The Political Science of Campaigns, Elections, and Participation



The 33rd President of the United States of America, statesman Harry S Truman (1884 – 1972), waving from a train. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)


Edited by Matthew A. McIntosh / 03.17.2018
Historian
Brewminate Editor-in-Chief



1 – Elections

1.1 – Types of Elections

From the broad and general to the small and local, elections are designed to serve different purposes for various political voting systems.

1.1.1 – Introduction

In a parliamentary system, a general election is an election in which all or most members of a given political body are chosen. The term is usually used to refer to elections held for a nation’s primary legislative body, as distinguished from by-elections and local elections. In this system, members of parliament are also elected to the executive branch. The party in government usually designates the leaders of the executive branch.

Afghan Elections, 2005: An Afghan man casts his ballot at a polling station in Lash Kar Gah, Helmand Province, September 18, 2005. Polling stations were busy, but orderly, across the city.

A by-election is an election held to fill a political office that has become vacant between regularly scheduled elections. Usually, a by-election occurs when the incumbent has resigned or died. Local elections vary widely across jurisdictions. In an electoral system that roughly follows the Westminster model, a terminology has evolved with roles such as mayor or warden to describe the executive of a city, town, or region, although the actual means of elections may vary. Political careers are often made at the local level: Boris Yeltsin, for instance, as the top official in Moscow, was able to prove his effectiveness and eventually become President of Russia after the collapse of the USSR. When he fought his first contested local election, he demonstrated a willingness to put his policies to the ballot.

1.1.2 – Primary Elections

A primary election is an election that narrows the field of candidates before the general election. Primary elections are one means by which a political party nominates candidates for the next general election. Primaries are common in the United States, where their origins are traced to the progressive movement to take the power of candidate nomination away from party leaders and give it to the people. In the case of closed primaries, only party members can vote. By contrast, in an open primary all voters may cast votes on a ballot of any party. The party may require them to express their support to the party’s values and pay a small contribution to the costs of the primary.

1.1.3 – Referendum and Recall

Montenegro Referendum: In 2006, a referendum in the Republic of Montenegro took place.

A referendum is a direct vote in which an entire electorate is asked to either accept or reject a particular proposal, usually a piece of legislation which has been passed into law by the local legislative body and signed by the pertinent executive official(s). A referendum may result in the adoption of a new constitution, a constitutional amendment, a law, the recall of an elected official, or simply a specific government policy. Similarly, a recall election is a procedure by which voters can remove an elected official from office through a direct vote before his or her term has ended. Recalls, which are initiated when sufficient voters sign a petition, have a history dating back to the ancient Athenian democracy and are a feature of several contemporary constitutions.

1.2 – The Purpose of Elections

Elections have been the usual mechanism by which modern representative democracy has operated since the 17th century.

1.2.1 – Introduction

1,2.1.1 – Definition

Presidential Elections in Poland: Presidential Election 2005 in Poland (second round of voting, Oct.23rd).

An election is a formal decision-making process by which a population chooses an individual to hold public office. Elections have been the usual mechanism by which modern representative democracy has operated since the 17th century. Elections fill offices in the legislature, sometimes in the executive and judiciary, and for regional and local government. This process is also used in many other private and business organizations, from clubs to voluntary associations and corporations.

1.2.1.2 – History of Elections

The universal use of elections as a tool for selecting representatives in modern democracies is in contrast with the practice in the democratic archetype, ancient Athens. As the elections were considered an oligarchic institution and most political offices were filled using sortition, also known as allotment, by which officeholders were chosen by lot.

Elections were used as early in history as ancient Greece and ancient Rome, and throughout the Medieval period to select rulers such as the Holy Roman Emperor and the Pope. In ancient India, around 920 AD, in Tamil Nadu, Palm leaves were used for village assembly elections. The palm leaves with candidate names, will be put inside a mud pot, for counting. Ancient Arabs also used election to choose their caliphs, Uthman and Ali, in the early medieval Rashidun Caliphate; and to select the Pala king Gopala in early medieval Bengal.

1.2.1.3 – Suffrage

Graph of Voter Turnout in U.S. Presidential Elections, 1824-Present: Between 1824 and 1840, voter turnout when from about 26% to 80%. This extremely sharp rise was caused by the removal of property qualifications from the right to vote. (click image to enlarge)

The question of who may vote is a central issue in elections. The electorate does not generally include the entire population; for example, many countries prohibit those judged mentally incompetent from voting, and all jurisdictions require a minimum voting age. Suffrage is the right to vote gained through the democratic process. Citizens become eligible to vote after reaching the voting age, which is typically eighteen years old as of 2012 in the United States. Most democracies no longer extend different rights to vote on the basis of sex or race.

Universal Suffrage: Suffrage universel dédié à Ledru-Rollin, painted by Frédéric Sorrieu in 1850. This lithography pays tribute to French statesman Alexandre Auguste Ledru-Rollin for establishing universal male suffrage in France in 1848, following the French Revolution of 1848.

Where universal suffrage exists, the right to vote is not restricted by gender, race, social status, or wealth. It typically does not extend a right to vote to all residents of a region. Distinctions are frequently made in regard to citizenship, age, and occasionally mental capacity or criminal convictions. Suffrage is typically only for citizens of the country, though further limits may be imposed. However, in the European Union, one can vote in municipal elections if one lives in the municipality and is an EU citizen; the nationality of the country of residence is not required. In some countries, voting is required by law. If an eligible voter does not cast a vote, he or she may be subject to punitive measures such as a small fine. Compulsory voting is a system in which electors are obliged to vote in elections or attend a polling place on voting day. If an eligible voter does not attend a polling place, he or she may be subject to punitive measures such as fines, community service, or perhaps imprisonment if fines are unpaid or community service not performed.

1.3 – Types of Ballots

1.3.1 – Introduction

Haitians voting in the 2006 elections.: Clear sided ballot boxes used in the Haitian general election in 2006.

A ballot is a device used to cast votes in an election, and may be a piece of paper or a small ball used in secret voting. Each voter uses one ballot, and ballots are not shared. In the simplest elections, a ballot may be a simple scrap of paper on which each voter writes in the name of a candidate, but governmental elections use pre-printed ballots to protect the secrecy of the votes. The voter casts his or her ballot in a box at a polling station. A ballot box is a temporarily sealed container, usually square box though sometimes a tamper resistant bag, with a narrow slot in the top sufficient to accept a ballot paper in an election. The ballot box is also designed to prevent anyone from accessing the votes cast until the close of the voting period.

1.3.2 – Types of Voting Systems

  

[LEFT]: Butterfly Voters View: Perspective view of the infamous Florida butterfly ballot, reconstructed in 3-D from a reproduction in a Florida newspaper, to show how hard it is to identify which hole links to which name in “real life”, rather than the flat way it is usually displayed.
[RIGHT]: The Polling (Painting): The Polling by William Hogarth (1755). Before the secret ballot was introduced, voter intimidation was commonplace.

Depending on the type of voting system used in the election, different ballots may be used. Ranked ballots allow voters to rank candidates in order of preference, while ballots for first-past-the-post systems only allow voters to select one candidate for each position. In party-list systems, lists may be open or closed.

The secret ballot is a voting method in which a voter’s choices in an election or a referendum are anonymous. The key aim is to ensure that the voter records a sincere choice by forestalling attempts to influence the voter by intimidation or bribery. This system is one means of achieving the goal of political privacy. However, the secret ballot may increase the amount of vote buying where it is still legal. A political party or its affiliates could pay lukewarm supporters to turn out and pay lukewarm opponents to stay home, therefore reducing the costs of buying an election.

The United States uses a long and short ballot. Before the Civil War, a larger number of elected offices required longer ballots, and at times the long ballot undoubtedly resulted in confusion and blind voting, though the seriousness of either problem can be disputed. Progressivists attacked the long ballot during the Progressive Era. In the United States today, the term ballot reform generally refers to efforts to reduce the number of elected offices.

1.4 – Winning an Election: Majority, Plurality, and Proportional Representation

1.4.1 – Introduction

A voting system is a method by which voters make a choice between options, often in an election or on a policy referendum. A voting system contains rules for valid voting, and how votes are counted and aggregated to yield a final result. Common voting systems are majority rule, proportional representation, or plurality voting with a number of variations and methods such as first-past-the-post or preferential voting. The study of formally defined voting systems is called social choice theory, a subfield of political science, economics, and mathematics.

1.4.2 – Majority Rule

Majority rule is a decision rule that selects the option which has a majority, that is, more than half the votes. It is the binary decision rule used most often in influential decision-making bodies, including the legislatures of democratic nations. Some scholars have recommended against the use of majority rule, at least under certain circumstances, due to an ostensible trade-off between the benefits of majority rule and other values important to a democratic society. Being a binary decision rule, majority rule has little use in public elections, with many referendums being an exception. However, it is frequently used in legislatures and other bodies in which alternatives can be considered and amended in a process of deliberation until the final version of a proposal is adopted or rejected by majority rule.

1.4.3 – Proportional Representation

German federal election, 2005: Seats won by each party in the 2005 German federal election, an example of a proportional voting system.

Proportional representation (PR) is a concept in voting systems used to elect an assembly or council. Proportional representation means that the number of seats won by a party or group of candidates is proportionate to the number of votes received. For example, under a PR voting system if 30% of voters support a particular party then roughly 30% of seats will be won by that party. Proportional representation is an alternative to voting systems based on single member districts or on bloc voting; these non-PR systems tend to produce disproportionate outcomes and to have a bias in favor of larger political groups. PR systems tend to produce a proliferation of political parties, while single member districts encourage a two-party system.

1.4.4 – Plurality Voting System

Plurality ballot: An example of a plurality ballot.

The plurality voting system is a single-winner voting system often used to elect executive officers or to elect members of a legislative assembly that is based on single-member constituencies. This voting method is also used in multi-member constituencies in what is referred to as an exhaustive counting system where one member is elected at a time and the process repeated until the number of vacancies is filled. In political science, the use of the plurality voting system alongside multiple, single-winner constituencies to elect a multi-member body is often referred to as single-member district plurality (SMDP).

1.5 – Electoral Districts

1.5.1 – Definition

An electoral district is a distinct territorial subdivision for holding an election for one or more seats in a legislative body. Generally, only voters who reside within the geographical bounds of an electoral district, the constituents, are permitted to vote in an election held there. The term ” constituency ” can be used to refer to an electoral district or to the body of eligible voters within the represented area. In Australia and New Zealand, electoral districts are called “electorates,” but elsewhere the term generally refers to the body of voters.

In the United States, there are several types of districts:

  • Congressional districts
  • states
  • state representative districts
  • city council districts

An election commission is a body charged with overseeing the implementation of election procedures. The exact name used varies from country to country, including such terms as “electoral commission”, “central election commission”, “electoral branch” or “electoral court”. Election commissions can be independent, mixed, judicial or governmental. They may also be responsible for electoral boundary delimitation. In federations there may be a separate body for each subnational government. In the executive model the election commission is directed by a cabinet minister as part of the executive branch of government, and may include local government authorities acting as agents of the central body. Countries with this model include Denmark, Singapore, Sweden, Switzerland, Tunisia and the United States.

1.5.2 – District Magnitude

District magnitude is the number of representatives elected from a given district to the same legislative body. A single-member district has one representative, whereas a multi-member district has more than one. Proportional representation voting systems inherently require multi-member districts, and the larger the district magnitude the more proportional a system tends to be. Under proportional representation systems, district magnitude is an important determinant of the makeup of the elected body.

The geographic distribution of minorities also affects their representation — an unpopular nationwide minority can still secure a seat if they are concentrated in a particular district. District magnitude can vary within the same system during an election. In the Republic of Ireland, for instance, national elections to Dáil Éireann are held using a combination of 3, 4, and 5 member districts. In Hong Kong, the magnitude ranged from 3 to 5 in the 1998 election, but from 5 to 9 in the 2012.

1.5.3 – Appointment and Redistricting

Gerrymandering in Illinois: Another example of Illinois gerrymandering is the 17th congressional district in the western portion of the state. Notice how the major urban centers are anchored and how Decatur is nearly isolated from the primary district.

Apportionment is the process of allocating a number of representatives to different regions, such as states or provinces. Apportionment changes are often accompanied by redistricting, the redrawing of electoral district boundaries to accommodate the new number of representatives. This redrawing is necessary under single-member district systems, as each new representative requires his or her own district.

Apportionment is generally done on the basis of population. Seats in the United States House of Representatives, for instance, are reapportioned to individual states every 10 years following a census, with some states that have grown in population gaining seats. The United States Senate, by contrast, is apportioned without regard to population; every state gets exactly two senators. Malapportionment occurs when voters are under or over-represented due to variation in district population.

Gerrymandering in Ohio: An example of “cracking” style of gerrymandering. The urban (and mostly liberal) concentration of Columbus, Ohio, located at the center of the map in Franklin County, is split into thirds, with each segment attached to—and outnumbered by—largely conservative suburbs.

Gerrymandering is the manipulation of electoral district boundaries for political gain. By creating a few “forfeit” districts where voters vote overwhelmingly for rival candidates, gerrymandering politicians can manufacture more narrow wins among the districts they seek to win. Gerrymandering effectively concentrates wasted votes among opponents while minimizing wasted votes among supporters. Gerrymandering is typically done under voting systems with single-member districts.

1.5.4 – Swing Seats and Safe Seats

Sometimes, particularly under non-proportional winner-take-all voting systems, electoral districts can be prone to landslide victories. A safe seat is one that is very unlikely to be won by a rival politician due to the makeup of its constituency. Conversely, a swing seat is one that could easily swing either way. In United Kingdom general elections, the voting in a relatively small number of swing seats usually determines the outcome of the entire election. Many politicians aspire to have safe seats.

2 – The Modern Political Campaign

2.1 – Assembling a Campaign Staff

It is essential to gather a specialized and politically driven staff that helps run political campaigns in elections.

2.1.1 – Organization

In a modern political campaign, the campaign organization will have a coherent structure and staff like any other large business. Political campaign staff is the people who formulate and implement the strategy needed to win an election. Many people have made careers out of working full-time for campaigns and groups that support them. However, in other campaigns much of the staff might be unpaid volunteers.

2.1.2 – Campaign Manager

Successful campaigns usually require a campaign manager to coordinate the campaign’s operations. Apart from a candidate, the campaign manger is often a campaign’s most visible leader. Modern campaign managers may be concerned with executing strategy rather than setting it, particularly if the senior strategists are typically outside political consultants such as primarily pollsters and media consultants.

2.1.3 – Activists

Caricature of Woman Suffrage 1869: This is a satirical caricature of the possible consequences of giving women the vote. The two candidates “Susan Sharp-tongue the Celebrated Man-Tamer” (dressed in circus-performer costume) and “Miss Hangman for Sheriff” canvass for women’s votes (in 1869 women could not vote anywhere in the United States, except as a newly-established experimental innovation in the remote territory of Wyoming). At the right, a sharp-featured woman brandishes a fist threateningly at her husband, who holds the baby. In the 1860’s chignons were a fashionable hairstyle worn by most women and often supplemented with a roll of artificial hair. The artist has caricatured this hairstyle.

Activists are the ‘foot soldiers’ loyal to the cause. They are the true believers who will carry the run by volunteer activists. These volunteers and interns may take part in activities such as canvassing door-to-door and making phone calls on behalf of the campaign.

2.1.4 – Political Consultants

Political campaigns in the United States are not merely a civic ritual and an occasion for political debate. Campaigns are a multi-billion dollar industry, dominated by professional political consultants using sophisticated campaign management tools. Though the quadrennial presidential election attracts the most attention, the United States has a huge number of elected offices. There are wide variations between different states, counties, and municipalities on which offices are elected and under what procedures. Moreover, unlike democratic politics in much of the rest of the world, the U.S. has relatively weak parties. While parties play a significant role in fundraising and occasionally in drafting people to run, the individual candidates themselves ultimately control campaigns.

2.1.5 – Campaign Departments and Their Respective Purposes

The field department focuses on the “on-the-ground” organizing that is required in order to personally contact voters through canvassing, phone calls, and building local events. Voter contact helps construct and clean the campaign’s voter file in order to help better target voter persuasion and identify which voters a campaign most wants to bring out on Election Day. The field department is generally also tasked with running local “storefront” campaign offices as well as organizing phone banks and staging locations for canvasses and other campaign events.

The communications department oversees both the press relations and advertising involved in promoting the campaign in the media. They are responsible for the campaign’s message and image among the electorate. This department must approve press releases, advertisements, phone scripts, and other forms of communication before they can be released to the public.

The finance department coordinates the campaign’s fundraising operation and ensures that the campaign always has the money it needs to operate effectively. The techniques employed by this department vary based on the campaign’s needs and size. Small campaigns often involve casual fundraising events and phone calls from the candidate to donors asking for money. Larger campaigns will include everything from high-priced sit-down dinners to e-mail messages to donors asking for money.

The legal department makes sure that the campaign is in compliance with the law and files the appropriate forms with government authorities. In Britain and other Commonwealth countries, such as Canada and India, each campaign must have an official agent who is legally responsible for the campaign. The official agent is obligated to make sure the campaign follows all rules and regulations. This department will also be responsible for all financial tracking including bank reconciliations, loans, and backup for in-kind donations.

The technology department designs and maintains campaign technology such as voter file, websites, and social media. While local (county, city, town, or village) campaigns might have volunteers who know how to use computers, state and national campaigns will have information technology professionals across the state or country handling everything from websites to blogs to databases.

The scheduling and advance department makes sure that the candidate and campaign surrogates are effectively scheduled in order to maximize their impact on the voters. This department also oversees the people who arrive at events before the candidate to make sure everything is in order. Often, this department will be a part of the field department.

On small campaigns the scheduling coordinator may be responsible for developing and executing events. The scheduling coordinator typically: a) manages the candidate’s personal and campaign schedule, b) manages the field and advance team schedules, and c) gathers important information about all events the campaign and candidate will attend.

Candidates and other members of the campaign must bear in mind that only one person should oversee the details of scheduling. Fluid scheduling is one of the main components to making a profound impact on voters.

2.2 – The Modern Political Campaign

A modern political campaign informs citizens about a political candidate running for the elected office.

2.2.1 – Introduction

Candidate for Congress: Walter Faulkner, candidate for U.S. Congress, campaigning with a Tennessee farmer. Crossville, Tennessee.

A political campaign is an organized effort which seeks to influence the decision making process within a specific group. In democracies, political campaigns often refer to electoral campaigns, where representatives are chosen or referendums are decided. In modern politics, the most high profile political campaigns are focused on candidates for head of state or head of government, often a President or Prime Minister.

2.2.2 – Background History

Political campaigns have existed as long as there have been informed citizens. The phenomenon of political campaigns are tightly tied to lobby groups and political parties. The first modern campaign is thought to be William Ewart Gladstone’s Midlothian campaign in the 1880’s, although there may have been earlier modern examples from the 19th century. American election campaigns in the 19th century created the first mass-base political parties and invented many of the techniques of mass campaigning.

