College), although we do detect a tiny bit of bias in his references to certain candidates.

The Race to the U.S. White House:
How It Works and What It Means

Is It Too Soon for the Democrats to Start Salivating Over a Dream Ticket of Hillary/Barak or Barak/Hillary?

WASHINGTON D.C.—Relentlessly self-focused and inner-directed as we are, U.S. citizens consider that the 2008 election is “our thing”—its relevance to non-Americans is irrelevant to virtually all U.S.participants. Those asking “what will others think of us?” in making their selections are as few as robins in an Ottawa January.
And that is as it should be. Who, after all, who should U.S.leaders be seeking to please? Europeans? Asians? Africans? Or the citizens of more specific nations—Chinese, Indians, Israelis, Iraqis, Russians, Mexicans, Canadians? The answer is obvious—an elected official is chosen on the basis of his/her ability to respond to domestic needs. If success in foreign policy were key to election victory, George H.W. Bush, on the heels of a massive Gulf War cum UN Coalition success in 1991, would have brushed aside a smarmy ex-governor from Arkansas. If a foreign affairs issue impinges on the election, e.g., Vietnam in 1968 or Iraq in 2008, it reflects the issue’s influence on U.S.citizens, not any perception of the effect of that U.S. policy on others.
Consequently, on those rare occasions when an ordinary U.S.citizen happens to note that non-Americans are devoting massive attention to the U.S. election, the reaction is both bafflement and amusement. Why would anyone be interested in our family discussion? And what chutpazh to be telling us who we should be selecting! (You can be sure that in 2004 Democrat presidential hopeful Senator John Kerry didn’t advertise that he was the Canadian candidate.)
To be sure, among professional diplomats and political observers, any election is an exercise in Comparative Government 101. Yes, all democracies have basic, comparable parameters: identifiable candidates/parties espouse specific policies; they seek popular support for political positions; on a given day, the population by an agreed mechanism transforms its individual choices (votes) into a legally accepted conclusion. It is the differences, however, that make elections fascinating. Ultimately, these are choices by people, and U.S. elections with their combination of hoopla and high-tech provide a window into another universe—one that may be coming to your future now previewed in HD TV.
For the United States, the process is long and detailed, but not that difficult to navigate.

