In a democracy elections all voters to decide "who governs" and to affect public policy. Elections allow voters to pass judgment on officeholders by re-electing them or choosing someone new. For an election to be considered a mandate four conditions must be present:
1) competing candidates have to offer clear policy alternatives
2) voters must vote only on these alternatives
3) election results have to show a clear preference by the voters
4) elected officials must be bound by their campaign promises.
In the U.S., none of these conditions can be met completely.
In many elections, voters cast their ballots based on what the incumbents have done in the past -- retrospective voting. A voter cannot predict what an official will do in the future but they can judge based on what they have done. Thus, unhappy voters can vote an incumbent out of office. Elections also help protect against abuse by the government. The struggle for civil rights for African Americans was based in part on the premise that the right to vote would help make government responsive to their concerns.
Power and Ambition
Most successful politicians are driven in large part by their own ambition and talent. Politicians must also be great communicators; they must speak well in a variety formats from small groups to large and press conferences to individual interviews. Politics has become a full time, permanent job for most officeholders at all levels, thru requiring a great deal of professionalism. Many politicians start very young working toward careers in politics; they run for low level office and garner important mentors. Lawyers dominate among American politicians. The skills required of a lawyer serve them well in politics: they understand how to represent the wishes of others; they understand statutory law; they are usually comfortable speaking in a variety of formats; and the law provides many opportunities to enter the political arena such as judgeships.
The Advantages of Incumbency
Incumbents, those who already hold office, retain great advantages in elections that allow them to usually safely keep their seats. In the House of Representatives 90% of all incumbents are successfully re-elected each term, while Senate incumbents enjoy a 70% re-election rate. While voters may distrust the institution of Congress, the individual members enjoy several advantages which help them win reelection.
1) Name recognition. Voters tend to vote for a name they have heard previously, so publicity for officeholders is of prime concern. Even negative publicity seems to make little difference. Voters often know little about specific policy issues or even members of Congress, so a candidate's name becomes the link to the voters. Since Senate challengers are often previous officeholders and thus have name recognition, they are more successful than House challengers who usually have little previous name recognition with voters.
2) Campaign contributions. Incumbents have a large fundraising advantage because donors want to give money to those in power. Donors also fear that by giving to a challenger who may lose the election they could face being frozen out on policy issues by the successful incumbent.
3) Resources of Office. While in office, incumbents use their offices to build their name recognition by making public appearances, giving speeches and interviews. Members of Congress have franking privileges which allows them to use the mail for free. They mail promotional cards and newsletters to their constituents informing them of their work. In addition, members of Congress are granted tax-funded travel to their home districts where they make promotional appearances and give speeches. With the help of a large staff, members provide important services or favors to their constituents. In addition, members work to bring important funds for roads, schools and other projects to their districts or states while working to keep out undesirable projects such as waste disposal sites. The longer they are in office the more favors an incumbent can provide, thus building further goodwill and voter support.
Similar to marketing a product, professional campaign managers market political candidates. Each campaign develops a campaign strategy for a specific election. Candidates choose a theme around which they organize their campaign; this theme usually centers on a candidates personality rather than issues. Campaigns also seek to define their opponent in the least favorable light. Negative campaigning is a key component of today's campaigns; by creating a negative image of one's opponent, the opponent must spend time defending against the attacks. Television plays a key role in negative campaigning. Candidates also use focus groups and polling to help choose which issues upon which to focus and which strategies are successful. Campaigns employ professional pollsters to conduct polls prior to and throughout the campaign. For a challenger the strategy must be to explain why the incumbent needs to be removed; challengers must attack the incumbents record and often use the "outsider" strategy.
The campaign is planned to get the maximum favorable free exposure on the evening news. Plans are made so that the candidate does something interesting and visually appealing each day, providing photo ops and sound bytes for the media. Paid advertising is the largest expense for a campaign and must be planned carefully. Networks are required to offer the same rates and times to all candidates. With a large campaign fund, a candidate can saturate the airwaves with advertising prior to the election. Candidates who lack the money for paid advertising seek ways to obtain free airtime such as staging media events and participating in debates.
How Much Does It Cost to Get Elected?
Campaign costs have skyrocketed with the high costs of advertising and the number of campaign professionals. It now costs almost $900,000 to run successfully for a House seat and between $5-7 million for a Senate seat. Presidential campaign costs have grown tremendously; in 2000 all presidential candidates spent collectively almost $600 million.
Raising Campaign Cash
Fund raising to meet the high costs of campaigning is the most important hurdle a candidate faces. Only about 13 percent of taxpayers check off the box on their income tax returns to allocate $3 of their tax money for the purpose of providing public money to fund presidential campaigns. About 20 percent of overall campaign funding comes from small donations of under $200, which need not be itemized by candidates or parties. Large individual donors can give up to $2,000 in the primary and in the general election. They can also give to parties and independent political organizations. Candidate Self-Financing is a large source of funds for wealthy individuals as there are no federal restrictions on the amount of money that individuals can spend on their own campaigns. While issue ads are funded independently by interest groups and advocate policy positions while providing specific information about candidates positions on those policies. Money spent for issue ads must be reported to the Federal Elections Commission. Issue ads are banned within 60 days of a general election and 30 days of a primary election.
What Do Contributors "Buy"?
Contributions in exchange for special favors or treatment are illegal and rare. Instead, contributors expect that candidates are smart enough to make decisions when in office that will keep the contributions coming in the future. Big money contributors such as businesses and unions give the largest amounts of money. These large money contributors expect that their money will buy them access to politicians.