2.2.3 – Process of Campaigning

John Edwards Pittsburgh 2007: 2008 United States Presidential candidate John Edwards campaigning in Pittsburgh on Labor day in 2007, accepting the endorsement of the United Steelworkers and the United Mine Workers of America.

Major campaigns in the United States are often much longer than those in other democracies. Campaigns start anywhere from several months to several years before election day. Once a person decides to run, they will make a public announcement. This announcement could consist of anything from a simple press release to concerned media outlets to a major media event followed by a speaking tour. It is often well-known to many people that a candidate will run prior to an announcement being made.

Nixon Meets Crowds at Robins Air Force Base in Georgia: President Nixon “works the crowd” at Robins Air Force Base, Georgia in the initial stages of his campaign.

Campaigns often dispatch volunteers into local communities to meet with voters and persuade people to support the candidate. The volunteers are also responsible for identifying supporters, recruiting them as volunteers or registering them to vote if they are not already registered. The identification of supporters will be useful later as campaigns remind voters to cast their votes. Late in the campaign, campaigns will launch expensive television, radio, and direct mail campaigns aimed at persuading voters to support the candidate. Campaigns will also intensify their grassroots campaigns, coordinating their volunteers in a full court effort to win votes.

2.2.4 – Campaign Finance in the United States

Campaign finance in the United States is the financing of electoral campaigns at the federal, state, and local levels. At the federal level, campaign finance law is enacted by Congress and enforced by the Federal Election Commission (FEC), an independent federal agency. Although most campaign spending is privately financed, public financing is available for qualifying candidates for President of the United States during both the primaries and the general election. Eligibility requirements must be fulfilled to qualify for a government subsidy, and those that do accept government funding are usually subject to spending limits.

In 2008—the last presidential election year—candidates for office, political parties, and independent groups spent a total of $5.3 billion on federal elections. The amount spent on the presidential race alone was $2.4 billion, and over $1 billion of that was spent by the campaigns of the two major candidates: Barack Obama spent $730 million in his election campaign, and John McCain spent $333 million. The total spent on federal elections in 2012 was approximately $7 billion. The figures for the 2016 election will not be available until 2017.

2.2.5 – Techniques

A campaign team must consider how to communicate the message of the campaign, recruit volunteers, and raise money. Campaign advertising draws on techniques from commercial advertising and propaganda. The avenues available to political campaigns when distributing their messages is limited by the law, available resources, and the imagination of the campaigns’ participants. These techniques are often combined into a formal strategy known as the campaign plan. The plan takes account of a campaign’s goal, message, target audience, and resources available. The campaign will typically seek to identify supporters at the same time as getting its message across.

2.2.6 – Modern Technology and the Internet

The internet is now a core element of modern political campaigns. Communication technologies such as e-mail, web sites, and podcasts for various forms of activism to enable faster communications by citizen movements and deliver a message to a large audience. These Internet technologies are used for cause-related fundraising, lobbying, volunteering, community building, and organizing. Individual political candidates are also using the internet to promote their election campaign.

Signifying the importance of internet political campaigning, Barack Obama’s presidential campaign relied heavily on social media, and new media channels to engage voters, recruit campaign volunteers, and raise campaign funds. The campaign brought the spotlight on the importance of using internet in new-age political campaigning by utilizing various forms of social media and new media (including Facebook, YouTube and a custom generated social engine) to reach new target populations. The campaign’s social website, my.BarackObama.com, utilized a low cost and efficient method of mobilizing voters and increasing participation among various voter populations. This new media was incredibly successful at reaching the younger population while helping all populations organize and promote action.

2.3 – The Nomination Campaign (Primaries)

In the nomination campaign, Presidential candidates are selected based on the primaries to run in the main election.

2.3.1 – Modern Presidential Campaign and Nomination

The modern presidential campaign begins before the primary elections. The two major political parties try to clear the field of candidates before their national nominating conventions, where the most successful candidate is made the party’s nominee for president. Typically, the party’s presidential candidate chooses a vice presidential nominee, and this choice is then rubber-stamped by the convention.

Nominees participate in nationally televised debates. While the debates are usually restricted to the Democratic and Republican nominees, third party candidates may be invited, such as Ross Perot in the 1992 debates. Nominees also campaign across the country to explain their views, convince voters and solicit contributions. Much of the modern electoral process is concerned with winning “swing states” through frequent visits and mass media advertising drives.

2.3.2 – Election and Oath

Presidents are elected indirectly in the United States. A number of electors, collectively known as the Electoral College, officially select the president. On Election Day, voters in each of the states and the District of Columbia cast ballots for these electors. Each state is allocated a number of electors, equal to the size of its delegation in both Houses of Congress combined. Generally, the ticket that wins the most votes in a state wins all of that state’s electoral votes, and thus has its slate of electors chosen to vote in the Electoral College.

The winning slate of electors meet at its state’s capital on the first Monday after the second Wednesday in December, about six weeks after the election, to vote. They then send a record of that vote to Congress. The vote of the electors is opened by the sitting vice president, acting in his capacity as President of the Senate, and is read aloud to a joint session of the incoming Congress, which is elected at the same time as the President.

Electoral College: Electoral college map for the 2012, 2016 and 2020 United States presidential elections, using apportionment data released by the US Census Bureau.

Pursuant to the Twentieth Amendment, the President’s term of office begins at noon on January 20 of the year following the election. This date, known as Inauguration Day, marks the beginning of the four-year term of both the President and the vice president. Before executing the powers of the office, a President is constitutionally required to take the presidential oath.

2.4 – The General Election Campaign

In the U.S., general election campaigns promote presidential candidates running for different parties.

2.4.1 – General Elections in the United States

In presidential systems, a general election refers to a regularly scheduled election, where both the president, and either “a class” of or all members of the national legislature are elected at the same time. A general election day may also include elections for local officials.

In U.S. politics, general elections occur every four years and include the presidential election. Some parallels can be drawn between the general election in parliamentary systems and the biennial elections determining all House seats. There is no analogue to “calling early elections” in the U.S., however, and the members of the elected U.S. Senate face elections of only one-third at a time at two year intervals including during a general election.

2.4.2 – Types of Elections

The United States is unusual in that dozens of different offices are filled by election, from drain commissioner to the President of the United States. Elections happen every year, on many different dates, and in many different areas of the country.

All federal elections including elections for the President and the Vice President, as well as elections to the House of Representatives and Senate, are partisan. Elections to most but not all statewide offices are partisan-oriented, and all state legislatures except for Nebraska are partisan-oriented.

Some state and local offices are non-partisan, these often include judicial elections, special district elections (the most common of which are elections to the school board, and elections to municipal (town council, city commission, mayor) and county (county commission, district attorney, sheriff) office. In some cases, candidates of the same political party challenge each other. Additionally, in many cases there are no campaign references to political parties, but sometimes even non-partisan races take on partisan overtones.

2.4.3 – Process of Campaigning

Major campaigns in the United States are often much longer than those in other democracies. The first part of any campaign is for a candidate to decide to run in elections. Prospective candidates will often speak with family, friends, professional associates, elected officials, community leaders, and the leaders of political parties before deciding to run. Candidates are often recruited by political parties and lobby groups interested in electing like-minded politicians. During this period, people considering running for office will consider their ability to put together the money, organization, and public image needed to get elected. Many campaigns for major office do not progress past this point, as people often do not feel confident in their ability to win. However, some candidates lacking the resources needed for a competitive campaign proceed with an inexpensive paper campaign or informational campaign designed to raise public awareness and support for their positions.

Nixon Meets Crowds at Robins Air Force Base in Georgia: President Nixon “works the crowd” at Robins Air Force Base, Georgia in the initial stages of his campaign.

Once a person decides to run, they make a public announcement. This announcement consists of anything from a simple press release, to concerned media outlets, or a major media event followed by a speaking tour.

2.4.4 – Funding for Campaigns

One of the most important aspects of the major American political campaign is the ability to raise large sums of money, especially early on in the race. Political insiders and donors often judge candidates based on their ability to raise money. Not raising enough money early on can lead to problems later as donors are not willing to give funds to candidates they perceive to be losing, a perception based on their poor fundraising performance.

Also during this period, candidates travel around the area they are running in and meet with voters; speaking to them in large crowds, small groups, or even one-on-one. This allows voters to get a better sense of who a candidate is, rather than just relying on what they read about in the paper or see on television.

Campaigns often dispatch volunteers into local communities to meet with voters and persuade people to support the candidate. The volunteers are also responsible for identifying supporters, recruiting them as volunteers or registering them to vote if they are not already registered. The identification of supporters is useful later, as campaigns remind voters to cast their votes.

Late in the campaign, campaigns will launch expensive television, radio, and direct mail campaigns aimed at persuading voters to support their candidate. Campaigns will also intensify their grassroots campaigns, coordinating their volunteers in a full court effort to win votes.

3 – Political Candidates

3.1 – Eligibility

Eligibility requirements restrict who can run for a given public office.

Different voting jurisdictions set different eligibility requirements for candidates to run for office. In partisan election systems, such as those in place for U.S. Presidential and Congressional elections, the only people eligible to run in a general election are those nominated by a political party or who have successfully petitioned to be on the ballot. In non-partisan elections, there may be fewer restrictions on those who can be listed on a ballot, with no requirements for party or popular support.

Virtually all electoral systems, whether partisan or non-partisan, have some minimum eligibility requirements to run for office. For example, candidates are generally required to be a certain age. In some jurisdictions, individuals may be eligible to campaign when they reach the age of legal majority, which is often 18. Elsewhere, candidates may need to be older; for example, in U.S. Presidential campaigns, candidates must be at least 35 years old.

Eligibility requirements may also vary by political office within a given jurisdiction. The President of the U.S. must be a natural-born citizen, due to the natural-born citizenship clause of the U.S. Constitution. There has been some legal debate over what constitutes natural born citizenship, particularly regarding cases where an individual is born outside the U.S. to American citizens or in cases of adoption. Generally, however, natural born citizenship is understood to include anyone who is entitled to U.S. citizenship at birth, even if they are born outside of the U.S. Over the years, multiple presidential candidates have been born in foreign countries or U.S. territories, but have met the natural born citizenship eligibility requirement because they were born to American citizens.

Natural Born Citizen Clause: The U.S. Constitution limits eligibility for the office of president to individuals who are natural born citizens of the U.S.

In offices other than that of the President, eligibility requirements tend to be less stringent. For example, according to the Constitution, members of the U.S. House of Representatives must be over the age of 25 and an American citizen for at least seven years. The Senate’s minimum age requirement is 30 and nine years an American citizen. Both chambers of Congress require members to be residents of the state they seek to represent. House members are not required to live in their districts. For local offices, the requirements are often even less strict — in certain jurisdictions, local officials simply need to be current citizens over the age of 18 who have established local residency.

3.2 – Nominating Candidates

Nomination is part of the process of selecting a candidate for election to office. In a representative democracy, such as the United States, citizens vote to elect individuals to public offices. Examples of elected officials include at the federal level, the president; at the state level, a state representative; and at the local level, a city council member. In order to have their names listed on election ballots, individuals seeking these offices must first be nominated.

In the United States, nominees are often chosen by political parties. Political parties are organizations that subscribe to a certain ideology, articulated in the party’s platform, and that seek to attain political power through representation in government. The two largest political parties in the United States are the Democratic Party and the Republican Party, but there also are smaller parties, such as the Libertarian Party and the Green Party. To nominate candidates, political parties hold primary elections. Primary elections are used to narrow the field of candidates for the general election. In a primary, several members of the same political party campaign to become their party’s nominee in the general election. In the general election, nominees from each party compete against each other to be elected to office.

In order to formally select candidates for a presidential election, American political parties hold nominating conventions. The official purpose of these conventions is to select the party’s nominee for president, as well as to adopt a statement of party principles and goals, known as the platform. In modern presidential campaigns, however, nominating conventions are largely ceremonial. Due to changes in election laws, the primary and caucus calendar, and the manner in which political campaigns are run, parties enter their conventions with presumptive nominees. During primary campaigns, state delegates are assigned to a primary candidate based on the outcome of a statewide vote. Whichever primary candidate emerges from the primary election with the most delegates becomes the party’s presumptive nominee. The presumptive nominee is not formally nominated until the national convention, but he or she is all but assured of a place on the ballot in the general election by the conclusion of the primary season.

2008 Democratic National Convention: Modern nominating conventions are largely ceremonial affairs, intended to strengthen party support of its presumptive nominee.

When candidates for national, state, or local office are not affiliated with a political party, they may be nominated as candidates if they receive a sufficient number of signatures from eligible voters (though the specific requirements vary by voting jurisdiction). In a case where an independent, or unaffiliated, candidate receives sufficient signatures, his or her name will appear on the ballot in the general election. These candidates do not need to participate in primary elections, since they are not seeking the nomination of a political party.

3.3 – Electing Candidates

An election is a formal decision-making process by which a population chooses an individual to hold public office. Generally, elections consist of voters casting ballots at polling places on a scheduled election day. Elections have been the usual mechanism by which representative democracies have operated since the 17th century. Elections may fill offices in the legislature, the executive and judiciary, and regional and local government.

Casting a Ballot: Many electoral systems require voters to cast ballots at official, regulated polling places.

Electoral systems are the detailed constitutional arrangements and voting laws that convert the vote into a political decision. The first step in determining the results of an election is to tally the votes, for which various vote counting systems and ballot types are used. Electoral systems then determine the result of the election on the basis of the tally. Most electoral systems can be categorized as either proportional or majoritarian. In a proportional electoral system, a political party receives a percentage of seats in a governmental body in proportion to the number of votes it receives. In a majoritarian system, one party receives all of the seats in question if it receives the majority of votes. Strictly majoritarian systems are rare in modern democracies due to their tendency for suppressing minority views. For example, in the United States presidential elections are dependent upon the allocation of delegates from the electoral college. The number of delegates that each state has is proportional to the state’s population, but all of a state’s delegates are assigned to the presidential candidate who wins the majority of votes in the state. This electoral system is neither strictly majoritarian nor proportional; state delegates are not allocated to candidates in proportion to the votes they receive, but neither is winning the popular vote sufficient to ensure a candidate’s election. This system is intended to provide smaller states and less densely populated regions with influence in national elections.

The question of who may vote is a central issue in elections. The electorate, or the group of people who are eligible to vote, does not generally include the entire population. For example, many countries prohibit those judged mentally incompetent from voting, and all jurisdictions require a minimum age for voting. Historically, jurisdictions have excluded groups such as women, blacks, immigrants, and non-property owners from the electorate. Most national elections require that voters are citizens, and many local elections require proof of local residency to vote.

3.4 – Likability of Political Candidates

Candidates running for election to public office need to appeal to the electorate in order to acquire votes. Accordingly, candidates run campaigns aimed at establishing a popular campaign message and convincing voters of the candidate’s likeability.

In many elections, candidates are primarily differentiated by being either liberal or conservative. A candidate’s liberal or conservative ideology is usually expressed by affiliation with a political party — in the U.S. the Republican Party is understood to be conservative and the Democratic Party is understood to be liberal. A candidate’s stated political ideology may be treated as a proxy for their position on a range of policy issues. One’s stance on economic regulation, immigration, and abortion, for example, may be inferred from political party membership. In large part, this association is supported by political parties’ platforms in the U.S. At the same national convention where parties nominate candidates for president, they formalize a platform enumerating party beliefs and objectives. When a candidate for state or national office affiliates with a party, they are therefore associated with that party’s written platform.

Apart from ideology, less explicit factors such as likeability and access to resources impact candidates’ campaigns. Likeability refers to whether or not the electorate generally likes a candidate, as measured by opinion polls. Likeability is thought to play a significant role in electoral politics but is difficult to access in campaigns. Politicians may consciously attempt to augment their likeability by donating to charities, telling jokes during speeches, or posing for photos with voters. However, likeability can be difficult for politicians and political strategists to control.

Voter Opinion Poll: Polling agencies conduct surveys of potential voters during election seasons to measure how the electorate ranks the traits of candidates.

A major critique of large scale electoral politics in the U.S. and other democracies is that a candidate’s wealth has too much influence in the election’s outcome. Modern campaigns usually include television and radio ads, extensive travel, and large organizations of strategists and organizers. Thus, campaigns have become extremely expensive. Major candidates generally need to have immense personal wealth or successful fundraising networks to compete in national campaigns. Therefore, access to monetary resources is an important trait for candidates to possess.

4 – Presidential Elections

4.1 – Primaries and Caucuses

Primary elections and caucuses are used to narrow the field of candidates in each major political party before a general election.

4.1.1 – Introduction

In America’s two-party political system, political parties rely on primary elections and caucuses to nominate candidates for general elections. Political parties provide resources to the candidates they nominate, including endorsements, social contacts, and financial support. Consequently, attaining a party nomination by winning a primary election or caucus is a necessary step to becoming a major election candidate. Primaries are held on different dates in different states and give national candidates an opportunity to campaign to smaller audiences than during the general election. The candidate who wins each state vote is granted a certain number of delegates,depending on the state’s size, and the candidate with the most party delegates becomes the party’s general election nominee. Not every election is preceded by a primary season, but most major races, such as presidential and congressional races, use primaries to narrow the field of candidates.

4.1.2 – Primary Elections

Primaries began to be widely used in the United States during the Progressive Era in the early 1900s. The impetus behind establishing them was to give more power to voters, rather than allowing behind the scenes political maneuverers to choose major candidates. In modern elections, primaries are seen as beneficial to both voters and parties in many ways – voters are able to choose between a range of candidates who fit within a broader liberal or conservative ideology, and parties are able to withhold support of a candidate until they have demonstrated an ability to gain public support.

Primary rules vary by state, as does the importance of their outcomes. Primaries may be classified as closed, semi-closed, semi-open, or open. In a closed primary, only voters who are registered with the party holding the primary are allowed to vote. In other words, registered Republicans can only vote to choose a candidate from the Republican field, and Democrats can only vote in the Democratic primary. In a semi-closed system, voters need not register with a party before the election, therefore independent voters may choose to vote in either the Democratic or Republican primary. In an open primary system, voters can vote in either primary regardless of affiliation. Open primaries are the most controversial form in American politics. Supporters argue that open primaries give more power to the voter and less to the party, since voters are not tied to voting for a party that does not produce a good candidate. Critics, however, argue that open primaries will lead to vote raiding, a practice in which party members vote in the opposing party’s primary in an attempt to nominate a weak candidate.

4.1.3 – Caucuses

Washington State Caucus: Caucuses occur in small settings and often include lively debate by party members.

Whereas primaries follow the same polling practices as general elections, caucuses are structured quite differently. In nominating caucuses, small groups of voters and state party representatives meet to nominate a candidate. Caucuses vary between the states in which they are held, however, generally they include speeches from party representatives, voter debate, and then voting by either a show of hands or a secret ballot. Like primaries, caucuses result in state delegates being allocated to a particular candidate, to nominate that candidate to the general election. The vast majority of states use primaries to nominate a candidate, but caucuses are notably used in Iowa, which is traditionally the first state to vote in the primary/caucus season. Since Iowa is first, it has a large impact on the primary season, as it gives one candidate from each party an advantage as they move into other state votes. Due to its small population and the small-scale, intimate structure of its caucuses, Iowa is notorious for allowing lesser- known candidates to do unexpectedly well.