Election 2008: A Procedural Primer

On Nov. 4 (always preset as the first Tuesday in November), the United States will elect all 435 members of the House of Representatives, one-third of the 100-member Senate, and a president. Federal national elections are held every two years (they have not been suspended in time of crisis, not even during the Civil War). All Congressmen in the House of Representatives are elected every two years; Senators are elected for six-year terms (hence one-third is elected every two years); and the president is elected every four years.
Then the complications begin. While Congressmen and Senators are directly elected by the people on a one-person one-vote, first-past-the-post basis, the president and vice-president are selected indirectly. Thus the president is selected independently of Congress and is not the national legislative leader, but rather the executive authority of the United States—an essential difference from the Parliamentary system.
The U.S. Constitution creates an Electoral College in which each state has a vote totaling the sum of its representatives and Senators (the 538 member College also includes three District of Columbia electors although the U.S. capital has no Congressional representation). The presidential vote in each state is thus for “electors” committed to a particular candidate rather than for the candidate personally. Thus a tiny state such as Vermont has three electoral votes (one Congressman and two Senators) while California, the state with the largest population, has 55, that is, the sum of its Congressional delegation and its two Senators.
These votes are awarded en masse to the presidential candidate who has the greatest number of votes in the state. Thus Senator Blue could win the popular vote in California by getting one more vote than Governor Red and be accorded all 55 of California’s electoral votes (assuming that the electors remain faithful to their pledges to support their party’s candidate). There is no proportionate distribution of electoral votes depending on the ratio of the popular votes: it is all—or nothing—so far as the electoral vote is concerned. A candidate needs a majority of the Electoral College, i.e., 270 electoral votes, to become president.
In a normal election (and the normal election historically has been the norm), one candidate has a clear majority or plurality in the popular vote (the sum of all of the votes by individual citizens across the country) which translates into a clear majority in the Electoral College. Consequently, even when the popular vote is relatively close, the result can be a large Electoral College majority for a candidate able to build on narrow popular vote victories in major states such as California,Texas, Florida, New York, Illinois, and Pennsylvania with large numbers of electoral votes.
In an abnormal election, and the 2000 election so qualified, the winner of the popular vote (vice president Al Gore) ultimately was not the winner of the Electoral College vote (governor George W. Bush). After extended inconclusive recounting in Florida followed by equally contentious legal action, the U.S. Supreme Court ended recounting in Florida, and thereby accorded the presidency to Governor Bush. As the last previous incident in which the winner of the popular vote had not become president was in 1888 (incumbent president Grover Cleveland lost to senator Benjamin Harrison), such a dispute is not likely to be repeated in 2008.
Getting to Election Day
The 2004 U.S. election was held on Nov. 2. The 2008 election campaign began on Nov. 3, 2004. That is to say, that for many potential candidates and political parties, it is “all politics, all the time.” Or, for some individuals, the objective of being president of the United States is all but genetically imprinted and (honest) candidates will admit that they wanted to be president as soon as they could voice the aspiration. This circumstance can be either tremendously exciting (the political advocate who thinks and dreams politics as naturally as breathing) or as boring as being sentenced to hear Paul Martin repeat his stump speech 26 times per day. But the concept of 360 degree politics is a reflection of modern society and high technology. Once I thought that a Parliamentary system with a limited campaign period vitiated the endless campaign. Then a friendly MP disillusioned me; in effect, the MP explained, when an election is called at the will/whim of the government, the opposition must be prepared for an election at any time. And doubly so when it is a minority government.
Getting the Nomination
Candidates for president and vice-president are selected at party conventions by majority vote of the delegates. These are akin to Canadian party conferences at which a new leader is selected. Some senior political party figures are given automatic status as “delegates” to the convention. Others are chosen through popular elections (primaries and caucuses). A U.S. political party, legally a private organization, makes its own rules for selecting delegates, e.g., requiring a certain percentage to be of a particular age or gender. And a state that had supported the party in the previous election may be rewarded with more delegates.
Historically, a party’s nominee was selected in the proverbial “smoke-filled room” where political bosses connived to secure the position for their candidate—perhaps even a well-qualified individual. It was not until the 1952 campaign season that primary elections, ostensibly more democratic, began to get traction. In that race, senator Estes Kefauver of Tennessee won 12 of the 15 primaries in which he entered (another three were won by “favorite sons”); however, Illinois governor Adlai Stevenson was selected by party insiders as the Democrat nominee. It didn’t really matter as World War II hero Dwight Eisenhower would have defeated any Democrat—and did.
