US Electoral System


Presidential Elections

  • every four years
  • date fixed by the constitution
  • election cycle lasts two years- straight after midterms
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Invisible Primaries

period when a candidate announces their bid for office and when the actual primaries take place

  • also known as 'money primary' as candidates spend most of their time during this period trying to raise money to show political strength, those who raise the most money gain positive press attention, putting them in a good position for when the actual primaries start, those who do badly can be marginalised
  • starts when people show an interest in running, ends when primaries/caucuses start- Feb of the election year
  • mutliple tactics involved- attending public meetings, taking part in debates (especially in states which are seen as a good representation of public opinion)
  • the invisible primary can set up candidates well for the Primaries

Invisible Primary 2016

Ted Cruz was first to announce his candidacy, followed by Hilary Clinton. several large profiles drop out before first caucus. as 2015 progressed, the field became tier-ized, top-tier candidates gained more coverage and became bigger, while other candidates face the problem of less coverage

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candidate for each party is chosen at the party convention, in July. Delegates from the state/sub-state parties send delegates to the convention, where they vote for the candidates

Primaries- process by which voters, either the public (open primary) or members of a political party (closed primary), can indicate their preference for a candidate in an upcoming general election, narrowing the field of candidates

Caucuses- meeting of supporters of members of a spicific political party or movement, meeting of party members/activists to select party candidates

Rise of Primaries: progressive movement, tend to be non-binding and majority tended not to campaign in them as minority of convention votes rested on them

1968- moevement to make party more democratic e.g. females and ethnic, 37.5% of delegate votes determined by primaries, new rules led to more states using them, 1980- 74.4% delegate votes

states which do not hold primaries tend to be rural, where electorate is relatively small, vast majority of delegate voters are decided by primaries

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Types of Primaries

  • closed primary- registered voters only
  • semi-closed primary- registered and independents only
  • open- any voter can take part, only one primary per voter
  • majority are bidning, meaning they bind delegates to support a particular candidate or a certain number of ballots, some are winner takes all, some divide delegates between the candidates
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Timing of Primaries

  • New Hampshire- always first, lots of media coverage, 2nd Tues in March, lots of attention for small state, having primary early is knwon as 'frontloading' can get candidate good or bad start
  • Groups of states- recent tendency of states to hold primaries increasingly early, party national committess have tried to spread them out with penalties for states who don't co-operate, states tend to group themselves together to increase impact
  • Super Tuesday- lots of states on same day, 2008, 52% Dem, 49% Rep delegates available same day
  • later states- California- one of the last states, large number of votes at convention of both parties, traditionally last so it can decide outcome in close race, due to be moved earlier
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How delegates are allocated and impact of Incumben

  • parties set the rules which are changed regularly
  • Democrats- delegates allocated proportionally to candidates who get more than 15% of the vote
  • Republicans- more variety, some winner takes all, district winner takes all, proportional
  • range of factors determine state delegation allocation- including success of party in state elections
  • sitting presidents fighting a second term are often unchallenged, at least once the primaries are underway, when incumbents face serious challenge they often lose the Presidential election
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Advantages of Primaries

  • more democratic than caucus or other methods of allocating delegates, even with closed primary
  • can give an idea of how the public view the candidate, as well as party activists, espeically with open primaries
  • allow unfashionable candidates, or those not supported by the party hierarchy, to be succesfull (Trump 2016)
  • tests stamina of candidates, and allows them to build their campaign over a long period, developing a national profile prior to the final campaign
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Disadvantages and Criticisms of Primaries

  • highly independent on money, given length of campaign
  • image essential, any '?' about candidates will be exploited by opponents from same part
  • how do people vote? do they understand policy or are they attracted by image?
  • weaken influence of experienced activists
  • frontloading means convention is often foregone conclusion
  • some states have disproportionate influence, early primaries can derail a candidacy, compressed primaries make it hard to campaign effectively unless rich
  • often greater conflict in primaries against candidates of the same party than there is in fianl campaign against parties
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  • constant evolution of the system
  • single nationwide primary- though this would support wealthy candidates
  • California Plan- smaller primaries first, leading to bigger primaries, allowing grassroot campaigns to build 
  • group regional primaries, aiming to reduce costs
  • hard to reach agreement between states
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Super delegates/unpledged delegates

  • not part of state delegations, tend to be activists
  • can bring experience that may be lacking from pledged delegates
  • mainly democrats though small number of Republicans
  • fear they may impact so Democrats ruled they are only allowed to vote if it's a true contest
  • have not had an impact as recent conventions have been decided on pledged votes
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National Party Conventions

  • takes place in presidential year, following primaries and before final campaign
  • Republicans want earlier conventions to avoid the negative imapct of drawn out primaries 
  • Democrats want to be able to respond to Republicans swiftly

Functions of Party Conventions

  • formal functions- choice of candidate and VP running mate, agreeing of party platform
  • public relations functions- publicise the parties candidate, build support in preparation for final campaign
  • building party unity
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Choice of Presidential Candiate