4.2 – The National Convention

Political parties hold national conventions to nominate candidates for the presidency and to decide on a platform.

4.2.1 – Introduction

Democratic National Convention (1876): An image from a newspaper article about the 1876 Democratic National Convention in St. Louis, MO.

A national convention is a political convention held in the United States every four years by political parties fielding candidates in the upcoming presidential election. National party conventions are designed to officially nominate the party’s candidate and develop a statement of purpose and principles called the party platform. Informally, political parties use the conventions to build support for their candidates.

Major political parties in the early 1830s were the first to use the political convention. These were often heated affairs, with delegates from each state playing a major role in determining the party’s national nominee. The term “dark horse candidate” was coined at the 1844 Democratic National Convention when little-known Tennessee politician James K. Polk emerged as the candidate after the leading candidates failed to secure the necessary two-thirds majority vote.

Democratic Party, 2008: An image of future President Barack Obama and Vice-President Joe Biden after they were officially nominated for the Democratic ticket at the 2008 Democratic National Convention.

There is no such suspense at modern conventions. Due to primaries and increased access to national news, each party essentially knows who its candidate will be before the convention. Instead, modern conventions serve to rally support for the candidate. Conventions today are largely ceremonial events with little influence on the presidential campaign beyond how the convention is received in the press.

4.2.2 – Logistics

From the point of view of the parties, the convention cycle begins with the Call to Convention. Usually issued about 18 months in advance, the Call is an invitation from the national party to the state and territory parties to convene to select a presidential nominee. It also sets out the number of delegates to be awarded to each, as well as the rules for the nomination process. One reason for the late conventions has to do with campaign finance laws, which allow the candidates to spend an unlimited amount of money before the convention, but forbid fundraising after the convention, in order for the parties to receive federal campaign funds.

Each party sets its own rules for the participation and format of the convention. Broadly speaking, each U.S. state and territory party is apportioned a select number of voting representatives, individually known as delegates and collectively as the delegation. Each party uses its own formula for determining the size of each delegation, factoring in such considerations as population, proportion of that state’s Congressional representatives or state government officials who are members of the party, and the state’s voting patterns in previous presidential elections. The selection of individual delegates and their alternates, too, is governed by the bylaws of each state party, or in some cases by state law. The 2004 Democratic National Convention counted 4,353 delegates and 611 alternates.

The convention is typically held in a major city selected by the national party organization 18–24 months before the election is to be held. As the two major conventions have grown into large, publicized affairs with significant economic impact, cities today compete vigorously to be awarded host responsibilities, citing their meeting venues, lodging facilities, and entertainment as well as offering economic incentives.

4.2.3 – Proceedings

Each convention produces a statement of principles known as its platform, containing goals and proposals known as planks. Relatively little of a party platform is even proposed as public policy. Much of the language is generic, while other sections are narrowly written to appeal to factions or interest groups within the party. Unlike electoral manifestos in many European countries, the platform is not binding on either the party or the candidate. Because it is ideological rather than pragmatic, however, the platform is sometimes itself politicized. For example, defenders of abortion lobbied heavily to remove the Human Life Amendment plank from the 1996 Republican National Convention platform, a move fiercely resisted by conservatives despite the fact that no such amendment had ever come up for debate. Given the same routines and repetition of proceedings, presidential nominating conventions have become predictable for observers of the political process.

Minor figures in the party are given the opportunity to address the floor of the convention during the daytime, when only the small audiences of C-SPAN and other cable television outlets are watching. The evening’s speeches – designed for broadcast to a large national audience—are reserved for major speeches by notable, respected public figures; the speakers at the 2004 Democratic convention included Ted Kennedy, a forty-year veteran of the United States Senate, and Jimmy Carter, a former Democratic President, while at the Republican convention speakers included Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger of California and Governor George Pataki of New York, two of the largest states in the nation.

4.3 – The General Election Campaign

The presidential general election occurs after the primary season and is the process through which a national vote chooses the president.

In the United States, a presidential election is held every four years and includes both a primary season and a general election. During the primary season, the two major political parties narrow the field of candidates through state votes to nominate the party’s candidate for the general election. Because parties provide candidates with voter and staff networks and material resources, they have an incentive to present a unified front and only support one candidate, hence, winning the primary season is a necessary first step to becoming a major candidate in a general election. In the primary season, candidates compete against other members of their party to win a majority of votes from voters within their own party. By contrast, in the general election, candidates from each party compete against each other, and voters are able to vote for either candidate at the polls.

The winner of a presidential general election is not simply the person who receives the majority of votes nationwide. Instead, votes are allocated indirectly through members of the Electoral College. Under this system, statewide elections take place in which voters cast ballots for candidates. Whichever candidate wins the majority of votes in the state receives that state’s Electoral College votes. Electoral College votes are divided proportionally based on state population, meaning that larger states have more influence in the election than smaller ones. Because a candidate only needs to win a majority of votes in the state to receive all of its Electoral College votes, this system has lead to election strategies in which states with a solid Republican or Democratic majority are not contested by candidates. Instead, candidates focus their campaigns on so-called “swing states. ” Swing states are those without a clear majority party, in which all of the state’s Electoral College votes are therefore up for grabs. The most notorious swing states in recent years have been Florida and Ohio, since each is generally unpredictable, and each has a significant number of Electoral College electors.

Electoral College (2008): In the presidential general election, the winner is determined based on who receives the greatest number of votes in the Electoral College system.

Because candidates in the general election must appeal to vast numbers of voters across a large geographic range, general elections are immensely expensive. Candidates tend to fund their campaigns in part with their personal wealth but also by fundraising extensively. Fundraising may include appealing to wealthy large donors, organizing grassroots campaigns to amass small donations from large numbers of voters, or tapping into political party funds. In recent years, PACs or political action committees, have arisen to amass large funds and produce campaign advertisements on behalf of their favored candidates. A 2010 Supreme Court decision in the case known as Citizens United further paved the way for PACs to exert a large influence in general elections. According to Citizens United, contributions to PACs are not limited so long as the PACs are not directly affiliated with a candidate. Consequently, the 2012 election has witnessed a rise of “super-PACs,” political action committees with unprecedented purchasing power who have produced numerous expensive TV and print ads.

The presidential general election lasts from the end of the primary season, usually in June, until the vote on the first Tuesday of November. Since the president is the most visible elected official in the country, the election season is so long, and so much money is spent on advertising, the presidential general election has greater voter turnout than any other U.S. election. Even so, voter turnout usually hovers at or below 60% of eligible voters. In some cases, voter turnout strongly impacts the outcome of elections. As a general rule, white elderly voters turnout more reliably than any other demographic group, and they vote consistently Republican. Thus, some analysts argue that high turnout favors Democratic candidates, since the turnout increase usually indicates greater number of young and minority voters.

4.4 – The Electoral College

The Electoral College is the 538 person body that elects the President and the Vice President of the United States.

4.4.1 – Indirect Election

The Electoral College is an example of indirect election, when a democratic government is voted into power by a representative vote, rather than by the entirety of the electorate. The Electoral College consists of 538 electors who officially elect the President and Vice President of the United States. The number of electors equals the total voting membership of the United States Congress, with one elector for each of the current 435 Representatives and 100 Senators. The Electoral College also includes three electors from the District of Columbia, which were approved in the Twenty-third Amendment to the Constitution, in 1961. That results in 538 total electors.

4.4.2 – Allocation of Electors

Each state is awarded the same number of electoral votes as the number of its Representatives, plus two votes to match its Senatorial count. Since the most populous states have the most seats in the House of Representatives, they also have the most electors. The six states with the most electors are California (55), Texas (38), New York (29), Florida (29), Illinois (20), and Pennsylvania (20). The seven smallest states by population in the Electoral College (Alaska, Delaware, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Vermont, and Wyoming) have three electors. Each state’s number of Representatives is determined every 10 years by the US Census, thus determining the number of electoral votes for each state.

Electoral College (2008): In the presidential general election, the winner is determined based on who receives the greatest number of votes in the Electoral College system.

hus, though many people do not realize it, Presidential and Vice-Presidential elections are determined not by a popular vote. Although ballots list the names of the presidential candidates, voters within the 50 states and Washington, D.C. actually choose electors for their state when they vote for President and Vice President. These presidential electors in turn cast electoral votes for those two offices. Even though the aggregate national popular vote is calculated by state officials and media organizations, the national popular vote is not the basis for electing a President or Vice President.

A faithless elector is a member of the United States Electoral College who, for whatever reason, does not vote for the presidential or vice presidential candidate for whom he or she had pledged to vote. They may vote for another candidate or not vote at all. Faithless electors are pledged electors and thus different from unpledged electors. Although there have been 157 cases of faithlessness, faithless electors have not changed the outcome of any presidential election to date.

4.4.3 – Exceptions

Voters in each state and the District of Columbia cast ballots selecting electors pledged to presidential and vice presidential candidates. In nearly all states, electors are awarded to the candidate who wins the most votes in that state on a winner-take-all basis. This means that if Candidate A wins 51% of the popular vote in a given state and Candidate B wins 49%, Candidate A would take all of the Electoral College votes for this state. Only Maine and Nebraska award Electoral College votes on a proportional basis. Although electors are not required by federal law to honor a pledge, in the overwhelming majority of cases they vote for the candidate to whom they are pledged.

4.4.4 – Evaluations of the Electoral System

Critics argue that the Electoral College is inherently undemocratic and gives swing states disproportionate influence in electing the President and Vice President. Swing states are those that are up for grabs in any given election; historically, they have swung back and forth between Democrats and Republicans. However, many of them have large numbers of Electoral College votes, meaning that candidates play to voters in swing states more than in other states. Further, some maintain that it is a doctrinal problem that presidential elections in the United States are not decided by popular vote.

Campaign Attention to Swing States (2004): These maps show the amount of attention the Bush and Kerry campaigns (considered together) gave to each state during the final five weeks of the 2004 election: At the top, each waving hand represents a visit from a presidential or vice-presidential candidate during the final five weeks of the election. (Candidates’ visits to their own home states are not counted. ) At the bottom, each dollar sign represents one million dollars spent on TV advertising by the campaigns during the same time period. This shows the influence of the Electoral College on the prominence of swing states, those with small populations but large Electoral College votes.

Proponents argue that the Electoral College is an important, distinguishing feature of federalism in the United States and that it protects the rights of smaller states. Many proponents of the Electoral College see its negative effect on third parties as a good thing. They argue that the two party system has provided stability through its ability to change during times of rapid political and cultural change. They believe it protects the most powerful office in the country from control by what these proponents view as regional minorities until they can moderate their views to win national election.

4.5 – Presidential Candidates

Presidential candidates seek the highest office of the executive branch of government and carry out campaigns in pursuit of election.

4.5.1 – Background

In democratic countries, the head of state or the head of the executive branch of government, is often called the president. Presidents are usually elected to office by a democratic election. Elections may depend upon a candidate, or a person who is seeking presidential office, winning the popular vote. Likewise, elections can also depend on the candidate winning a certain proportion of a vote as determined by election guidelines. For example, in the United States, presidential candidates must win a majority of votes as allocated by the electoral college, which depends upon the candidate winning the popular vote in individual states rather than in the nation at large. By contrast, in France a candidate must win over 50% of the popular vote to be elected to office. This means that if there are more than two candidates in the race and they split the popular vote, there is often a runoff election to determine who becomes the president.

4.5.2 – U.S. Presidential Candidates

The United States has generally embraced a two party political system, in which two primary candidates seek the office of president. Historically, the two parties have changed many times, but elections have usually involved a conservative and a liberal party — in modern days, the Republican and Democratic parties. There are some notable exceptions in which third party candidates had an impact on elections, such as the candidacy of Theodore Roosevelt in 1912 and Ross Perot in 1992, but by and large candidates must have the backing of a major party in order to be influential. The benefits of party membership include a pre-existing voter base, but perhaps more significantly, access to a fundraising network. The endorsement of a political party ensures that presidential candidates have access to a powerful network of political strategists and wealthy donors.

The importance of financial resources cannot be underestimated when talking about United States presidential candidates. Presidential campaigns cost substantial amounts of money because candidates need print, radio, and television ads, as well as large staffs of campaign organizers, in order to be successful. However, in recent years the role of fundraising has increased, as campaign contributions have grown. Political action committees, commonly known as PACs, are groups of donors and advocates who band together to fund advertisements and events on behalf of candidates. The 2010 Supreme Court decision in the case of Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission further paved the way for large campaign contributions by allowing unlimited contributions to so-called “super PACs,” or political action committees that are not directly connected to candidates. As a result of the decision, there is no limit on the size of allowable campaign contributions. Super PACs generally support a candidate by attaining large contributions for expensive television ads. Since they are not directly tied to candidates, super PACs often produce attack ads, or negative ads against opposing candidates, that the primary parties would not explicitly endorse.

As a result of the cost of presidential campaigns, many U.S. presidential candidates tend to be wealthy. However, there are other restrictions on candidacy that also impact who runs. The U.S. Constitution requires that candidates are natural-born U.S. citizens who are at least 35 years old at the time of election. Unofficially, presidents tend to be educated at elite institutions, and only one U.S. president has practiced a religion other than that of the mainstream protestant faith (John F. Kennedy was Catholic). Some evidence indicates that historical candidacy trends may be changing, though. For example, President Barack Obama was the first non-white U.S. president to be elected. Also, 2012 Republican candidate Mitt Romney is Mormon, which is considered by many to be a fringe protestant denomination. While no women have been elected to the highest office in the U.S., Hillary Clinton’s ran in  2008, and in 2016 was the Democratic Party’s first female nominee, indicating the “glass ceiling” may soon be shattered.

4.6 – Campaigning: Traditional Media, New Media, and Campaign Advertisements

Campaigns seek to engage the public through traditional forms of media, such as television and the press, and more recently, social media.

Engaging with the media is an essential part of any presidential campaign. Usually, the candidate’s campaign manager is tasked with engaging with the media. Although people often assume that candidates are elected because of their policy positions, many presidential elections are won and lost based on likability of the candidate. Americans only “get to know” a candidate through the representation of the candidate in the media.

Throughout the history of American elections, journalists have followed candidates as they advertised their positions, gave speeches, and visited American towns. This tradition continues today, with certain journalists being given the sole responsibility of following candidates. In the 2008 campaign, Republican candidate Senator John McCain created a unique space to engage with journalists, inviting them to travel with him throughout the course of his campaign on his campaign bus, called “the Straight Talk Express” in reference to his engagement with journalists.

Campaign journalism has developed with the times. With the advent of television, TV reporters were sent to cover elections. Campaign engagement with the media has changed again with the proliferation of social media. Today, candidates are expected to have Facebook and Twitter accounts and to be fluent in the language of social media. This was particularly clear by then-candidate Senator Barack Obama’s use of social media in the 2008 election. The campaign relied heavily on social media to engage voters, recruit campaign volunteers and raise funds. It brought the spotlight on the importance of using the internet in a new age of political campaigning by utilizing various forms of social media such as Facebook and YouTube to reach targeted audiences. In the 2008 and 2012 elections, Barack Obama supporters could sign up for volunteer shifts and donate funds through apps on their mobile phones. The campaign’s social website, my.BarackObama.com, utilized a low cost and efficient method of mobilizing voters and increasing participation among various voter populations. President Obama’s efforts to reach out through new media are credited with bringing in the support of young Americans and contributing to his 2008 victory. This practice has now become standard; Republican candidate Governor Mitt Romney also released an app in 2012.

President Obama Tweeting: This image shows President Obama answering tweets, demonstrating his proficiency with social media and appealing to younger voters.

But even with the rise of new media, campaigns continue to spend hundreds of millions of dollars buying air time on television networks to put on campaign advertisements. Television ads have been popular because they are an effective way to reach millions of voters at once. Campaign ads can either be positive, supporting the views of the particular candidate buying the air time, or negative, deriding the candidate’s opponent. Television campaign ads have been accused of being manipulative, but have been incredibly successful in influencing voter perceptions of the candidates.

5 – How Voters Decide

5.1 – Party Identification

5.1.1 – Introduction

Party identification refers to the political party with which an individual identifies. Party identification is typically determined by the political party that an individual most commonly supports (by voting or other means). In the United States, political parties consist of three parts: the party as government (members of the party who hold public office), the party as organization (committees, leaders and activists who work to promote the party and the candidates ), and the party as electorate (citizens who support the party through party identification).

Citizens in the general population who identify with a particular party make up the Party in the Electorate. Party identifiers (partisans) could be described by their support in the following ways:

  • They register as a member of the particular party when registered to vote.
  • They show a strong tendency to vote for candidates in their preferred party in most elections.
  • When surveyed, they identify themselves as members of that particular party.
  • They are inclined to support policies endorsed by the particular party.
  • They volunteer for campaigns to support party candidates more than the general population.
  • They have a higher voter turnout in primary elections than the general population.

Some researchers view party identification as “a form of social identity”, in the same way that a person identifies with a religious or ethnic group. This identity develops early in a person’s life mainly through family and social influences. This description would make party identification a stable perspective, which develops as a consequence of personal, family, social and environmental factors. Other researchers consider party identification to be more flexible and more of a conscious choice. They see it as a position and a choice based on the continued assessment of the political, economic and social environment. Party identification can increase or even shift by motivating events or conditions in the country.

5.1.2 – Characterization

Party Identification is characterized in three ways. Some view party attachment as a form of social identity, which is similar to a religious or ethnic identity. Moreover, childhood influence is one of main driving factors behind formation of party identification. During childhood, the main political influence comes from parents, other close family members and close surroundings such as the immediate community. Children remember events that happened during their childhood and associate them with the political party, whether or not they were connected with those events. For example, a child growing up in the 1970s would associate the Republican party with the Watergate scandal of the Nixon administration, a child growing up in the 1990s would associate the Democratic party with the sex scandal of the Clinton administration, or a child growing up in early 2000 would associate the Republican party with the Iraq War and the War on Terror. Although these parties might or might not embrace the issues that happened during that administration, a child could forever associate the party with those memorable events. Political Scientists have developed many theories to childhood influence on political party identification. David O. Sears developed a theory stating that major childhood events will influence a child at a young age and make a permanent impression.

5.1.3 – Voting

Roll Call DNC: Those people who identify with a party tend to vote for their party’s candidate for various offices in high percentages. Those who consider themselves to be strong partisans, strong Democrats and strong Republicans respectively, tend to be the most faithful in voting for their party’s nominee for office.