Nevertheless, over the subsequent half century, primary elections have become the route that candidates must follow in both parties for the presidential nomination. What was once a sprint has become a marathon conducted over years as political candidates work doggedly to establish effective organizations and supporters in key early primary states, notably Iowa and New Hampshire, from which they hope to generate attention and “momentum” with victory or at least “better than expected” finishes.
Primaries and Caucuses
Unless a party holds the White House with an incumbent eligible for re-election, the party has no axiomatic candidate for president. In this regard, 2008 is almost unique; it is the first election since 1952 in which neither an incumbent president nor vice president is running for president. Thus the wide open aspect of this election attracted both more candidates and provided no clearly defined favorite—or nobody beyond the flavor-of-the-month candidate (particularly among Republican candidates). This indecision has greatly profited pollsters whose “horse race” results have fed every political analysis for months. From the plethora of choices, one can conclude that some of the lesser candidates took to the hustings not necessarily believing that they were the equivalent of Lincoln or FDR. But, measured against their potential competition, they still believed themselves equal to if not better than the alternatives.
The caucuses were important because they came first (Jan. 3). Procedurally, the caucuses are the results of many small groups’ corporate discussions rather than direct secret ballot voting. And as Jay Leno quipped, “caucus is a Greek word which means ‘the only day anyone pays any attention to Iowa.” In the same way that we focus on other “firsts” (opening game; first child; initial military battle), we obsessed over the results from the Iowa caucuses as if they were the entrails from ritual sacrifices. In practical terms, Iowa is a small state with an unrepresentative ethnic/racial mix. Its importance was media magnified and, of course, for any candidate a victory is better than a defeat. The victory is projected by the winner to mean that “momentum” is theirs. The reality is a bit different: since 1976 in those caucus campaigns in which an incumbent president was not running, the Democrat winning Iowa became their presidential nominee three of six times; the Republican three of five.
New Hampshire
Finally, on Jan. 8, a real vote. But once again, it was a vote in a very small, highly selective constituency, overwhelmingly white and predominantly rural. Nevertheless, the state is one that takes its status as the “first to vote” with considerable pride. It has been a difficult constituency to “read” as registered independent voters can participate in either the Democratic or Republican primary. Moreover, throughout the past generation there have been a number of implicit “favorite sons” participating (Ted Kennedy, Michael Dukakis, Paul Tsongas, John Kerry, Howard Dean, Mitt Romney) which has skewed the outcomes. Nevertheless, since the state is relatively small and open to “retail” politics by a candidate with modest funding, hopefuls seek to generate visibility through media coverage in major east coast markets, e.g., Boston and New York, that can vault them into national prominence. However, as was the case in Iowa, success in New Hampshire does not guarantee subsequent victory. Since 1976 in the primaries in which an incumbent president was not on the ballot, Democratic winners became their party presidential nominee four of six times; Republicans three out of five.
The Rest of the Race
Again, since 1976 the Iowa and New Hampshire primaries have hardly been the end of the trail or a good predictor of subsequent success. But they have provided a sorting out mechanism. Only two Democrats (Al Gore in 2000 and John Kerry in 2004) won in both states—and although each was their party nominee, both lost the general election. Among Republicans, only Gerald Ford (1976), the incumbent but not elected president, won both Iowa and New Hampshire; he won the party nomination, but also lost the general election. And former president Bill Clinton likes to point out that in 1992 he lost five primaries before winning one—and then won the Democratic Party nomination and the presidency. But in this accomplishment, as in so many ways, Clinton is unique as he was the only Democrat—or Republican—to win his party nomination without winning either the caucuses or the New Hampshire primary.
With New Hampshire/Iowa now history, the remaining candidates will be struggling toward the “Super Tuesday” of Feb. 4 when 20 simultaneous primaries may well prove defining. In between, there will be primaries in Michigan, Nevada, South Carolina, and Florida, which may give one or another candidate further impetus or derail previous momentum. Has Clinton got her groove back? Will Obamamania wilt further in southern climes? Can McCain do in South Carolina what he was unable to do in 2000—translate a New Hampshire victory into effective southern strategy? Can twice runner-up Romney transform his family redoubt of Michigan into a first primary victory? Will it be “Giuliani time” in Florida?
And is it too soon for the Democrats to start salivating over a dream ticket of Hillary/Barak or Barak/Hillary?
In the end, speculation is fun, but elections are driven by money and organization. On the Democratic side, Clinton has both; Obama has money, but whether he has organization to handle the demands of Super Tuesday on Feb. 4 would be more questionable. Or whether his charisma will be an effective substitute for organization.
On the Republican side, the “Frankenstein’s Monster” image prevails; that is, the optimal Republican candidate would combine the positives of McCain, Guiliani, Romney, Thompson, etc., as individually each of them have potentially fatal flaws as the presidential nominee.

David Jones is a former political counsellor who worked at the U.S. Embassy from 1992-96.
© The Hill Times

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