Gov3A The Politics of the USA

The Electoral Process and Direct Democracy

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US Primaries

Open Primary - A primary election in which any registered voter can vote despite their political affiliation.

Closed Primary - A primary election in which only those registered with the party can vote.

Invisible Primary - The period of campaigning that takes place before any votes are cast. (raises money, gain media attention)

Caucus - A series of state-based meetings for the selection of a party's candidate for Presidency.

Modified Primaries - Like closed primaries, however they also allow those who have registered as independents to vote in either party's primary.

* Open Primaries allow what is called 'cross-over voting' which means that Democrat voters can opt to participate in Republican primaries and vice versa. Imporant issue in 2008 election with significant numbers of Independents and Republicans opting to vote for Barack Obama.

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Advantages of Primaries

  • Increased level of participation by ordinary voters. 1960 - 11.7M (11%), 2008 - 54M (30%)
  • Process is opened to outsiders - politicians who do not initially have a national reputation (e.g. Bill Clinton 1992 and Barack Obama 2008)
  • Significant increase in the choice of candidates. 1968 - 5 presidential candidates, 2008 - 15 candidates.
  • Power of the party bosses is done away with, making the system more democratic and less corrupt. (Compare to Labour leadership race)
  • Gruelling primary race gives an indication of which candidate is likely to be able to cope with the pressures of being President. Senator Paul Tsongas (1992) fought back from cancer, Barack Obama (2008) compelling contest with Hilary Clinton.
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Disadvantages of Primaries

  • Electoral turnout can be low when the incumbent President is running for re-election. (2004 - it was 17.2% when Bush was running for re-election, 2008 - 30%)
  • Primary voters are unrepresentative of the voting-age population. Primary voters tend to be older, better educated, wealthier and more ideological. In 2008, Ron Paul - a libertarian Republican - won at least 10% of the vote in 14 primaries and caucuses, and in three his vote exceeded 20%.
  • The process is far too long. (In 2008, Barack Obama announced his candidacy 332 before the first primary)
  • The process is very expensive with candidates needing to start their campaigns early in order to raise the money. In the 2008 Democratic nomination race, Hilary Clinton and Barack Obama raised and spent almost $500M between January 2007 and April 2008.
  • The media has become the king-maker as the ordinary voter must rely on the media for information about the candidates.
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The Federal Election Campaign Act

In the 1970s, when the Watergate scandal revealed financial corruption in donations to candidates there was a view that elections were for sale to the highest bidder, and that in financial terms the candidates did not have a level playing field.

The Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971 introduced:

  •  Matching funds provided for the candidates in the primaries. (Helping serious but outsider candidates such as Clinton in 1992)


  • Federal funding is offered to each presidential candidate. If a candidate accepts federal funding, e.g. McCain 2008, they must agree to spending limits on their campaign. However, if they want to raise unlimited amounts of money, they can choose to reject both matching funds and federal funding - e.g. Obama 2008.

What was the impact of the reforms on elections and campaigns?

  • Federal funding goes to candidates, not parties, so the role of parties in campaigns is weakened.
  • Strengthened the two-party system, as minor parties usually fail to recieve the 5% share of the vote at the previous election to ensure federal funding.
  • Led to the growth of political action committees whose function was to raise and spend money to support a candidate.
  • Very rich candidates still have at an advantage as they are able to spend as much of their money as they want.
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Campaign Finance

Why is money so important in US campaigns?

  • The high cost of television advertising - in 2008, Obama purchased two 30-minute blocks in NBC and CBS costing $1M apiece.
  • The size of the country and consequently the high costs of travel and accommodation in 50 states. (From coast to coast the country is over 3,000 miles)
  • Diversity of the voters to whom the candidate has to appeal to.
  • Cost of specialist staff and the use of new technology.
  • The permanent nature of campaigning, with the build -up for the next election starting the day the last one ends. (In 2008, Barack Obama started his campaign 332 days before the first primary)

Where do candidates get their campaign finance from?

  • Their own pockets - so it helps to be a multi-millionaire
  • Political action committees - e.g. the National Association of Realtors
  • National party committees
  • 527 groups raising money to spend on issue advocacy - e.g. in 2004, the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth recorded an attack ad on John Kerry's war record
  • Small donations and fund-raising through the internet.
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'Soft money' loopholes

Soft Money is any unregulated money that found its way into the campaign:

Independent expenditures - organisations or individuals could spend money 'on behalf of' candidates without directly donating to the campaign or promoting the candidate. This could be done through issue advocacy or through funding negative adverts (e.g. the 'Willie Horton revolving door' ad in 1988)

Donations for general political activities - Until 2002, the parties could receive large donations under this heading for activities such as registration drives. National committees would use this money to target key voters in close-run states, freeing the candidate to spend their own money on television advertising.

The rising costs of US elections became widely criticised as the number of multi-million dollar campaigns and very rich candidates increased. In 2002, however, the McCain-Feingold Campaign Reform Act was passed, leading to:

  • the banning of all 'soft money' contributions to candidates or parties.
  • an increase in the upper limit for 'hard money' contributions from individuals to $2,000 (later raised to $2,300)

Thereafter, candidates have used internet appeals to large numbers of small donors and made greater use of grass-roots fund-raising activities. However, the Act also led indirectly, to the growth of '527' groups, which allowed organisations to raise and spend unlimited amounts of money for political activities.

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Gabby Tracey


good :)

archie clarke


Tres Bien. Got the exam in a week :O

Old Sir


A very useful survey of the impact of US presidential primary elections. Students looking for a concise reminder will find this a good starting point. It is a shame that the very last part of card 6 isn't visible.

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