Those people who identify with a party tend to vote for their party’s candidate for various offices in high percentages. Those who consider themselves to be strong partisans, strong Democrats and strong Republicans respectively, tend to be the most faithful in voting for their party’s nominee for office. In the case of voting for president, since the 1970s, party identification on voting behavior has been increasing significantly. By the late 1990s, party identification on voting behavior was at the highest level of any election since the 1950s. When voting in congressional elections, the trend is similar. Strong party identifiers voted overwhelmingly for their party’s nominee in the general election. It is important to note that each party respectively in certain elections, would have stronger voting behavior of their strongest party identifiers. For instance, in the years the Democrats dominated House and Senate elections in the 1970s and 1980s, it can be explained that their strong party identifiers were more loyal in voting for their party’s nominee for Congress than the Republicans were.

The same level of voting behavior can also be applied to state and local levels. While straight ticket voting has declined among the general voting population, it is still prevalent in those who are strong Republicans and strong Democrats. According to Paul Allen Beck and colleagues, “the stronger an individual’s party identification was, the more likely he or she was to vote a straight ticket. ”

5.2 – Issue Voting

Issue voting is the process by which voters select candidates based on how closely their views on certain issues match the voter’s own.

In contrast to party voting, issue voting is when voters base their election decisions on political issues. These issues can relate to any questions of public policy that are a source of debate between political parties. The process of issue voting involves voters comparing their opinions about how certain issues should be addressed against candidates’ stances on these issues. Individuals vote for the candidate that best matches their own views.

Voting Booth: Issue voting has affected the decisions Americans make at the voting booth.

Issue voting has become prominent in recent elections. The in issue voting rise can be traced to increasing polarization between the Democratic and Republican parties. Moderates, who account for a large segment of the American population, become more alienated as each party adopts more extreme viewpoints. Subsequently, this alienation has led to an increase in the amount of people who identify as independents in order to escape the constraints of a polarized party. The loss of party identification affiliated with being an independent generates the greater issue voting.

While issue voting has risen in recent years, many factors can complicate it. For instance, many stances can be taken on issues and voters must settle for the candidate whose views most closely match their own. This becomes difficult when the available candidates have viewpoints that are vastly different from a voter’s views. Issue voting is also challenging when candidates possess similar views on issues and there is no clear distinction between the candidates’ views and the voter’s own. When the aforementioned situations take place, a voter may revert to party voting or may base their decision off of the individual personalities of the candidates. Similarly, issue salience is when people vote on the basis of how relevant an issue is to their lives.

Most issues that are part of the national agenda can sometimes be a consequence of media agenda-setting and agenda-building. In a commercialized media context, the media can often not afford to ignore an important issue which another television station, newspaper, or radio station is willing to pick up. The media may be able to create new issues by reporting and should that should be considered seriously. Also, they can obscure issues by reporting through negligence and distraction. If persons are affected by high crime rates, or unemployment, for instance, the media can reduce the time they report on potential solutions, the nature of class-based society or other related issues. They can reduce the direct awareness of these problems in the lives of the public. The media can make the problem in essence “go away” by obfuscating it. The public can go away to another media source, so it is in the media’s commercial interest to try to find an agenda which corresponds as closely as possible to peoples’ desires. They may not be entirely successful, but the agenda-setting potential of the media is considerably limited by the competition for the viewers’ interest, readers and listeners. It is difficult to see, for instance, how an issue which is a major story to one television station could be ignored by other television stations.

5.3 – The Candidates

Due to a decrease in party identification, the personal traits of candidates have become an influential factor in voters’ decisions.

The personal traits of candidates have become an influential factor in voters’ decisions during recent elections. Although issues currently remain central in many voters’ election decisions, issue voting can be difficult when candidates are closely aligned in their stances on given issues. Issue voting can also be problematic when candidates’ stances differ drastically from those of voters. At the same time, the United States has witnessed increasing polarization between the Democratic and Republican Parties that has caused many voters to identify themselves as independents. This increasing lack of party identification combined with the difficulties that arise with issue voting has resulted in voting decisions based on the personality and demographic traits of candidates.

Candidates are most often evaluated on their party affiliation and stances on prominent issues. However, when the aforementioned problems with party identification and issue voting arise, the personal characteristics of candidates may enter into campaign strategies and voting decisions. Many candidates utilize demographic factors to appeal to voters. For example, candidates may emphasize the importance of their families and their upbringing in humble middle-class households as a way to relate to a wide segment of American voters. Other candidates appeal to voters through shared religious affiliations. Candidates may also emphasize their personality traits by showing how their actions have demonstrated their trustfulness and hard work.

Michelle Obama at the 2012 Democratic National Convention: First Lady, Michelle Obama, appealed to voters by emphasizing the humble background of her husband during her speech at the 2012 Democratic National Convention.

At the same time, candidates also tend to emphasize the demographic and personality traits of their opponents that will create mistrust among voters. For example, candidates often air advertisements that question the honesty of their opponents while emphasizing their own fortitude and work ethic. Candidates may also emphasize the excessive wealth of their opponents as a way to show how they are out of touch with the average middle-class American.

6 – 2008-2012 Elections

6.1 – The 2008 Presidential Election

The 2008 U.S. presidential election possessed many unique attributes and was won in a historic landslide victory by Democrat Barack Obama.

6.1.1 – Introduction

Obama Taking Oath of Office: After winning the 2008 presidential election, Barack Obama was sworn into office on January 20, 2009.

The 2008 U.S. presidential election was the 56th quadrennial presidential election. Barack Obama, the junior U.S. senator from Illinois, was nominated as the Democratic candidate while John McCain, the senior U.S. senator from Arizona, was nominated as the Republican candidate. Joe Biden, U.S. senator from Delaware, was later chosen as Obama’s running mate. Meanwhile, Sarah Palin, governor of Alaska, was chosen as McCain’s running mate. Barack Obama won the election by a historic majority vote.

6.1.2 – Unique Attributes

The 2008 presidential election was exceptional in many ways. It was the first U.S. presidential election in which an African American was elected president, having also been the first African American to be nominated by a major party. Obama also received the highest number of votes in the history of U.S. presidential elections. In addition, the 2008 presidential election was the first time that both major party candidates were sitting U.S. senators. The election was also characterized by high levels of public interest and engagement. Social media sites joined traditional forms of campaign activity to generate increased election interest.

6.1.3 – Stances and Campaign Strategy

Obama’s overwhelming presidential win can be attributed to many factors. His strong opposition to the war in Iraq was a view embraced by many Americans. Meanwhile, McCain supported the war; his statement that the U.S. could be in Iraq for the next 50 to 100 years proved costly, even though it was intended as a peacetime presence. Obama was more successful than McCain in separating himself from the unpopular George W. Bush administration. The downturn in the economy provided an additional boost to the Obama campaign after McCain made comments that portrayed him as out of touch with the average American and the economic plight of the nation. The use of social media websites was another factor better handled by the Obama campaign, and one that appealed to many young voters.

In general, the Obama campaign was much more adept at emphasizing the change and experience Obama would bring to the presidency, and distancing itself from the Bush administration, than was the McCain campaign. The Obama campaign also emphasized the experience Hillary Clinton would carry as Secretary of State. Meanwhile the McCain campaign introduced Sarah Palin as the vice presidential candidate hoping to balance McCain’s more extensive experience with the potential of a relatively unknown politician. However, Palin was often painted by the media as lacking knowledge on key issues. Although Palin appealed to the conservative base of the GOP, there remained the fear that her conservative views would alienate moderates and independents.

6.1.4 – Electoral Vote

The 2008 U.S. presidential election took place on November 4, 2008. While John McCain won the majority vote in traditionally Republican states and in his home state of Arizona, Barack Obama’s wins in his home state of Illinois, the Northeast, and the swing states of Ohio and Pennsylvania precluded a McCain victory. Obama also won some of the southern states and the contested states of Iowa and New Mexico. The projected electoral vote count came to 365 for Obama and 173 for McCain.

6.2 – The 2010 Elections

The 2010 midterm elections, for national, state, and local governments, resulted in an overwhelming victory for the Republican Party.

Tea Party Gathering: The Tea Party movement’s ability to mobilize voters in favor of the Republican Party was one of the factors that contributed to many Republican victories during the 2010 elections.

The 2010 midterm elections on November 2, 2010 filled 435 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives and 37 of the 100 seats in the U.S. Senate. In addition, 38 state and territorial governorships, 46 state legislatures, and 4 territorial legislatures were filled. Numerous state and local races also took place during this time.

Voter turnout dropped steeply from the previous 2008 presidential election in spite of the large number of political positions to be filled. Approximately 82.5 million people voted, about one-third fewer than those who voted in 2008. However, voter turnout was still slightly higher than the last midterm elections in 2006 and more states gained than lost voters.

The Democratic Party suffered massive defeats in most national and state elections, with many seats switching over to Republican Party control. Indeed, the Republicans gained 63 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives to recapture the majority and expanded its minority in the U.S. Senate by gaining 6 seats. This caused a divided government with Democrat President Obama in office and a Republican majority in the Congress. The Republican Party additionally broke the previous majority record of 628 seats in the state legislatures, set by the Democrats in the post-Watergate elections of 1974, by gaining 680 seats in the state legislative races. The Republicans also gained control of 29 of the 50 state governorships.

The Republican victories during the 2010 midterm elections can be attributed to a number of factors. First, unemployment was over 9% during the elections and had not declined significantly since Obama had entered the White House. Secondly, public trust in Congress had diminished with a series of scandals in which Democratic Representatives Charlie Rangel and Maxine Waters, along with Republican Senator John Ensign, were accused of unethical and/or illegal conduct prior to the midterm elections. Furthermore, passage of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act led to low approval ratings of Congress. Indeed, many Republicans ran on a promise to repeal the act and beat incumbent Democrats who had voted for it. A fourth factor that contributed to the Republican victories was the mobilizing ability of the Tea Party movement in favor of Republican candidates. Meanwhile, the controversial Arizona Senate Bill 1070 ignited a national debate over immigration that led many in support of stronger immigration regulations to vote for the Republican Party.

6.3 – The 2012 Presidential Election

6.3.1 – Introduction

Barack Hussein Obama was re-elected President of the United States on Tuesday, November 6th, 2012. He served a second term as the nation’s first black president.

The 2012 presidential election was the 57th quadrennial election in the United States. The Democratic Party Candidate, President Barack Obama, sought re-election for his second and final term as president. Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney ran as the Republican candidate.

Requiring 270 electoral votes to win the election, Obama received 303 electoral votes, while Romney earned 206. His victory was much narrower than his electoral victory in the 2008 Presidential Election against Senator John McCain. Obama carried Colorado, Iowa, Ohio, New Hampshire, Virginia, and Wisconsin, many of the often decisive battleground states in presidential elections. Obama also carried a small advantage in Florida.

In his second term, President Obama will continue to face a divided political climate, with a Democratic Senate and a Republican House, often leading to stalemate in the Congress. Obama tackled many of the large issues he campaigned about before the 2008 Presidential Election, including immigration reform. The economic crisis, the growing deficit, and America’s longest undeclared war were the biggest obstacles to Obama’s re-election. Days prior to the 2012 Presidential Election, Hurricane Sandy hit the East Coast, devastating many states in the Mid-Atlantic and New England regions.

Mitt Romney was highly criticized during his campaign due to his personal wealth. While he lost the popular vote by a slight margin, a much greater margin in the electoral college necessitated his loss.

The two other presidential candidates included Green Party nominee Jill Stein and Libertarian Party nominee, New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson. While unlikely, both possessed the ballot access to mathematically win the majority of the Electoral College and, accordingly, the election.

The major policy issues at stake in the 2012 election were: the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act and health care reform; the ongoing economic crisis; tax reform; women’s rights; and American foreign policy.

6.3.2 – Nominations

  

[LEFT]: Mitt Romney: Governor Mitt Romney of Massachusetts was the Republican candidate for the 2012 presidential election.
[RIGHT]: Barack Obama: Incumbent President Barack Obama was the Democratic candidate for the 2012 presidential election. On November 6th, 2012, Obama was re-elected President for a second term.

The Democratic nomination was uncontested with the incumbent, President Barack Obama, running for reelection. The Republican primaries were more complex, with many different candidates winning different contests. Romney won New Hampshire, Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania won in Iowa, and former Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, Newt Gingrich, won South Carolina by a surprising margin. Santorum suspended his campaign in April, leaving Romney as the frontrunner for the Republican nomination. Romney was officially declared as the Republican Party’s nominee at the Republican National Convention on August 30, 2012.

6.3.3 – Electoral College Changes and Controversies

Population changes indicated by the 2010 U.S. Census changed the apportionment of votes in the Electoral College, potentially changing the allocation of votes among swing states. Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Nevada, South Carolina, Texas, Utah, and Washington gained votes. Conversely, Illinois, Iowa, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, and Pennsylvania lost votes. The change in electoral allotment shifts the allocation of votes across the Democratic-Republican divide, as pundits predicted that the Democratic Party would lose electoral votes in states previously won in the past three presidential elections, and the Republican Party would gain votes in states won by Republican candidates in the last three elections.

Some states enacted new electoral laws in 2011. For example, Florida and Iowa banned felons from voting, and various states shortened their voting periods, eliminating the option of early voting. These measures were criticized as strategies to impede voter blocs, including college students, African Americans, and Latino Americas.

7 – The Role of Money in Campaigns and Elections

7.1 – Regulating Campaign Finance

Campaign finance in the United States is the financing of electoral campaigns at the federal, state, and local levels.

7.1.1 – Introduction

Campaign finance in the United States is the financing of electoral campaigns at the federal, state, and local levels. At the federal level, campaign finance law is enacted by Congress and enforced by the Federal Election Commission (FEC), an independent federal agency. Although most campaign spending is privately financed, public financing is available for qualifying candidates for President of the United States during both the primaries and the general election. Eligibility requirements must be fulfilled to qualify for a government subsidy, and those that do accept government funding are usually subject to spending limits.

Federal Elections Commission: Seal of the United States Federal Election Commission.

Races for non-federal offices are governed by state and local law. Over half the states allow some level of corporate and union contributions. Some states have limits on contributions from individuals that are lower than the national limits, while four states (Missouri, Oregon, Utah and Virginia) have no limits at all.

7.1.2 – Campaign Finance Numbers

In 2008—the last presidential election year—candidates for office, political parties, and independent groups spent a total of $5.3 billion on federal elections. The amount spent on the presidential race alone was $2.4 billion, and over $1 billion of that was spent by the campaigns of the two major candidates: Barack Obama spent $730 million in his election campaign, and John McCain spent $333 million. In the 2010 midterm election cycle, candidates for office, political parties, and independent groups spent a total of $3.6 billion on federal elections. The average winner of a seat in the House of Representatives spent $1.4 million on his or her campaign. The average winner of a Senate seat spent $9.8 million.

7.1.3 – Public Financing of Campaigns

At the federal level, public funding is limited to subsidies for presidential campaigns. This includes (1) a “matching” program for the first $250 of each individual contribution during the primary campaign, (2) financing the major parties’ national nominating conventions, and (3) funding the major party nominees’ general election campaigns.

To receive subsidies in the primary, candidates must qualify by privately raising $5000 each in at least 20 states. During the primaries, in exchange for agreeing to limit his or her spending according to a statutory formula, eligible candidates receive matching payments for the first $250 of each individual contribution (up to half of the spending limit). By refusing matching funds, candidates are free to spend as much money as they can raise privately.

From the inception of this program in 1976 through 1992, almost all candidates who could qualify accepted matching funds in the primary. In 1996 Republican Steve Forbes opted out of the program. In 2000, Forbes and George W. Bush opted out. In 2004 Bush and Democrats John Kerry and Howard Dean chose not to take matching funds in the primary. In 2008, Democrats Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, and Republicans John McCain, Rudy Giuliani, Mitt Romney and Ron Paul decided not to take primary matching funds. Republican Tom Tancredo and Democrats Chris Dodd, Joe Biden and John Edwards elected to take public financing.

In addition to primary matching funds, the public funding program also assists with financing the major parties’ (and eligible minor parties’) presidential nominating conventions and funding the major party (and eligible minor party) nominees’ general election campaigns. The grants for the major parties’ conventions and general election nominees are adjusted each Presidential election year to account for increases in the cost of living. In 2012, each major party is entitled to $18.2 million in public funds for their conventions, and the parties’ general election nominees are eligible to receive $91.2 million in public funds. If candidates accept public funds, they agree not to raise or spend private funds or to spend more than $50,000 of their personal resources.

7.2 – Sources of Campaign Funding

Different sources of campaign funding help party candidates to raise funds through multiple avenues.

7.2.1 – Introduction

Different sources of campaign funding enable party candidates raise funds through multiple avenues. Campaign finance in the United States is the financing of electoral campaigns at the federal, state, and local levels. At the federal level, campaign finance law is enacted by Congress and enforced by the Federal Election Commission (FEC), an independent federal agency. Although most campaign spending is privately financed, public financing is also available for qualifying candidates for President of the United States during both the primaries and the general election. Eligibility requirements must be met to qualify for a government subsidy, and those that accept government funding are usually subject to spending limits. Federal law restricts how much individuals and organizations may contribute to political campaigns, political parties, and other FEC-regulated organizations.

Corporations and unions are barred from donating money directly to candidates or national party committees. One consequence of the limitation upon personal contributions from any one individual is that campaigns seek out ” bundlers “—people who can gather contributions from many individuals in an organization or community and present the sum to the campaign. Campaigns often recognize these bundlers with honorary titles and, in some cases, exclusive events featuring the candidate. Although bundling had existed in various forms since the enactment of the FECA, it became more structured and organized in the 2000s, spearheaded by the “Bush Pioneers” for George W. Bush’s 2000 and 2004 presidential campaigns. During the 2008 campaign, the six leading primary candidates (three Democratic, three Republican) had listed a total of nearly two thousand bundlers.

7.2.2 – Lobbying and Special Interests

Tony Podesta, Senator Kay and Chip Hagan: Lobbying depends on cultivating personal relationships over many years. Photo: Lobbyist Tony Podesta (left) with Senator Kay Hagan (center) and her husband.

Lobbying in the United States describes paid activity in which special interests hire well-connected professional advocates, often lawyers, to argue for specific legislation in decision-making bodies such as the United States Congress. It is a highly controversial phenomenon, often seen in a negative light by journalists and the American public, and frequently misunderstood. While lobbying is subject to extensive and often complex rules which, if not followed, can lead to penalties including jail, the activity of lobbying has been interpreted by court rulings as free speech and protected by the Constitution.

7.2.3 – Spending by Outside Organizations

Federal law allows for multiple types of Political Action Committees, including connected PACs, nonconnected PACs, leadership PACs and Super PACs. 501(c)(4) organizations are defined by the IRS as “social welfare ” organizations. Unlike 501(c)(3) charitable organizations, they may also participate in political campaigns and elections, as long as the organization’s “primary purpose” is the promotion of social welfare and not political advocacy. A 527 organization is a type of American tax-exempt organization named after “Section 527” of the U.S. Internal Revenue Code. Technically, almost all political committees, including state, local, and federal candidate committees, traditional political action committees, “Super PACs”, and political parties are “527s. ” However, in common practice the term is usually applied only to such organizations that are not regulated under state or federal campaign finance laws because they do not “expressly advocate” for the election or defeat of a candidate or party.