Since corporations and unions cannot give their money directly to candidates, they form political action committees (PACs) to raise and contribute money. Many groups form PACs so as to best utilize their contributions, and PACs seek to maximize their returns. Large individual contributors expect direct intervention on their behalf by their elected official when dealing with government entities. Usually, such intervention helps to cut red tape or expedite a case for a contributor. Individual contributors may support a candidate for ideological reasons or simply enjoy the opportunity to interact with elected officials. Candidates spend a great deal of their time interacting with major contributors and seeking money to fund their campaigns.
Regulating Campaign Finance
The Federal Election Commission (FEC) enforces limits on individual and organizational contributions to all federal elections. Individual contributions are now limited to $2,000 per candidate per election, and organizational contributions to $5,000. However, there are loopholes. Each member of a supporter's family may give the limit in each of the primary and general elections. Organizations may bundle the contributions of hundreds or thousands of individual members. Unlimited additional money may be spent on a candidate's behalf if it is done "without cooperation or consultation with the candidate." Supporters may fund "issue ads" which favor a candidate without endorsing him or her, yet the costs of such advertising are not counted as part of campaign limits. And a candidate may spend as much of his or her money as he or she wishes.
Candidates may also qualify for federal funding of presidential elections which is financed by the $3 checkoff box on individual income tax returns. They qualify by raising $5,000 from private contributions no greater than $250 each in each of twenty states. To receive federal funding candidates must agree to limits in campaign spending in both primary and general elections.
In 2002 Congress passed new campaign finance reform laws. These new regulations outlawed "soft money" contributions made to the political parties, ostensibly for "party building." In addition, the law prohibits independent groups from coordinating their campaign spending with candidates or parties, forbids independent groups from mentioning candidate names in their issue ads and bans independent advertisements in the final days of the campaign. However, the law created a loophole for nonprofit independent groups (known as 527s) to raise funds and broadcast ads.
The Presidential Campaign: The Primary Race
The race for the presidency is long and grueling and tests the candidates' character and endurance. The candidates' lives will be inspected by the media and placed on display for the public. The presidential primary race starts early and candidates employ a variety of strategies to gain an advantage and gain their party's nomination. These strategies include:
1. Media mentions are sought, often years in advance, by courting the press, making speeches outside of the home state, taking the spotlight on a national issue, or letting it be known "off the record" that they are considering a presidential race.
2. Presidential Credentials are garnered through political experience in holding a high-level political office and campaigning.
3. The Decision to Run involves complex personal and political calculations including building a campaign organization and knowing how much money can be raised.
4. A Strategy for the Primaries and the Primary Campaigns involve an appeal to party activists, are usually quite distinct from strategies for the general election, and may be crucial to the success of the candidate.
5. The New Hampshire primary, the first in the nation, can win or lose favorable media attention and campaign contributions. New Hampshire inspired direct candidate contact with the voters or retail politics. Expectations and spin doctors typify the beginning of the primary season. Favorable results generate momentum which inspires enhanced campaign contributions.
6. Front-end strategies emphasize spending disproportionately in the early primaries in the hope media and contribution momentum will snowball and overwhelm competitors. In the 2000 campaign, front-runners Al Gore (D) and George W. Bush (R) had locked up their party's nominations by early March.
7. Big-state strategies acknowledge that winning in California, New York, Texas, Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Michigan is crucial since these seven states have the lion's share of the convention delegates.
8. Front loading of presidential primaries has pushed more primaries to earlier in the season thus wrapping up the party's nomination usually by March. Thus the candidate who peaks early in primary season is in position to win the nomination.
9. Convention Showplace. For the candidate who wins enough delegates in the primaries to be nominated, the national party convention becomes a media showcase in which to launch the general election campaign.
The Presidential Campaign: The General Election Battle
The general election campaign focuses on winning electoral votes, not necessarily popular votes. Even a narrow plurality of votes in a state wins all of that state's electoral votes. Thus there is little incentive to expend campaign resources in any state in which one is safely ahead, and there is great incentive to focus on large states where the margin of difference between the candidate and the opponent is small ("swing states").
The televised presidential debates have become a key component of the general election campaign since they attract the greatest number of viewers. Image is more important than policy issues during the debate. In other words, how a candidate projects himself is as important as what he says.
The candidate needs 270 electoral votes to win. California, New York, and Texas together deliver 119 of these and are central to all campaign strategies. Clinton's 1992 and 1996 wins in California, previously Reagan territory, were critical to his election. In 1996 Dole won Texas but lost Florida, a Republican "must-win" state. Republican strategies depend heavily on the South and the Mountain States as relatively safe base areas. It was Florida in 2000 that put George W. Bush over the top, ultimately winning the presidency with 271 electoral college votes to Al Gore's 267 electoral college votes. Democratic candidates generally run strongest in the Northeast and upper Midwest.
The Voter Decides
Voters cast their ballots on election day for a variety of reasons:
1. Party affiliation remains a powerful influence in voting decisions. More people identify themselves as Democrats than Republicans, therefore Republican candidates must appeal to more crossover and independent voters.
2. Group voting is also important, with Catholics, Jews, and African Americans voting disproportionately Democratic; and Protestants, whites, and higher-income groups voting disproportionately Republican.
3. Race and Gender Gaps exist among voters. Women have been voting more Democratic and helped elect Clinton twice. African Americans overwhelmingly support Democratic candidates.
4. Candidate Image has become increasingly important in the television age. Personal characteristics of candidates have grown more important, and "character", although not well defined, has become a central theme. However, voter images of a candidate's character are influenced by party affiliations.
5. The economy greatly effects voter choices at the polls. Incumbents often pay at the polls for a down economy. Perceptions of the economy are as important at the actual state of the economy in elections.
6. Issue voting is rare. Most voters are not very cognizant of candidate's views on specific policy issues.
After mastering the concepts in this chapter, you will be able to