  • state parties have a number of delegates at the convention, depending on population in the state and tradition of support to the party in past elections
  • delegates tend to be supporters/activists and can be a reward for loyal service
  • Delegation leaders used to control how delegation voted, sense that this process wasn't democratic so prrimaries grew
  • currently bulk of delegates are committed to vote for a certain candidate from the result of the primary
  • growth of primaries has reduced political impact of conventions
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Vice President and Party Platform

Vice President

  • succesfull candidate chooses his VP running mate in advance, run in election as a ticket

Party Platform

  • statement of the parties key policy objectives, tend to be generalised
  • no obligation on candidate to support the platform
  • main impact is it can make the party look extreme/out of touch
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Vote winning and Campaign

Vote Winning

  • a united party that puts conflict aside is seen as the aim of the convention, losing candidates declare support for winning candidates
  • can be used by candidate to alter image- 2000 Al Gore seen as dull so kisses his wife on platform


  • runs from end of convention till election, intensifies in last 4-8 weeks, tend to build on what went on in primaries and convention
  • driven by attracting media coverage, and expediture in advertising and negative campaigning
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Campaign- Framing the candidate and Election

  • involves creating a narrative/life story around the candidate, especially when not already established figure
  • E.g. 2004, John Kerry, Democrat, challenged Bush Jr on Security which is a major issu, emphasis was placed on Kerry's war record and his willingness to use force to defend US even though Democrats image relatively weak, backfired as allowed Republicans to portray his war record negatively

Framing the election

  • 2016- Trump Campaign, sought to portray USA in tatters- jobs, national pride, influence
  • portrayed Democrats as not acting in national interest, Clinton closely associated with Obama whereas Trump was polirical outsider, not associated with 'the swamp'
  • Make America Great Again
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Campaign- Battle ground state & middle ground

Battle ground states

  • candidates need to balance the need of getting support from as many states as they can, as all have EC seats, but also concentrate on 'swing states', the outcome which will determine the election. Exacerbated by winner takes all EC
  • 2016- Clinton and Trump had about 200 EC votes almost guaranteed, based off previous voting records

Adopting the middle ground

  • each party has a core vote, traditionally this leads candidates to adopting a broad policy strategy, with cross party appeal

middle ground

  • trumpy policy is not adopting middle ground- but is trying to appeal to range of voters
  • Traditional Republicans- social conservatives
  • white working class- campaign focus on jobs- hardline on immigration and protectionism appeals to this group
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Campaign- Media and national debates

  • major influence over elections- growing role for social media/internet aswell as broadcast/published media
  • most print media endorsed Clinton in 2016, including normally Republican supporting papers
  • TV coverage- not requirement of balanced coverage as in UK, Oprah endorses Obama 2008
  • politicians can buy commercials, biographical and seek to undermine opponents e.g. Willie Horton Campaign 1988
  • Trump attracts much more media coverage than other opponents by being more newsworthy
  • CNN strong support for Trump, including making Trump specials and offering them to other producers 

National Debates

  • a number per election, including for VP's 
  • rarely seen to impact an outcome
  • more challenging for incumbents as have a record to defend/attack
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Electoral College

  • translate the publics vote into electoral college seats, each state has an allocation of seats based on its representation in Congress- so population driven due to house of reps
  • state allocations adjust every 10 years, following census
  • smaller states have slightly more influence per voter
  • voters vote for a 'slate' of electors, who are pledged to vote for a candidate, each slate is selected by the state party for their loyal service
  • in all but 2 states, winner takes all
  • electors meet in their own state, on the monday after the second wednesday in december to cast their votes, seperate vote for VP

Election college- why?

  • states wanted to retain a role and importance within the election of the federal government
  • desire to protect the system from demagogues- filter the popular vote through electors who would be sensible people
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Electoral College- Criticisms

Faithless electors-

  • electors sometimes votes for candidates other than the one they were expected to- 167 times overall, 2016 record numbers- Trump lost 3, Clinton lost 5


  • like fptp system, winner may have less votes than main challenger
  • 2016- Trump 46% vote 304 EC seats, Clinton 48.1% vote 227 EC seats
  • win your winnable seats by a small margin, ignore those where you won't do well
  • Frequent occasions when winner has less than absolute majority of vote, especially when strong third party e.g. 1992, Clinton 43% of vote

Distorted Result

  • depending on how the votes are spread out across the states, can lead to widely distorted result in terms of vote/EC
  • 2008- Obama 52.7% vote, 67.8% seats 
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Electoral College- Advantages

  • relatively clear
  • result is quickly available
  • as it generates a two party contest, one candidate/party usually has more than 50% of vote
  • preserves role of smaller states as all have at least 3 EC seats, means they can't be ignored
  • generally results in clear winner and result is accepted
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Electoral College- Reform?

  • radical solution is to adopt a direct vote- with the need of an absolute majority- would require constitutional amendment
  • smaller states wouldn't want it as votes would be lost in mass of larger states
  • reduce the need for gerrymandering the redistricting process, which is heavily politicised
  • proportional allocation of seats within states, rather than winner takes all
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