Political party committees may contribute funds directly to candidates, subject to the specified contribution limits. National and state party committees may make additional “coordinated expenditures,” subject to limits, to help their nominees in general elections. National party committees may also make unlimited “independent expenditures” to support or oppose federal candidates. However, since 2002, national parties have been prohibited from accepting any funds outside the limits established for elections in the FECA.

7.3 – PACs and Campaigns

7.3.1 – Introduction

A political action committee (PAC) is any organization in the United States that campaigns for or against political candidates, ballot initiatives or legislation. At the federal level, an organization becomes a PAC when it receives or spends more than $1,000 for the purpose of influencing a federal election, according to the Federal Election Campaign Act. At the state level, an organization becomes a PAC according to the state’s election laws.

In 2010, the United States Supreme Court held in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission that laws prohibiting corporate and union political expenditures were unconstitutional. Citizens United made it legal for corporations and unions to spend from their general treasuries to finance independent expenditures, but did not alter the prohibition on direct corporate or union contributions to federal campaigns; those are still prohibited.

7.3.2 – History of PACs in the United States

In 1947, as part of the Taft-Hartley Act, the U.S. Congress prohibited labor unions or corporations from spending money to influence federal elections, and prohibited labor unions from contributing to candidate campaigns. Labor unions moved to work around these limitations by establishing political action committees, to which members could contribute. In 1971, Congress passed the Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA). In 1974, Amendments to FECA defined how a PAC could operate and established the Federal Election Commission (FEC) to enforce the nation’s campaign finance laws. The FECA and the FEC’s rules provide for the following: Individuals are limited to contributing $5,000 per year to Federal PACs; corporations and unions may not contribute directly to federal PACs, but can pay for the administrative costs of a PAC affiliated with the specific corporation or union; Corporate-affiliated PACs may only solicit contributions from executives, shareholders, and their families.

7.3.3 – Categorization of PACs

Mitt Romney: Governor Mitt Romney of Massachusetts was the Republican candidate for the 2012 presidential election.

Federal law allows for two types of PACs, connected and non-connected. Most of the 4,600 active, registered PACs are “connected PACs” established by businesses, labor unions, trade groups, or health organizations. These PACs receive and raise money from a “restricted class,” generally consisting of managers and shareholders in the case of a corporation and members in the case of a union or other interest group. Groups with an ideological mission, single-issue groups, and members of Congress and other political leaders may form “non-connected PACs. ” These organizations may accept funds from any individual, connected PAC, or organization.

Super PACs, officially known as “independent-expenditure only committees,” may not make contributions to candidate campaigns or parties, but may engage in unlimited political spending independently of the campaigns. Also unlike traditional PACs, they can raise funds from corporations, unions and other groups, and from individuals, without legal limits. Super PACs may support particular candidacies. In the 2012 presidential election, super PACs have played a major role, spending more than the candidates’ election campaigns in the Republican primaries. As of early April 2012, Restore Our Future—a Super PAC usually described as having been created to help Mitt Romney ‘s presidential campaign—has spent $40 million. In the 2012 election campaign, most of the money given to super PACs has come not from corporations but from wealthy individuals. According to data from the Center for Responsive Politics, the top 100 individual super PAC donors in 2011–2012 made up just 3.7% of contributors, but accounted for more than 80% of the total money raised, while less than 0.5% of the money given to “the most active Super PACs” was donated by publicly traded corporations.

7.3.4 – PAC Backlash

It was generally agreed in the 2012 campaign that the formation of a super PAC and the acceptance of large contributions was legal. However, a lingering question was whether super PACs are legal when examined on the basis of how they act. Two agreed-upon illegal actions were that a super PAC could not accept foreign funds and could not coordinate directly with a candidate. Super PACs were seen in the press as a possible means of allowing illegal donations from foreign entities – either individuals or companies – to be disguised. The concept of actions being illegal, when coordinated with a candidate, came out, in part, after a super PAC named American Crossroads requested permission to communicate to their favored candidate on an above-board basis.

7.3.5 – International Comparison and Response

The leading democracies have different systems of campaign finance, and several have no institutions analogous to American PACs, in that there are no private contributions of large sums of money to individual candidates. This is true, for example in Germany, in France, and in Britain. In these countries, concerns about the influence of campaign contributions on political decisions are less prominent in public discussion.

7.4 – Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission

7.4.1 – Introduction

Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission was a landmark United States Supreme Court case in 2010 in which the court held that the First Amendment prohibited the government from restricting independent political expenditures by corporations and unions. The nonprofit group Citizens United wanted to air a film critical of Hillary Clinton and to advertise the film during television broadcasts in apparent violation of the 2002 Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act. In a 5 to 4 decision, the court held that portions of BCRA violated the First Amendment.

7.4.2 – Background

The Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 prohibited corporations and unions from using their general treasury to fund “electioneering communications” within 30 days before a primary or 60 days before a general election. During the 2004 presidential campaign, a conservative nonprofit organization named Citizens United filed a complaint before the Federal Election Commission (FEC) charging that advertisements for Michael Moore’s film, Fahrenheit 9/11, a documentary critical of the Bush administration’s response to the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, constituted political advertising and thus could not be aired within the 30 days before a primary election or 60 days before a general election. The FEC dismissed the complaint after finding no evidence that broadcast advertisements for the movie and featuring a candidate within the proscribed time limits had actually been made.

In the wake of these decisions, Citizens United sought to establish itself as a bona fide commercial filmmaker, producing several documentary films between 2005 and 2007. By early 2008, it sought to run television commercials to promote its latest political documentary, Hillary: The Movie, and to air the movie on DirecTV. The movie was highly critical of then-Senator Hillary Clinton, with the District Court describing the movie as an elongated version of a negative 30-second television spot. In January 2008, the United States District Court for the District of Columbia ruled that the television advertisements for Hillary: The Movie violated the BCRA restrictions of “electioneering communications” within 30 days of a primary. Though the political action committee claimed that the film was fact-based and nonpartisan, the lower court found that the film had no purpose other than to discredit Clinton’s candidacy for president. The Supreme Court docketed the case on August 18, 2008 and heard oral argument on March 24, 2009.

7.4.3 – Opinions of the Court

  

[LEFT]: Justice Anthony Kennedy: Anthony Kennedy’s majority opinion found that the BCRA prohibition of all independent expenditures by corporations and unions violated the First Amendment’s protection of free speech.
[RIGHT]: Justice John Paul Stevens: John Paul Stevens wrote a dissenting opinion, arguing that the Court’s ruling “threatens to undermine the integrity of elected institutions across the Nation. “

The Supreme Court held in Citizens United that it was unconstitutional to ban free speech through the limitation of independent communications by corporations, associations and unions. This ruling was frequently interpreted as permitting corporate corporations and unions to donate to political campaigns, or else removing limits on how much a donor can contribute to a campaign. Justice Kennedy’s majority opinion found that the BCRA prohibition of all independent expenditures by corporations and unions violated the First Amendment’s protection of free speech.

A dissenting opinion by Justice Stevens was joined by Justice Ginsburg, Justice Breyer, and Justice Sotomayor. Stevens concurred in the court’s decision to sustain BCRA’s disclosure provisions, but dissented from the principal holding of the majority opinion. The dissent argued that the court’s ruling “threatens to undermine the integrity of elected institutions across the Nation. The path it has taken to reach its outcome will, I fear, do damage to this institution. ” He wrote: “A democracy cannot function effectively when its constituent members believe laws are being bought and sold. ”

7.4.4 – Impact

On January 27, 2010, President Barack Obama condemned the decision during the 2010 State of the Union Address, stating that, “Last week, the Supreme Court reversed a century of law to open the floodgates for special interests — including foreign corporations — to spend without limit in our elections. ” Moreover, The New York Times stated in an editorial, “The Supreme Court has handed lobbyists a new weapon. A lobbyist can now tell any elected official: if you vote wrong, my company, labor union or interest group will spend unlimited sums explicitly advertising against your re-election. ” The New York Times reported that 24 states with laws prohibiting or limiting independent expenditures by unions and corporations would have to change their campaign finance laws because of the ruling.

Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission has often been credited for the creation of “super PACs”, political action committees which make no contributions to candidates or parties and so can accept unlimited contributions from individuals, corporations, and unions. In the 2012 presidential election, super PACs have played a major role, spending more than the candidates’ election campaigns in the Republican primaries. As of early April 2012, Restore Our Future—a Super PAC usually described as having been created to help Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign—has spent $40 million.

7.5 – Campaign Finance Reform

7.5.1 – Introduction

Campaign finance reform is the common term for the political effort in the United States to change the involvement of money in politics, primarily in political campaigns. Although attempts to regulate campaign finance by legislation date back to 1867, the first successful attempts nationally to regulate and enforce campaign finance originated in the 1970s. The Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA) of 1972 required candidates to disclose sources of campaign contributions and campaign expenditures. It was amended in 1974 with the introduction of statutory limits on contributions, and creation of the Federal Election Commission (FEC). It attempted to restrict the influence of wealthy individuals by limiting individual donations to $1,000 and donations by political action committees (PACs) to $5,000. These specific election donations are known as ‘hard money. ‘ The Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (BCRA) of 2002, is the most recent major federal law on campaign finance, which revised some of the legal limits on expenditures set in 1974, and prohibited unregulated contributions to national political parties.

7.5.2 – Federal Election Campaign Act

In 1971, Congress passed the Federal Election Campaign Act, requiring broad disclosure of campaign finance. In 1974, fueled by public reaction to the Watergate Scandal, Congress passed amendments to the Act establishing a comprehensive system of regulation and enforcement, including public financing of presidential campaigns and creation of a central enforcement agency, the Federal Election Commission. Other provisions included limits on contributions to campaigns and expenditures by campaigns, individuals, corporations and other political groups. However, in 1976 Buckley v. Valeo challenged restrictions in FECA as unconstitutional violations of free speech. The court struck down, as infringement on free speech, limits on candidate expenditures and certain other limits on spending.

7.5.3 – Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002

Russ Feingold: Senator Russ Feingold from Wisconsin.

The Congress passed the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (BCRA), also called the McCain-Feingold bill after its chief sponsors, John McCain and Russ Feingold. The BCRA was a mixed bag for those who wanted to remove big money from politics. It eliminated all soft money donations to the national party committees, but it also doubled the contribution limit of hard money, from $1,000 to $2,000 per election cycle, with a built-in increase for inflation. In addition, the bill aimed to curtail ads by non-party organizations by banning the use of corporate or union money to pay for “electioneering communications,” a term defined as broadcast advertising that identifies a federal candidate within 30 days of a primary or nominating convention, or 60 days of a general election.

7.5.4 – Current Proposals for Reform

The voting with dollars plan would establish a system of modified public financing coupled with an anonymous campaign contribution process. It has two parts: patriot dollars and the secret donation booth. It was originally described in detail by Yale Law School professors Bruce Ackerman and Ian Ayres in their 2004 book Voting with Dollars: A new paradigm for campaign finance. All voters would be given a $50 publicly funded voucher (Patriot dollars) to donate to federal political campaigns. All donations including both the $50 voucher and additional private contributions must be made anonymously through the FEC. Ackerman and Ayres include model legislation in their book in addition to detailed discussion as to how such a system could be achieved and its legal basis.

Another method allows the candidates to raise funds from private donors, but provides matching funds for the first chunk of donations. For instance, the government might “match” the first $250 of every donation. This would effectively make small donations more valuable to a campaign, potentially leading them to put more effort into pursuing such donations, which are believed to have less of a corrupting effect than larger gifts and enhance the power of less-wealthy individuals. Such a system is currently in place in the U.S. presidential primaries.

Another method, which supporters call clean money, clean elections, gives each candidate who chooses to participate a certain, set amount of money. In order to qualify for this money, the candidates must collect a specified number of signatures and small (usually $5) contributions. The candidates are not allowed to accept outside donations or to use their own personal money if they receive this public funding. Candidates receive matching funds, up to a limit, when they are outspent by privately-funded candidates, attacked by independent expenditures, or their opponent benefits from independent expenditures. This is the primary difference between clean money public financing systems and the presidential campaign system, which many have called “broken” because it provides no extra funds when candidates are attacked by 527s or other independent expenditure groups.

7.6 – The Federal Election Campaign Act

7.6.1 – Introduction

The Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971 is a United States federal law which increased disclosure of contributions for federal campaigns. It was amended in 1974 to place legal limits on the campaign contributions. The amendment also created the Federal Election Commission (FEC), an independent agency responsible for regulating campaign finance legislation. The FEC describes its duties as “to disclose campaign finance information, to enforce the provisions of the law such as the limits and prohibitions on contributions, and to oversee the public funding of Presidential elections.”

7.6.2 – History

As early as 1905, President Theodore Roosevelt asserted the need for campaign finance reform and called for legislation to ban corporate contributions for political purposes. In response, the United States Congress enacted the Tillman Act of 1907, named for its sponsor Senator Benjamin Tillman. This act banned corporate contributions. Further regulation followed with the Federal Corrupt Practices Act enacted in 1910 with subsequent amendments in 1910 and 1925, the Hatch Act, the Smith-Connally Act of 1943, and the Taft-Hartley Act in 1947. These acts sought to:

  • Limit the influence of wealthy individuals and special interest groups on the outcome of federal elections.
  • Regulate spending in campaigns for federal office.
  • Deter abuses by mandating public disclosure of campaign finances.

In 1971, Congress consolidated earlier reform efforts in the Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA), instituting more stringent disclosure requirements for federal candidates, political parties and political action committees. A political action committee(PAC) is any organization in the United States that campaigns for or against political candidates, ballot initiatives, or legislation. According to the FECA, an organization becomes a PAC when it receives or spends more than $1,000 for the purpose of influencing a federal election. Without a central administrative authority, campaign finance laws were difficult to enforce.

Public subsidies for federal elections, originally proposed by President Roosevelt in 1907, began to take shape as part of FECA. Congress established the income tax checkoff to provide financing for Presidential general election campaigns and national party conventions. Amendments to the Internal Revenue Code in 1974 established the matching fund program for Presidential primary campaigns. Following reports of serious financial abuses in the 1972 Presidential campaign, Congress amended the FECA in 1974 to set limits on contributions by individuals, political parties, and PACs. The 1974 amendments also established the Federal Election Commission (FEC) to enforce the law, facilitate disclosure, and administer the public funding program. The FEC opened its doors in 1975 and administered the first publicly funded Presidential election in 1976.

7.6.3 – Buckley v. Valeo

In Buckley v. Valeo (1976), the Supreme Court struck down or narrowed several provisions of the 1974 amendments to FECA, including limits on spending and limits on the amount of money a candidate could donate to his or her own campaign. The court upheld a federal law which set limits on campaign contributions, but it also ruled that spending money to influence elections is a form of constitutionally protected free speech, striking down portions of the law. The court also ruled candidates can give unlimited amounts of money to their own campaigns.

7.6.4 – Further Legislation

Following Buckley v. Valeo, FECA was amended again in 1976 and 1979. The aim of these amendments was to allow parties to spend unlimited amounts of hard money on activities like increasing voter turnout and registration. In 1979, the Commission ruled that political parties could spend unregulated or “soft” money for non-federal administrative and party building activities. Later, this money was used for candidate related issue ads, leading to a substantial increase in soft money contributions and expenditures in elections. The increase of soft money created political pressures that led to passage of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (BCRA). The BCRA banned soft money expenditure by parties. Some of the legal limits on giving of “hard money” were also changed in by BCRA.

7.7 – The Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002

7.7.1 – Introduction

2008 Republican Party Presidential Candidate John McCain: Senator John McCain from Arizona.

The Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 is a United States federal law amending the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971 regulating the financing of political campaigns. Its chief sponsors were Senators Russ Feingold (, D-WI) and John McCain (, R-AZ). The law became effective on November 6, 2002, with the new legal limits going into effect on January 1, 2003. Although the legislation is known as “McCain–Feingold,” the Senate version is not the bill that became law. Instead, the companion legislation introduced by Rep. Chris Shays (R-CT),H.R. 2356, is the version that became law. Shays–Meehan was originally introduced as H.R. 380.

The Act addresses the increased role of soft money in campaign financing by prohibiting national political party committees from raising or spending funds not subject to federal limits. Soft money refers to “non-federal money” that corporations, unions and individuals contribute to political parties to influence state or local elections. The Act also addresses proliferation of issue advocacy ads, defining as “electioneering communications” broadcast ads that name a federal candidate within 30 days of a primary or caucus or 60 days of a general election. Any such ad paid for by a corporation or a non-profit organizations is also prohibited.

In June 2003, the D.C. Circuit issued a ruling on the constitutionality of the law, but the ruling never took effect as the case was immediately appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

7.7.2 – Legal Disputes

Mitch McConnell: Official portrait of United States Senator Mitch McConnell (R-KY)

Provisions of the legislation were challenged as unconstitutional by a group of plaintiffs led by then–Senate Majority WhipMitch McConnell. President Bush signed the law despite “reservations about the constitutionality of the broad ban on issue advertising. ” Bush appeared to expect that the Supreme Court would overturn some of its key provisions. However, in December 2003, the Supreme Court upheld most of the legislation in McConnell v. Federal Election Commission.

In McConnell v. Federal Election Commission, the United States Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of most of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 (BCRA). The Supreme Court heard oral arguments in a special session on September 8, 2003. On December 10, 2003, it issued a complicated decision that upheld the key provisions of McCain-Feingold. These included “electioneering communication” provisions placing restrictions on using corporate and union treasury funds to disseminate broadcast ads identifying a federal candidate within 30 days of a primary or 60 days of a general election) The court also upheld the “soft money” ban prohibiting the raising or use of these funds in federal elections.

7.7.3 – Impact and Overturn

The impact of BCRA was felt nationally during the 2004 elections. One immediately recognizable impact was the so-called “Stand By Your Ad” provision. The provision requires all U.S. political candidates and parties to identify themselves and state that they have approved a particular communication, i.e. “I’m (a candidate) and I approve this message. ”

In Federal Election Commission v. Wisconsin Right to Life, Inc., the Supreme Court ruled that the organizations engaged in genuine discussion of issues were entitled to a broad, “as applied” exemption from the electioneering communications provisions of BCRA applying to naming a candidate before an election or primary. Observers argue that the Court’s exemption effectively nullifies those provisions of the Act, but the full impact of Wisconsin Right to Life remains to be seen.

7.8 – Campaign Financing

7.8.1 – Introduction

Campaign finance in the United States refers to the process of financing electoral campaigns at the federal, state, and local levels. At the federal level, campaign finance law is enacted by Congress and enforced by the Federal Election Commission (FEC), an independent federal agency. Although most campaign spending is privately financed, public financing is available for qualifying US presidential candidates during both the primaries and the general election. Eligibility requirements must be fulfilled to qualify for a government funding, and candidates who accept this funding are usually subject to spending limits.

7.8.2 – Political Finance

Ron Paul: Ron Paul is a congressman from Texas who employs the method of grassroots fundraising.

Political finance refers to all funds that are raised and spent for political purposes. This includes all political contests for voting by citizens, especially the election campaigns for various public offices. Modern democracies operate a variety of permanent party organizations. For example, in the United States this includes the Democratic National Committee and the Republican National Committee. Political expenses can include:

  • Election campaigns run by candidates, candidate committees, interest groups or political parties
  • Contests for nomination or re-selection of parliamentary candidates
  • Training activities for party activists, officeholders or candidates
  • Efforts to educate citizens with regard to popular initiatives, ballot issues or referendums.

Grassroots fundraising is a method of fundraising used by or for political candidates. This method has grown in popularity with the emergence of the Internet and its use by US presidential candidates like Howard Dean and Ron Paul. Grassroots fundraising is a way of financing campaigns for candidates who don’t have significant media exposure or candidates who are in opposition to the powerful lobby groups. It often involves mobilizing grassroots support to meet a specific fundraising goal, or it sets a specific day for grassroots supporters to donate to the campaign.

8 – Voting as Political Participation

8.1 – Introduction

Voting is the most quintessential form of political participation, although many eligible voters do not vote in elections.

8.1.1 – Overview

History of Voting in the United States: This painting from 1846 depicts a polling judge administering an oath to a voter. Since America’s founding, voting has been a primary avenue for citizen participation in politics.

Voting is the most prominent form of political participation, and in fact, for many people, it is the primary means of participating in politics. A unique and special political act, voting allows for more people’s views to be represented than any other activity. Every citizen gets one vote that counts equally. Expanded voter registration means that more and more people have been able to participate, and voter turnout trends indicate how many people exercise their right to vote as a primary means of political participation.

8.1.2 – Voter Registration: The First Step to Participation

In order to participate in voting, citizens must be registered. To register, citizens must meet eligibility requirements and have filed the necessary paperwork that permits them to vote in a given locality. Eligibility requirements require voters to be eighteen years of age, and states can enforce residency requirements that mandate the number of years a person must live in a place before being eligible to vote. The composition of the electorate has changed radically throughout American history. The pool of eligible voters has expanded from primarily white, male property owners at the founding, to include black men after the Civil War, women after 1920, and eighteen- to twenty-year-olds after 1971.

Voter registration laws were implemented in the 1860s by states and big cities to ensure that only citizens who met legal requirements could vote. Over time, residency requirements were relaxed. Beginning in the 1980s, some states, including Maine, Minnesota, and Wisconsin, made it possible for people to register on Election Day. Turnout in states that have Election Day registration averages ten points higher than in the rest of the country. The United States is one of the few democracies that requires citizens to register themselves rather than having the government take responsibility for automatically registering them.

Significant steps have been taken to make registration easier, and to ensure more people can participate in elections. In 1993, Congress passed the National Voter Registration Act of 1993, also known as the “motor voter” law, allowing citizens to register at motor vehicle and social service offices. “Motor voter’s” success in increasing the ranks of registered voters differs by state depending on how well the program is publicized and executed. Voter registration also has increased as a result of online registration. Rock the Vote (RTV), a nonpartisan youth mobilization organization, established the first online voter registration initiative in 1992 with official backing from the Congressional Internet Caucus. RTV registered over 2 million new voters in 1992, 80% of whom cast a ballot, and signed up over 2.5 million voters in 2008.

8.1.3 – Voter Turnout

Over 90 percent of Americans agree with the principle that citizens have a duty to vote. Still, many people do not vote regularly. Social, cultural, and economic factors can keep people from voting, or sometimes barriers to voting are informal. The United States holds a large number of elections, each governed by specific rules and schedules. With so many elections, people can become overwhelmed, confused, or just plain tired of voting.

Voter Turnout by Sex and Age (2008): This is a chart illustrating voter turnout by sex and age for the 2008 U.S. Presidential Election using data from the U.S. Census Bureau. Notice the higher turnout rates for women, and for older people.

How many people actually participate in elections often depends on the type of election. A large number of elections are held in the United States every year, including local elections, elections for county and statewide offices, primaries, and general elections. Only a small number of people, generally under one-quarter of those eligible, participate in local, county, and state elections. Midterm elections, in which members of Congress run for office in nonpresidential-election years, normally draw about one-third of eligible voters. Young voters are less likely to turn out in midterm elections than older citizens. In 2010, only about 23 percent of eligible eighteen- to twenty-nine-year-olds cast a ballot. Voter turnout in presidential elections is generally higher than for lower-level contests; usually more than half the eligible voters cast a ballot.

2008 Election: Participation in the 2008 presidential election was greater than usual, as people were motivated by the open race and the candidate choices.

Voter turnout in the current era has not fluctuated much since voting participation during universal suffrage in 1920. Forty-nine percent of the voting-age public cast a ballot in the 1924 presidential contest, the same percentage as in 1996. Turnout in presidential elections in the 1960s was over 60 percent. More voters were mobilized during this period of political upheaval and people focused on issues of race relations, social welfare, and the Vietnam War. Turnout was lower in the 1980s and 1990s, when the political climate was less tumultuous. There has been a steady increase in turnout since the 2000 presidential election, in which 51 percent of the voting-age public cast a ballot. Turnout in the 2008 election was greater than usual, at 57 percent.

8.2 – Other Forms of Political Participation

Besides voting, there are many other ways to take part in politics, each involving varying amounts of skill, time, and resources.

8.2.1 – Contacting Public Officials

Expressing opinions to leaders is one avenue of political participation. The number of people contacting public officials at all levels of government has risen markedly over the past three decades. Seventeen percent of Americans contacted a public official in 1976. By 2008, 44 percent of the public had contacted their member of Congress about an issue or concern. E-mail has made contacting public officials cheaper and easier than the traditional method of mailing a letter.

8.2.2 – Donating Money, Time, and Resources to a Campaign

Participating in campaigns: Making phone calls during a campaign can be an important way for citizens to participate in politics.

The number of people who give money to a candidate, party, or political organization has increased substantially since the 1960s. Over 25 percent of the public gave money to a cause and 17 percent contributed to a presidential candidate in 2008. Direct mail and e-mail solicitations make fundraising easier, especially when donors can contribute through candidate and political-party websites. A positive side effect of fundraising campaigns is that people are made aware of candidates and issues through appeals for money.

During campaigns, people may work for political parties or candidates, organize campaign events, and discuss issues with family and friends. Generally, about 15 percent of Americans participate in these types of campaign activities in an election year. New media offer additional opportunities for people to engage in campaigns. People can blog or participate in discussion groups related to an election. They can use social media sites, like Facebook, to recruit supporters, advertise for campaign events, or encourage friends to donate money to a candidate.

8.2.3 – Running for Office

Another avenue for political participation is running for office. Being a public official requires a great deal of dedication, time, energy, and money. About 3 percent of the adult population holds an elected or appointed public office.

8.2.4 – Participation by Protesting

March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, 1963: Interest groups may attempt to influence policy through public opinion campaigns, demonstrating that the electorate favors a particular policy stance.

Political protest activity represents another sphere of political participation. Protests involve unconventional, and sometimes unlawful, political actions that are undertaken to gain rewards from the political and economic system. Protest behavior can take many forms. People can engage in nonviolent acts of civil disobedience where they deliberately break a law that they consider to be unjust. This tactic was used effectively during the 1960s civil rights movement. Other forms of protest behavior include marking public spaces with graffiti, demonstrating, and boycotting. Extreme forms of protest behavior include acts that cause harm, like bombing a building or rioting. Members of social movements may resort to rioting when they perceive that there are no conventional alternatives for getting their message across.

8.2.5 – Being a Part of Civil Society

Volunteering as political participation: Volunteering is another form of political participation and a crucial part of a healthy civil society.

About half the population takes part in national and community political affairs by joining an interest group, issue-based organization, civic organization, or political party. Organizations with the goal of promoting civic action on behalf of particular causes, or single-issue groups, have proliferated. These groups are as diverse as the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), which supports animal rights, to the Concord Coalition, which seeks to protect Social Security benefits.

Even activities that on the surface do not seem to have much to do with politics can be a form of political participation. Coaching a little league team, volunteering at a nursing home, or working at a homeless shelter all represent participation in civil society, the community of individuals who volunteer and work cooperatively outside of formal governmental institutions. Civil society depends on social networks, based on trust and goodwill, that form between friends and associates and allow them to work together to achieve common goals. Community activism is thriving among young people who realize the importance of service that directly assists others. Almost 70 percent of high school students and young adults aged eighteen to thirty report that they have been involved in community activities.

8.2.6 – Participating in Support Activities

People also can take part in support activities, which are more passive forms of political involvement. They may attend concerts or participate in sporting events associated with causes, such as the “Race for the Cure” for breast cancer. These events are designed to raise money and awareness of societal problems, such as poverty and health care. Support activities can lead to active participation, as people learn about issues through these events and decide to become involved.

8.2.7 – Symbolic Participation and Symbolic Non-Participation

People also can engage in symbolic participation, routine or habitual acts that show support for the political system. People salute the flag and recite the pledge of allegiance at the beginning of a school day and they sing the national anthem at sporting events. Symbolic acts are not always supportive of the political system. For example, some people may refuse to vote to express their dissatisfaction with government.

9 – Why People Vote

9.1 – Socioeconomic Factors

9.1.1 – Introduction

Socioeconomic status (SES) is determined by an individual’s level of education, income, and occupation. Socioeconomic factors significantly affect whether or not individuals develop the habit of voting. Voters and political activists generally are more educated and better off financially than the general population. Because of this, these people have the best chance of having their views represented in government. Meanwhile, those who rely the most on government programs and policies, such as recipients of public assistance, often have fewer opportunities to participate and are less engaged with the process of electing representatives.

9.1.2 – Income and Voting

Voter Turnout by Income (2008): This is a figure illustrating the different rates of voting in the 2008 U.S. Presidential Election by income. The higher income, the more likely a person is to vote. (click image to enlarge)

Independently, income has some effect on whether or not people vote. Wealthier people are more likely to vote, regardless of their educational background. Wealthier and better educated people tend to vote more often, participate more in political activities, and donate more money to causes than poorer or less educated people. They also have greater access to the resources that facilitate political activity, including contact with people in powerful positions.

9.1.3 – Education and Voting

Voter Turnout by Educational Attainment –2008 Presidential Election: Educational attainment, an indicator of social class, can predict one’s level of political participation. Those with high educational attainment are more likely to vote in elections than those with little education. (click image to enlarge)

The most important socioeconomic factor affecting voter turnout is education. The more educated a person is, the more likely he or she is to vote. Studies show that this is true, even controlling for other factors that are closely associated with education level, such as income and class. Education has the strongest impact on participation, as it provides people with background knowledge as to how the political system works and how the action of voting is connected with the realities of their lives. Educated people develop the skills that allow them to follow and understand national and international events through the mass media. They are likely to form opinions about political issues and engage in discussions. The most popular political blogs, such as Daily Kos and Huffington Post, are produced and read by well-educated people. Education also prepares people to deal with the bureaucratic aspects of participation, such as registering to vote or organizing petition drives. Eighty-three percent of people with a graduate school education voted in the 2008 presidential election. In comparison, only 39% of those without a high school diploma voted that year. The 2010 midterm elections were decided primarily by people with at least some college experience. Less than 5% of voters had no high school education, 16% were high school graduates, 29% had some college education, and 50% were college graduates.

9.1.4 – Occupation and Voting

People’s occupations also are related to their participation and their likelihood to vote. People in managerial and professional positions are the most politically active, followed by craftspersons, service workers, and laborers. Many managers and professionals follow politics as part of their jobs. The unemployed are the least inclined to participate in politics through voting, however, because they may rely on governmental services to survive, they are frequently among those most immediately affected by the outcome of elections.

9.2 – Additional Factors: Gender, Age, Race, Religion, and Ethnicity

9.2.1 – Age and Political Participation

Political participation differs notably by age. People between the ages of 35 and 65 are the most politically active. At this stage in life, people are more likely than younger people to have established homes, hold steady jobs, and be settled into communities. Those with stable community roots often have strong incentives and greater resources for becoming involved in politics. Senior citizens, people age 65 and older, also have high turnout rates of around 70 percent.

Historically, young people have been less likely to vote as they often lack the money and time to participate. However, the youth vote has been on the rise: turnout among 18 to 24-year-olds was at 36 percent in 2000, but this rose to 47 percent in 2004 and 51 percent in 2008. This rise in youth vote is partly a result of voter registration and mobilization efforts by groups like Rock the Vote. An important factor in the increase of younger voters in 2008 was the greater appeal of a younger, non-white candidate in Barack Obama. According to the Pew Research Center, 66% of voters under 30 chose Obama in 2008. New technology, especially the internet, is also making it easier for candidates to reach the youth. Websites such as Facebook and YouTube not only allow students acquire information about the polls, but also allow them to share their excitement over the polls and candidates.

9.2.2 – Gender and Political Participation

Political scientists and journalists often talk about the gender gap in participation, which assumes women lag behind men in their rates of political engagement. However, the gender gap is closing for some forms of participation, such as voting. Since 1986, women have exceeded the turnout rate for men in presidential elections; 66 percent of women cast a ballot in 2008 compared with 62 percent of men. This may be due to the political prominence of issues of importance to women, such as abortion, education, and child welfare.

9.2.3 – Race, Ethnicity, and Voting: African-Americans

Participation and voting differs among members of racial and ethnic groups. Discriminatory practices kept the turnout rate of African-Americans low until after the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Poll taxes, literacy tests, and intimidation kept black voters from the polls. Eventually, civil rights protests and litigation eliminated many barriers to voting. Today, black citizens vote at least as often as white citizens who share the same socioeconomic status. Collectively, African Americans are more involved in the American political process than other minority groups in the United States, indicated by the highest level of voter registration and participation in elections among these groups in 2004. Sixty-five percent of black voters turned out in the 2008 presidential election compared with 66 percent of white voters.

9.2.4 – Race, Ethnicity, and Voting: Latinos

Reaching the Latino Vote: Candidates routinely aim campaign ads at the fast-growing Latino and Asian American populations.

The Latino population in the United States has grown to over 47 million people from diverse countries of origin. Although this group forms a substantial political bloc, only 49 percent of eligible Latino voters voted in the 2008 presidential election. Language is one barrier to Latino participation. Candidates recognize that Latinos constitute a large and growing voting bloc and have begun campaigning in Spanish. During the 2000 presidential election campaign, candidate George W. Bush ran nearly as many ads in Spanish as in English. The 2008 presidential candidates’ websites, as well as the 2010 congressional candidates, featured extensive Spanish-language content.

9.2.5 – Race, Ethnicity, and Voting: Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders

According to the U.S. Census, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders are the fastest growing and most diverse ethnic group, yet their rates of participation are lower than other groups. In 2008, 48 percent of Asian Americans turned out to vote. Some argue that cultural factors, such as a strong tie to their ethnic culture, contribute to the lower levels of Asian American and Pacific Islander voting. However, Asian Americans who have been victims of hate crimes or consider themselves to be part of a deprived group find their way to the polls in greater numbers.

9.2.6 – Religious Convictions and Voting

Oftentimes, religious convictions motivate voters. The most prominent example of this in American politics is the Christian right, which consists of right-wing Christian political groups that are characterized by their strong support of socially conservative policies. In the U.S., the Christian right is an informal coalition formed around a core of white evangelical Protestants that draws support from other groups who share their goals. Voters who are part of the Christian right hold socially conservative positions on issues including school prayer, stem cell research, homosexuality, contraception, abortion, and pornography. About 15% of the electorate in the United States supports the Christian right. Much of the Christian right’s power within the American political system is attributed to their extraordinary turnout rate at the polls. The voters that identify with the Christian right are highly motivated and driven to deliver a viewpoint on issues they care about.

9.3 – Party Identification

9.3.1 – Party Self-Identification

Oftentimes, people vote according to what party they identify with. A person’s partisan identification is defined as a long-term attachment to a particular party. Americans are not required to formally join party organizations as is the case with other democracies. Instead, people self-identify as Republicans, Democrats, or members of minor parties. They also can declare themselves independent and not aligned with any political party. People who identify with a political party either declare their allegiance by joining the party or show their support through regular party-line voting at the polls.

9.3.2 – Party Identity: A Fixed Social identity?

Some researchers view party identification as “a form of social identity,” in the same way that a person identifies with a religious or ethnic group. In this view, party identification develops as a consequence of personal, family, social, and environmental factors. Childhood influence is one of main driving factors behind formation of party identification. During childhood, the main political influence comes from parents, other close family members, and close surroundings such as the immediate community. Children remember events that happened during their childhood and associate them with the political party, whether or not they were connected with those events. For example, a child growing up in the 1970s would associate the Republican party with the Watergate scandal of the Nixon administration or a child growing up in the 1990s would associate the Democratic party with the sex scandal of the Clinton administration. Although these parties might or might not embrace the issues that happened during that administration, a child could forever associate the party with those memorable events.

During adulthood, people can begin to adjust their party loyalties according to their personal experiences. The longer an individual holds a party identification, the stronger that attachment to the party becomes. Because of this pattern, older adults are more likely to hold strong party attachments, and less likely to change them than young adults.

9.3.3 – Party Identity: A Changing Choice?

Other researchers consider party identification to be more flexible and more of a conscious choice. They see it as a position and a choice based on the continued assessment of the political, economic, and social environment. People can easily switch their party affiliation or distance themselves from parties entirely.

9.3.4 – Increase in Independents

Party Identification, 2004: This chart indicates the number of citizens registered as Republicans, Democrats, or Independents. The number of people identifying as independents is rising, indicating that less people are voting solely along traditional party lines.

Since the 1960s, there has been a gradual decline in identification with political parties and a rise in the number of independents, which means less and less people are motivated to vote along party lines alone. In 2000, more people identified as independents (40 percent of the voting population) than affiliated with either the Democratic (34 percent) or Republican (24 percent) parties for the first time in history. The proportion of people registering as independents increased 57 percent between 1990 and 1998, while those registering as Democrats declined by 14 percent and as Republicans by 5 percent. In 2011, 31 percent of the population identified as Democrats, 29 percent as Republican, and 38 percent as independents.

image

Voting Along Party Lines: This chart indicates the results of the 2008 presidential election. Dark red districts supported Republican for President and Congress; red districts supported a Republican for President, and Democrat for Congress. Dark blue indicates districts that supported Democrat for President and Congress; blue indicates districts that supported Democrat for President and a Republican for Congress.

As voter identification with political parties has declined, so has dedication to the two-party system. According to a national survey, citizens have more trust in product brands, such as Nike, Levis, Honda, and Clorox, than in the Democrats and Republicans. Since the 1980s, Americans have become skeptical about the two major parties’ ability to represent the public interest and to handle major issues facing the country, such as crime, the environment, and saving Social Security. At the same time, support for third parties, like Libertarians, has increased over the last decade. A social movement grouped under the umbrella of the “Tea Party” emerged in 2010 but its adherents never created an officially recognized political party. Still, the two-party system continues to dominate the political process as a viable multiparty alternative has not emerged.

9.3.5 – Groups and Party Identification

Party coalitions consist of groups that have long-term allegiances to a particular political party. Regions of the country establish loyalties to a specific party as a result of the party’s handling of a war, a major social problem, or an economic crisis. Social, economic, ethnic, and racial groups also become aligned with particular parties, and then vote according to that party identification. For example, Catholics and labor union members in the Northeast form a part of the Democratic coalition. White fundamentalist Protestants are a component of the Republican coalition. Parties count on coalition members to vote for them consistently in elections.

9.3.6 – Strong Party Identification and Voting Patterns

Those people who identify with a party tend to vote for their party’s candidate for various offices in high percentages. Those who consider themselves to be strong partisans, strong Democrats and strong Republicans respectively, tend to be the most faithful in voting for their party’s nominee for office, and are typically the voters who practice straight-ticket voting.

9.4 – Political Ideology

9.4.1 – Vote Based on Ideology

Sometimes, people vote based on their political ideology. The ideological position a person or party takes may be described in terms of what kinds of social and economic policies they would like to see implemented. Political ideologies in the United States vary considerably. Persons in the U.S. generally classify themselves either as adhering to positions along the political spectrum as liberal-progressive, moderate, or conservative, but there are several subgroups of all of these three. Among those who do identify as either liberal or conservative, few identify as “far left” or “far right. ” Most Americans either identify as “moderate” or as “somewhat” liberal or conservative.

9.4.2 – Conservatives and Liberals

Percentage of LIberals in the US: Percent of self-identified liberals in the United States, broken down by state, according to Gallup, August 2010. The darkest colors to lightest colors, respectively, indicate the greatest percentages of people identifying as liberals. (The darkest color represents 28% and above, while the lightest color is under 14%).

Modern American liberalism aims at the preservation and extension of human, social and civil rights as well as the government guaranteed provision of positive rights. American conservatism commonly refers to a combination of economic liberalism and social conservatism and to an extent, libertarianism. It aims at protecting traditional values (especially on social issues) while promoting the concept of small government.

In the U.S., the Democratic Party generally represents liberal ideals, while the Republican Party commonly represents conservative ideals. The size of ideological groups varies slightly depending on the poll. Gallup/USA Today polling in June 2010 revealed that 42% of those surveyed identify as conservative, 35% as moderate, while 20% identify as liberal. In another polling in June 2010, 40% of American voters identify themselves as conservatives, 36% as moderates and 22% as liberals, with a strong majority of both liberals and conservatives describing themselves as closer to the center than to the extremes.

Political Ideology Trends: This chart, using Gallup Poll data, depicts trends in US political ideologies from 1992-2012. (click image to enlarge)

Liberalism and conservatism are the most common ideologies in the U.S., apart from those who identify as moderate. Individuals embrace each ideology to widely varying extents. Liberals and progressives commonly advocate strong civil liberties, social progressivism, cultural pluralism, government ensuring of positive rights (education, health care, etc.) and a mixed economy. Conservatives commonly defend the notional status quo of some point in the past, believing that the US has deviated significantly from it, and advocate more traditional stands on social issues, protection of gun rights and much less government intervention.

9.4.3 – Moderates

Moderates, who may be left or right leaning, incorporate different aspects from liberalism and conservatism into their personal perspective. According to recent polls, moderates are commonly identified as the second largest group, closely trailing conservatives, constituting between 36% and 39% of the population. Moderates are commonly defined through limiting the extent to which they adopt liberal and conservative ideas. CNN exit polls have found moderates to be rather evenly divided between the country’s two main parties. Even though liberals as a whole tend to be the most educated ideological demographic (as indicated by Pew research), moderates tend to become increasingly conservative with increased economic prosperity, causing the professional class to be split between Republicans and Democrats.

9.4.4 – Libertarians

While often not mentioned in major polls and less organized than liberal or conservatives, libertarians are a significant minority, constituting roughly 13% of the electorate. Libertarians commonly hold liberal views on social issues but conservative views on economic issues. Since the 1980s, a majority of libertarians have favored the Republican Party, although in recent years, the margin favoring the Republicans has begun to shrink because of the libertarians’ opposition to many recent Republican supported social issues.

9.4.5 – Typological Groups

In a 2005 study, the Pew Research Center identified nine typological groups. Three groups were identified as part of “the left,” “the middle,” and “the right. ” In this categorization system, “the right” roughly represents the Republican base, those on “the left” the Democratic base and those in “the middle” independents. Within the left are the largely secular and anti-war “Liberals”, the socially conservative but economically left “Conservative Democrats”, and the economically “Disadvantaged Democrats” who favor extended government assistance to the needy. In “the middle” are the optimistic and upwardly mobile “Upbeats”, the discouraged and mistrusting “Disaffecteds,” and the disenfranchised “Bystanders. ” The right compromises the highly pro-business “Enterprisers,” the highly religious “Social Conservatives” (also known as the Christian right), and the “Pro-Government Conservatives” who are largely conservative on social issues but support government intervention to better their economic disposition.

9.5 – The Candidates

9.5.1 – Introduction

While identifying with and believing strongly in a particular party or political ideology can be important in explaining why and how people vote, these factors seldom decide elections alone. A candidate’s image and her position on issues are also very important, particularly when independents and undecided voters hold the balance.

9.5.2 – Partisan Dealignment

Party identities become less important when voters base their decisions on short-term, election-specific factors, such as the leadership qualities of a candidate. This is often called a partisan dealignment. A partisan dealignment may be occurring today, as more people are identifying as independents and more voters choose based on personal traits of candidates, such as honesty. Mass media can contribute to partisan dealignment by focusing attention on candidates’ personalities and scandals, which are short-term factors that can influence vote choice.

9.5.3 – Candidates’ Images and Voting

Candidate Image: The media’s depictions of presidential candidates Republican George W. Bush and Democrat Al Gore during the 2000 presidential election influenced public perceptions. Bush was depicted as being unintelligent by news organizations that compiled lists of his gaffes and malapropisms. Gore was construed as being dishonest for allegedly claiming that he invented the Internet. When people decide to vote based on candidates rather than party identification or political ideology, candidate image can be very important.

Voters often vote based on candidates’ images or likeability. Candidate images consists of the background, experiences, and personal qualities of people running for elected office. Campaigns strive to present an image of their candidate that fits the public’s expectations of the office sought, especially in comparison with the opponent, who is often portrayed as less qualified. Voters expect the president to have leadership skills and to be principled, decisive, and honest. Other qualities, such as military service and compassion, may be deemed by the public and the media to be important as well. Candidate images are not entirely malleable. Age, gender, race, and military service cannot be changed easily, but they can be manipulated by selective accounting and shrewd presentation of the facts. Images are easiest to create early in a campaign when many people may not know much about a candidate. The public acceptance of a candidate’s possible images tends to depend on the media’s depictions. Oftentimes, voters will make decisions about who to vote for based on their perception of a specific candidate’s personality, leadership traits, or family values.

9.6 – Policy Preferences

9.6.1 – Issue Voting

Rather than voting based on political ideologies, political parties, or candidates, sometimes voters cast votes based on specific policy preferences. In “issue voting,” voters cast their vote based primarily on specific political issues. In the context of an election, issues include “any questions of public policy which have been or are a matter of controversy and are sources of disagreement between political parties.” According to the theory of issue voting, voters vote based on policy preferences; they compare the candidates’ respective principles against their own in order to decide who to vote for.

Issue Voting: Education: Some voters cast their ballots according to specific policy issues, for example, education reform.

A voter does not need to have an in-depth understanding of every issue or know how a candidate stands on every issue, rather a voter should have a sense of which candidate he or she agrees with the most. Voters use many different tactics to rationalize their view on a particular issue. Some people look at what has happened in the past and predict how they think a particular issue will affect them in the future.

Issue voting is often contrasted with party voting. A 2010 University of California, Davis study found that voters switch between issue voting and party voting depending on how much information is available to them about a given candidate. Low-information elections, such as those for congressional candidates, would thus be determined by party voting, whereas presidential elections, which tend to give voters much more information about each candidate, have the potential to be issue-driven.

A voter’s understanding of parties’ principles is strengthened and developed over time as a person gains experience with more political events. In order for an issue to create the foundation for party choice, a voter must first be concerned about a particular issue and have some knowledge about that issue.

In order for a person to be an issue voter, they must be able to recognize that there is more than one opinion about a particular issue, have formed a solid opinion about it, and be able to connect their opinion to a specific political party. According to some studies, only 40 to 60 percent of the informed population even perceives party differences, and can thus partake in party voting. This would suggest that it is quite common for individuals to develop opinions of issues without the aid of a political party.

9.6.2 – Complications with Issue Voting

Issue Voting: War in Afghanistan: Some voters vote for a candidate based on that candidate’s stance on a particular issue, such as the war in Afghanistan or healthcare.

Many factors can complicate issue voting. Firstly, issues are not always dichotomous; there are often many stances one could take. Voters must often settle for the candidate whose stances are closest to their own. This can prove difficult when two or more candidates have similar opinions, or when candidates have positions that are equally far from a voter’s beliefs. For example, education spending is a topic that is difficult to issue vote on. A voter may have a drastically different opinion from the available candidates on how much money should be spent on schools. This differing of opinion could lead the individual to vote based on party affiliation instead. More importantly, the nation does not have to have a high level of consensus for some campaign issues to be more salient than others.

A second complexity is that, oftentimes, problems do not line up on linear bases. That is, some issues may make it hard to even determine the candidate with the closest position. For example, in the 1980 United States presidential election, the growing threat of Communism in the Eastern Hemisphere was a salient issue for voters. There were many proposed solutions to this problem. For instance, Ronald Reagan endorsed military intimidation through increased spending and innovation (the Reagan doctrine), Jimmy Carter proposed diplomatic efforts to keep peace, and the independent John Anderson advocated a return to the containment strategy. None of these answers are mutually-exclusive, and they cannot be linearly plotted. The voter instead had to choose the candidate whose opinion represented the closest mix of possible solutions to his or her own.

A third problem complication of issue voting is if there are multiple issues that are equally salient to the voter. A candidate may have a similar position to a given voter on one issue, but may take a considerably different stance on another. During 2008 United States presidential election, the two issues the dominated attention were the economy and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Many viewed these issues as equally salient, and had a hard time picking one issue to vote on.

10 – Voter Turnout

10.1 – Introduction

10.1.1 – Overview

Voter turnout is the percentage of eligible voters who cast a ballot in an election. After increasing for many decades, there has been a trend of decreasing voter turnout in most established democracies since the 1960s. Certain factors are leading to the decrease in the number of voters such as disenchantment, indifference, or contentment. Another contributor to lower overall turnout, is the larger percentage of the population who are simply not eligible to vote; non-citizens, incarcerated and non-self-registered individuals. Despite significant study of the issue, scholars are divided on reasons for the decline. Its cause has been attributed to a wide array of economic, demographic, cultural, technological, and institutional factors. There have been many efforts to increase turnout and encourage voting.

10.1.2 – Reasons for Voting

Electoral College: The Electoral College map shows the results of the 2008 U.S. presidential election. Senator Barack Obama (D-IL) won the popular vote in 28 states and the District of Columbia (denoted in blue) to capture 365 electoral votes. Senator John McCain (R-AZ) won the popular vote in 22 states (denoted in red) to capture 173 electoral votes. Nebraska split its electoral vote when Senator Obama won the electoral vote from Nebraska’s 2nd congressional district; the state’s other four electoral votes went to Senator McCain.

In any large election the chance of any one vote determining the outcome is low. Some studies show that a single vote in a voting scheme such as the Electoral College in the United States has an even lower chance of determining the outcome. The Electoral College is an example of an indirect election, consisting of 538 electors who officially elect the President and Vice President of the United States. The number of electors is equal to the total voting membership of the United States Congress, 435 Representatives and 100 Senators, plus three electors from the District of Columbia. Other studies claim that the Electoral College actually increases voting power.

Voter Turnout in the United States: Graph of Voter turnout in the United States presidential elections from 1824 to 2008. (Click image to enlarge)

10.1.3 – The Significance of Voter Turnout

High voter turnout is desirable, though the issue is still debated among political scientists and economists specializing in public choice. A high turnout is generally seen as evidence of the legitimacy of the current system. Dictators have often fabricated high turnouts in showcase elections for this purpose. For instance, Saddam Hussein’s 2002 referendum was claimed to have had 100% participation. Opposition parties sometimes boycott votes they feel are unfair or illegitimate, or if the election is for a government that is considered illegitimate. For example, the Holy See instructed Italian Catholics to boycott national elections for several decades after the creation of the State of Italy. In some countries, there are threats of violence against those who vote, such as during the 2005 Iraq elections. However, some political scientists question the view that high turnout is an implicit endorsement of the system. Mark N. Franklin contends that in European Union elections opponents of the federation, and of its legitimacy, are just as likely to vote as proponents.

Assuming that low turnout is a reflection of disenchantment or indifference, a poll with very low turnout may not be an accurate reflection of the will of the people. On the other hand, if low turnout is a reflection of contentment of voters about likely winners or parties, then low turnout is as legitimate as high turnout, as long as the right to vote exists. Still, low turnouts can lead to unequal representation among various parts of the population.

The decline in voting has also accompanied a general decline in civic participation, such as church attendance, membership in professional, fraternal, and student societies, youth groups, and parent-teacher associations. At the same time, some forms of participation have increased. People have become far more likely to participate in boycotts, demonstrations, and to donate to political campaigns.

Federal law restricts how much individuals and organizations may contribute to political campaigns, political parties, and other FEC-regulated organizations. Corporations and unions are barred from donating money directly to candidates or national party committees. Lobbyists often assist congresspersons with campaign finance by arranging fundraisers, assembling PACs, and seeking donations from other clients. Many lobbyists become campaign treasurers and fundraisers for congresspersons.

10.2 – Factors Affecting Voter Turnout

10.2.1 – Introduction

High voter turnout is often considered to be desirable, though among political scientists and economists specialising in public choice, the issue is still debated. A high turnout is generally seen as evidence of the legitimacy of the current system. Assuming that low turnout is a reflection of disenchantment or indifference, a poll with very low turnout may not be an accurate reflection of the will of the people. On the other hand, if low turnout is a reflection of contentment of voters about likely winners or parties, then low turnout is as legitimate as high turnout, as long as the right to vote exists. Still, low turnouts can lead to unequal representation among various parts of the population. In developed countries, non-voters tend to be concentrated in particular demographic and socioeconomic groups, especially the young and the poor.

10.2.2 – Reasons for Decline

Many causes have been proposed for this decline; a combination of factors is most likely. When asked why they do not vote, many people report that they have too little free time. However, over the last several decades, studies have consistently shown that the amount of leisure time has not decreased. Wealth and literacy have some effect on turnout, but are not reliable measures. For example, the United Nations Human Development Index shows some correlation between higher standards of living and higher turnout. The age of a democracy is also an important factor. Elections require considerable involvement by the population, and it takes some time to develop the cultural habit of voting, and the associated understanding of and confidence in the electoral process. Demographics also have an effect. Older people tend to vote more than youths, so societies where the average age is somewhat higher, such as Europe; have higher turnouts than somewhat younger countries such as the United States.

Institutional factors have a significant impact on voter turnout. Rules and laws are also generally easier to change than attitudes, so much of the work done on how to improve voter turnout looks at these factors. Making voting compulsory has a direct and dramatic effect on turnout. Simply making it easier for candidates to stand through easier nomination rules is believed to increase voting. Ease of voting is a factor in rates of turnout. In the United States and most Latin American nations, voters must go through separate voter registration procedures before they are allowed to vote. This two-step process quite clearly decreases turnout. U.S. states with no, or easier, registration requirements have larger turnouts.

In politics, voter fatigue is the apathy that the electorate can experience under certain circumstances, one of which could be (in exceptional circumstances) that they are required to vote too often. Voter fatigue and voter apathy should be distinguished from what arises when voters are not allowed or unable to vote, or when disenfranchisement occurs. Similarly, voter suppression is a strategy to influence the outcome of an election by discouraging or preventing people from exercising their right to vote. It is distinguished from political campaigning in that campaigning attempts to change likely voting behavior by changing the opinions of potential voters through persuasion and organization.

Voter Supression: Voters at voting booths in the United States in 1945

Voter suppression instead attempts to reduce the number of voters who might vote against the candidate or proposition advocated by the suppressors. This suppression can be in the form of unfair tests or requirements to vote. For example, in the southern United States before and during the civil rights movement, white southerners used many methods to prevent minorities from voting. These included literacy tests, a poll tax, and if all else failed intimidation by threats of violence. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 put a stop to literacy tests and any other methods of preventing people from voting. Excluding convicted from voting and re-including them only on case-by-case decisions by State Governors, as is the case in numerous U.S. states, can lead to voter suppression and can induce biased voting, as there can be a class bias in the state’s decision.

10.3 – Low Voter Turnout

10.3.1 – Introduction

Voter turnout is the percentage of eligible voters who cast a ballot in an election. After increasing for many decades, there has been a trend of decreasing voter turnout in most established democracies since the 1960s. In general, low turnout may be due to disenchantment, indifference, or contentment. Low turnout is often considered to be undesirable, and there is much debate over the factors that affect turnout and how to increase it. In spite of significant study into the issue, scholars are divided on reasons for the decline. Its cause has been attributed to a wide array of economic, demographic, cultural, technological, and institutional factors.

10.3.2 – Measuring Turnout

Differing methods of measuring voter turnout can contribute to reported differences between nations. There are difficulties in measuring both the numerator, the number of voters who cast votes, and the denominator, the number of voters eligible to vote.

For the numerator, it is often assumed that the number of voters who went to the polls should equal the number of ballots cast, which in turn should equal the number of votes counted, but this is not the case. Not all voters who arrive at the polls necessarily cast ballots. Some may be turned away because they are ineligible, some may be turned away improperly, and some who sign the voting register may not actually cast ballots. Furthermore, voters who do cast ballots may abstain, deliberately voting for nobody, or they may spoil their votes, either accidentally or as an act of protest.

In the United States, it has been common to report turnout as the sum of votes for the top race on the ballot, because not all jurisdictions report the actual number of people who went to the polls nor the number of undervotes or overvotes. Overvote rates of around 0.3 percent are typical of well-run elections, but in Gadsden County Florida, the overvote rate was 11 percent in November 2000.

The voting age population (VAP) refers to the set of individuals that have reached the minimum voting age for a particular geography or political unit. The presumption is that they are therefore generally eligible to vote, although other additional factors may cause them to be ineligible, such as lack of citizenship or a prior felony conviction. In estimating voter turnout the voting age population for a political unit is often used as the denominator for the number of individuals eligible to vote in a given election; this method has been shown to lose inaccuracy when a larger percentage of the VAP is ineligible to vote. In the United States individuals become eligible to vote in political elections at age 18.

10.3.3 – Trends of Decreasing Turnout

Over the last 40 years, voter turnout has been steadily declining in the established democracies. This trend has been significant in the United States, Western Europe, Japan and Latin America. It has been a matter of concern and controversy among political scientists for several decades. The decline in voting has also accompanied a general decline in civic participation, such as church attendance, membership in professional, fraternal, and student societies, youth groups, and parent-teacher associations. At the same time, some forms of participation have increased. People have become far more likely to participate in boycotts, demonstrations, and to donate to political campaigns.

Before the late 20th century, suffrage — the right to vote — was so limited in most nations that turnout figures have little relevance to today. One exception was the United States, which had near universal white male suffrage by 1840. The U.S. saw a steady rise in voter turnout during the century, reaching its peak in the years after the Civil War. Turnout declined from the 1890s until the 1930s, then increased again until 1960 before beginning its current long decline. Globally, voter turnout has decreased by about five percentage points over the last four decades.

10.3.4 – International Differences

Voter turnout varies considerably between countries. It tends to be lower in the United States, Asia and Latin America than most of Europe, Canada and Oceania. Western Europe averages a 77% turnout, and South and Central America around 54% since 1945. The differences between nations tend to be greater than those between classes, ethnic groups, or regions within nations. Confusingly, some of the factors that cause internal differences do not seem to apply on a global level. For instance, nations with better-educated populaces do not have higher turnouts. There are two main causes of these international differences—culture and institutions—although there is much debate over the relative impact of the various factors.

10.4 – Attempts to Improve Voter Turnout

10.4.1 – Introduction

Institutional factors have a significant impact on voter turnout. Rules and laws are also generally easier to change than attitudes, so much of the work done on how to improve voter turnout looks at these factors. Making voting compulsory has a direct and dramatic effect on turnout. Simply making easier nomination rules for candidates is believed to increase voting. Conversely, adding barriers, such as a separate registration process, can suppress turnout. The salience of an election, the effect that a vote will have on policy, and its proportionality, how closely the result reflects the will of the people, are two structural factors that also are likely to have important effects on turnout.

10.4.2 – Compulsory Voting

Compulsory voting is a system by which electors are obliged to vote in elections or attend a polling place on voting day. If an eligible voter does not attend a polling place, he or she may be subject to punitive measures, such as fines, community service, or perhaps imprisonment if fines are unpaid or community service is not performed. Compulsory voting ensures a large voter turnout. This means a victorious candidate or party clearly represents a majority of the population, not just the politically motivated individuals who would vote without this requirement. This helps ensure that governments do not neglect people in sections of society who are less active politically. Victorious political leaders of compulsory systems may claim a higher degree of political legitimacy than those of non-compulsory systems with lower voter turnout. Political scientist Arend Lijphart writes that compulsory voting has been found to increase voting by 7-16% in national elections and by even more in local and provincial elections and elections to the European Parliament.

Map of Compulsory Voting Countries: Red: Compulsory voting, enforced. Pink: Compulsory voting, not enforced. Orange: Compulsory voting, enforced (only men). Light Orange: Compulsory voting, not enforced (only men). Yellow: the country had compulsory voting in the past.

Any compulsion affects the freedom of an individual, and the fining of recalcitrant non-voters is an additional impact on a potential recalcitrant voter. Voting may be seen as a civic right rather than a civic duty. While citizens may exercise their civil rights, they are not compelled to. Furthermore, compulsory voting may infringe on other rights. For example, most Jehovah’s Witnesses believe that they should not participate in political events. Forcing them to vote ostensibly denies them their freedom of religious practice. In some countries with compulsory voting, Jehovah’s Witnesses and others may be excused on these grounds. If however they are forced to go to the polling place, they still can use a blank or invalid vote.

10.4.3 – Salience

Mark N. Franklin argues thatsalience, the perceived effect that an individual vote will have on how the country is run, has a significant effect on turnout. He presents Switzerland as an example of a nation with low salience. The nation’s administration is highly decentralized, so that the federal government has limited powers. The government invariably consists of a coalition of parties, and the power wielded by a party is far more closely linked to its position relative to the coalition than to the number of votes it received. Important decisions are placed before the population in a referendum. Individual votes for the federal legislature are thus unlikely to have a significant effect on the nation, which probably explains the low average turnouts in that country.

10.4.4 – Ease of Voting

Ease of voting is a factor in rates of turnout. In the United States and most Latin American nations, voters must go through separate voter registration procedures before they are allowed to vote. This two-step process quite clearly decreases turnout. U.S. states with no or easier registration requirements have larger turnouts. Other methods of improving turnout include making voting easier through improved access to polls—for example, through:

  • increasing the number of possible voting locations
  • lowering the average time voters have to spend waiting in lines
  • extending voting hours
  • requiring companies to give workers some time off on voting day

Other options include:

  • more available absentee polling
  • mail-in voting
  • Internet voting

In other countries, like France, voting is held on the weekend, when most voters are away from work. Therefore, the need for time off from work as a factor in voter turnout is greatly reduced.

10.5 – The Effect of Low Voter Turnout

Assuming that low turnout is a reflection of disenchantment, a poll with very low turnout may be an inaccurate reflection of the electorate.

10.5.1 – Implications of High and Low Voter Turnout

Voter Turnout: Voters lining up outside a Baghdad polling station during the 2005 Iraqi election. Voter turnout was considered high despite widespread concerns of violence.

High voter turnout is often considered to be desirable, though among political scientists and economists specialising in public choice, the issue is still debated. A high turnout is generally seen as evidence of the legitimacy of the current system. Dictators have often fabricated high turnouts in showcase elections for this purpose. Assuming that low turnout is a reflection of disenchantment or indifference, a poll with very low turnout may not be an accurate reflection of the will of the people. On the other hand, if low turnout is a reflection of contentment of voters about likely winners or parties, then low turnout is as legitimate as high turnout, as long as the right to vote exists. Still, low turnouts can lead to unequal representation among various parts of the population. In developed countries, non-voters tend to be concentrated in particular demographic and socioeconomic groups, especially the young and the poor.

10.5.2 – Voter Turnout across the World

Voter turnout varies considerably between countries. It tends to be lower in the United States, Asia, and Latin America than most of Europe, Canada, and Oceania. Western Europe averages a 77% turnout, and South and Central America averages around 54% since 1945. The differences between nations tend to be greater than those between classes, ethnic groups, or regions within nations. Confusingly, some of the factors that cause internal differences do not seem to apply on a global level. For instance, nations with better-educated populaces do not have higher turnouts. There are two main causes of these international differences—culture and institutions—although there is much debate over the relative impact of the various factors.

11 – Trends in Voting

11.1 – African-Americans

11.1.1 – Introduction

For a large part of US history Black voters were blocked from voting, either directly or through political practices that targeted Black voters indirectly.

Today, the average participation of African American voters is still somewhat lower than white voters, but there is great variety within these voting patterns.

There are different explanations for voting patterns. Institutional approaches look at the ways in which legal documents and organizations impact the ability to vote. Others examine the question of rationality in voting: does voting serve the self-interest of any given individual, and what are the interests or issues that might change someones voting patterns? A behavioral approach focuses on the actions of individuals and groups, taking voting as one part of a larger bundle of political activities. In examining African American voting patterns it is helpful to consider all of these factors.

11.1.2 – Civil War and Institutional Barriers

The First Vote: This contemporary print depicts the first Black voters in the US exercising their new rights.

During the period before the Civil War, enslaved Black people, and many free Blacks and free people of color were barred from voting. At the end of the war, the fifteenth amendment, ratified in 1870, banned any state from denying the right to vote to any adult male citizen based on his race.

During the early Reconstruction period, Black residents voted in large numbers. In many states the enslaved population had been larger than the free population. Coupled with a strong set of shared interests, there was a great deal of incentive for Black citizens to vote.

11.1.3 – Jim Crow Era and Disenfranchisement

While the fifteenth amendment provided legal protection for voting rights based on race, during the Jim Crow era, politicians created new institutions to suppress the vote of Black residents.

Early on, violence and intimidation was used to keep Black voters away from the polls. States then began to pass official voter suppression legislation. These included poll taxes requiring payment before voting, and literacy and understanding tests, strict residency requirements and new voter registration rules.

While these rules did not specifically restrict Black citizens from voting, Black people who were freed slaves and their descendants were disproportionately poor, less educated or illiterate, and so more likely to have their voting rights limited by these provisions. Although it is important to note that poor white residents were also disenfranchised by many of these provisions. In some cases, states added character or grandfather clauses to permit poor or illiterate white residents to continue voting.

11.1.4 – Civil Rights

During the early parts of the 1900s, the NAACP brought forward several successful cases to challenge state voter suppression laws. In the 1950s and 1960s, the civil rights movement became a widespread social movement. Groups fought for improved opportunities for African American people, and tried to defend existing rights that were being denied. Civil rights leaders organized communities through churches and other community groups, and attracted the support of many white activists from northern states.

The African-American Civil Rights Movement encompasses social movements in the United States whose goal was to end racial segregation and discrimination against black Americans and enforce constitutional voting rights to them. This article covers the phase of the movement between 1955 and 1968, particularly in the South.

The movement was characterized by major campaigns of civil resistance. Between 1955 and 1968, acts of nonviolent protest and civil disobedience produced crisis situations between activists and government authorities. Federal, state, and local governments, businesses, and communities often had to respond immediately to these situations that highlighted the inequities faced by African Americans.

In 1962, the twenty-fourth amendment to the Constitution prohibited congress or states from restricting voting through poll taxes. In 1964, the Civil Rights Act was passed. In 1965, the Voting Rights Act established federal oversight of election regulations, and banned voter qualifications or prerequisites that limited the right to vote on account of race or color. This act removed a large institutional barrier to voting and helped to further protect voting rights.

11.1.5 – 2008 and Beyond

The 2008 presidential election was historic, with Barack Obama as the Democratic candidate, and the first non-white presidential candidate for a major party. Obama had a Kenyan-born Black father, a white mother from the Midwest, and strong connections in the African American community in Chicago. Aside from the fact that Obama won an overwhelming percent of the African American vote, there was also high levels of African American voter turnout during this election. This was in part because of self-interest and a desire for representation, but was also the result of strong community organizing. Once again, grassroots groups and social movement leaders worked to register voters and get them to the polls.

11.2 – Latinos

11.2.1 – Introduction

Latino communities make up one of the fastest growing groups in the US. Latino voters are a diverse group which include long-established Tejano and Californio, Puerto Rican and Chicano voters, as well as the Cuban-American community which makes up a large bloc of voters in Miami. However, recently naturalized citizens from South and Central America, and their children, make up the largest group of Latino voters in the US.

11.2.2 – Latino Voting Trends

Immigrant Rights and Civil Rights:Organizations serving immigrant communities are starting to encourage more political participation, including voting.

While Latino voters should not be thought of as a homogenous group, there are still some general trends for the group. On average Latino citizens continue to vote at significantly lower rates that non-Latino white voters.

There are many potential approaches that can be taken to explain variations in voting rates. Institutional approaches look at the ways in which legal documents and organizations shape the ability to vote. Others examine the question of the rationality of voting: does voting serve the self-interest of any given individual, and what are the interests or issues that might change someone’s voting patterns? A behavioral approach focuses more on the actions of individuals and groups, taking voting as one part of a larger bundle of political activities.

The US has comparatively low rates of naturalization for immigrant residents. As such, people may live for many years in the US without being able to vote. Additionally, the weaker electoral institutions in the US, including more decentralized election processes and a weaker party system, mean that there are few institutions working to actively incorporate newly naturalized citizens or second generation citizens into the voting process.

Additionally, many Latino political activists, who are more visible in their political participation, have often been quite different from the average Latino. For example, these activists are generally less in need of government supports, and less likely to advocate for such programs. They are, therefore, not good candidates for the type of community organizing that could rally new voters around their own interests.

However, in recent years, a larger number of organizations that serve immigrant and Latino communities have become involved in political participation. These groups are advocating for resources, supports and rights. They are also encouraging the political participation of Latino residents through voter registration drives, and partnerships with other organizations, such as unions, that have traditionally been involved in voter mobilization.

11.2.3 – Language Minority Voting Rights

One important institutional change aimed at lowering the cost for Latino voter participation is the Language Minority Provision of the Voting Rights Act, first introduced in 1975, and then amended in 1992 and 2006. This provision is aimed at upholding the principals of the fourteenth and fifteenth amendments to the US constitution, by attempting to eliminate language-based barriers to voting.

This provision has been shown to have a significant impact on improving rates of voting by Latino citizens.

11.3 – Asian-Americans

11.3.1 – Introduction

It might come as a surprise to find that California was one of the last states to ratify the fifteenth amendment to the US constitution, which prohibited any state from limiting a male citizen’s right to vote based on race. However, in the late 1800s many politicians in California were adamant that migrants from China and their descendants should be prohibited from voting. Like African American communities in southern states, Asian American communities have faced a long history of voter discrimination and disenfranchisement in the US.

Political Participation: Asian American communities have a long history of both disenfranchisement and political participation in the US.

Today the Asian American community in the US is quite diverse, with longstanding Chinese and Japanese communities particularly on the west coast, along with large Pacific Islander populations both on the west coast and in Hawaii. The Asian American community is also one of the fastest growing groups in the country in large part because of new immigration. The three largest groups are made of people who have emigrated from China, India and the Philippines. These newly naturalized citizens and their children make up the largest group of Asian American voters.

In addition to being a diverse group, the Asian American community is also highly polarized in terms of its socioeconomic profile. Some Asian Americans have very high income, while others have very low income. This diversity and polarization makes it difficult to generalize the voting patterns for the Asian American community. In some areas voting rates are significantly higher than the US average, or the rate for non-Latino white voters. In others it is significantly lower.

Differences are related to indicators such as income and education. Like most other groups in the US, Asian Americans with more education and higher income tend to vote more. Other indicators for voting participation among Asian Americans are the political climate for both their home country and their local community.

11.3.2 – Language Minority Voting Rights

One important institutional change aimed at increasing the rates of voting in Asian American communities is the Language Minority Provision of the Voting Rights Act. It was first introduced in 1975, and later amended in 1992 and 2006. This provision is aimed at upholding the principles of the fourteenth and fifteenth amendments to the US constitution by attempting to eliminate language-based barriers to voting. This provision holds that election documents, such as voting notices and ballots, must be provided in the minority language alongside English, where appropriate.

11.4 – Women vs. Men

In 1920, the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution gave women the right to vote and, today, women vote at similar rates to men.

Suffragettes: Women across the US organized for decades to gain the right to vote for women.

There are a variety of theories that help to explain who votes. Institutional approaches look at the ways in which legal documents and organizations impact and shape the ability to vote. Other approaches examine the question of the rationality of voting: does voting serve the self-interest of any given individual, and what are the interests or issues that might change someone’s voting patterns? A behavioral approach focuses more on the actions of individuals and groups, taking voting as one part of a larger bundle of political activities. It is useful to combine these ideas when thinking about women’s and men’s voting patterns.

For a large part of the history of the United States, women were denied their right to vote. Women were not allowed to vote in all elections until the Nineteenth Amendment to the US Constitution. Ratified in 1920, this amendment prohibited any citizen from being denied the right to vote based on their sex.

In spite of this long-term institutional barrier to voting, women today vote at similar rates to men. Women also do not generally vote as a bloc, and instead tend to be as diverse in their voting patterns as men. Characteristics such as race, ethnicity, age and socioeconomic status tend to predict voting patterns better than gender. Even when considering so-called “women’s issues”, such as reproductive choices and rights or equal pay legislation, women do not vote as a bloc. Instead, while they may identify these issues as more important than men, women tend to be split over the correct solutions to a problem. However, there are exceptions, such as around any questions of war and/or the use of violence.

The high rates of women’s involvement in voting (in spite of being excluded from voting for so long) can be partially explained by women’s high involvement in other forms of political participation. This includes the suffrage movement that saw women organizing and campaigning to win women the right to vote. Additionally, women share many of the same interests as men in comparable positions, and so, similarly to men, women with more education and higher income will vote at higher rates than women in different positions.

While women vote at a similar rate to men, they are underrepresented in other forms of political participation, such as joining organizations like political parties and running for public office.

11.5 – Religious Identity and Politics

Within the United States, religious identity plays a significant role in political participation and voting.

Religious identity: Religious identity plays a significant role in political participation

In 1776, Catholics comprised less than 1% of the population of the new nation, but their presence grew rapidly after 1840 with immigration from Germany, Ireland, Italy, Poland, and elsewhere in Catholic Europe from 1840 to 1914, and also from Latin America in the 20th century. Catholics now comprise 25% to 27% of the national vote, with over 68 million members today. From the mid-19th century until 1964 Catholics were solidly Democratic, with about 80%-90% of them voting democrat. But since the election of a Catholic president in 1960, John F. Kennedy, Catholics have split about 50-50 between the two major parties in national elections.

The Jewish community constitutes about 1.4 – 2.1% of the U.S. population. While earlier Jewish immigrants from Germany tended to be politically conservative, the wave of Eastern European Jews who arrived in the U.S. starting in the 1880s were generally more liberal and soon became the political majority. For most of the 20th century since 1936, the vast majority of Jews in the United States have been aligned with the Democratic Party. Towards the end of the 20th century and into the 21st century, Republicans have launched initiatives to woo American Jews away from the Democratic Party.

Today one-fifth of the U.S. public–and a third of adults under 30–are religiously unaffiliated according to national polls. Exit polls suggest that white Americans without religion vote Democratic at roughly the same rates as they vote Republican. According to exit polls in the 2008 Presidential Election, 71% of non-religious whites voted for Democratic candidate Barack Obama, while 74% of white Evangelical Christians voted for Republican candidate John McCain. This can be compared with the 43–55% share of white votes overall.

A comprehensive study by Harvard University professor Robert Putnam found that religious Americans are three to four times more likely than their nonreligious counterparts to “work on community projects, belong to voluntary associations, attend public meetings, vote in local elections, attend protest demonstrations and political rallies, and donate time and money to causes–including secular ones. ”

11.6 – Age and Participation

Political participation differs notably by age. People between the ages of thirty-five and sixty-five are the most politically active. People at this stage of life are more likely than younger people to have established homes, hold steady jobs, and be settled into communities. Those with stable community roots often have strong incentives and greater resources for becoming involved in politics.

People under the age of thirty are among the least involved in mainstream forms of participation, as younger people often lack the money and time to participate. Voter turnout among eighteen- to twenty-four-year-olds dropped from 50 percent in 1972, the first presidential election year after the voting age was lowered to eighteen, to 36 percent in 2000. Turnout among senior citizens, people sixty-five and older, increased to nearly 70 percent in that same time period.

While younger people turn out in elections less often than older people, youth voting has been on the rise in presidential elections since 2004. Young voter turnout rose to 47 percent in 2004 and 51 percent in 2008, partly as a result of voter registration and mobilization efforts by groups like Rock the Vote. The youth vote contributed to the success of Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012, as young volunteers provided countless hours of campaign support. The growth of Internet technologies, particularly social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, has also made it easier for candidates to reach younger voters who may not read traditional newspapers or watch television news and increase their turnout.


Originally published by Lumen Learning – Boundless Political Science under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license.

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