Elections and Campaigns
Several striking differences exist between congressional and presidential elections. Presidential races are generally more competitive than congressional races, with the narrower margin of victory. While a president is limited to two terms of office, congressmen often serve for decades and hold a greater incumbency advantage. While congressmen can take credit in their home states or districts for grants, projects, and programs, constantly reminding constituents of these achievements via mail or visits home, presidents have significant national power but little local power. They must rely more and more on the media for communication. While a congressional candidate can detach his or her record from Washington and even campaign against the "insiders," presidents are held accountable for all that flows from the nation's capitol.
Running for president is a commitment of several years, of dizzying effort and energy, and of a staggering amount of money. Candidates set aside years to run for the presidency.
Running for Congress is a different. With no term limits in Congress, incumbents have an extraordinary advantage. Each state has two senators, who serve for six years, and House representatives (the number is determined by population), who serve for two years. House races can be affected by district boundaries, and these boundaries have traditionally been characterized by two problems: 1. Malapportionment – (outlawed in Baker v. Carr (1962) Districts have at times been created with very different populations, giving votes in less populated districts more clout. 2. Gerrymandering - District boundaries have been drawn to favor one party rather than another, which can lead to very odd-shaped districts. In addition, gerrymandering can be used to make minorities the majority of a district, an issue that has received contradictory rulings from the Supreme Court. National and state governments continue to wrestle with these problems.
Especially in presidential campaigns, strategies in primary and general elections are different. Primaries generally draw a party's activists, who are often more ideologically stringent than voters at large. Therefore, a Democratic candidate must appear more liberal than usual and a Republican more conservative. Without the help of party activists, candidates have little success mobilizing donors and volunteers. Political elites play a critical role during the presidential primaries. The first test of the primary season for a presidential candidate is not a primary at all, but caucuses in the state of Iowa. Held in February of every presidential election year, caucuses are small, precinct-level meetings held simultaneously throughout the state to select party candidates. Candidates must do well in Iowa or face an immediate disadvantage in media attention and contributor interest. Winners tend to be the most liberal Democrats in the race and the most conservative Republicans, reflecting the characteristics of the party elites. New Hampshire traditionally hosts the first primaries of a campaign year. The importance of the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primaries presents a problem: those electorates hardly represent the American electorate in general. Southern states, sensing that northern states such as Iowa and New Hampshire have too much influence on the choice of the nominee, created Super Tuesday by moving all of their primaries to the same day in early March. As the primary season continues, candidates face the dilemma of being conservative or liberal enough to get nominated but mainstream enough so to hold on to moderate voters in the general election. After the primary season has established the candidates from the two major parties, the general election campaign begins in order to determine who will be the final victor and officeholder. Two kinds of campaign issues emerge. Position issues are those on which the candidates have opposing views. Voters are also divided on these. For instance, in the 2000 election, candidates Bush and Gore disagreed on Social Security, defense, and public school voucher systems. Other issues are of a nature that does not divide the general public. These, called valence issues, focus on the extent to which a candidate emphasizes the issue, such as a strong economy or low crime rates.
Modern campaigns are increasingly waged through television, debates, and direct mail. Television time falls into two categories: paid advertising (known as "spots") and news broadcasts (known as "visuals"). Spots can have an important effect in some elections. Little known candidates can increase visibility through frequent use of spots, a strategy employed successfully by Jimmy Carter in 1976. The computer and the Internet are increasingly important factors in campaigns. The computer makes sophisticated direct-mail campaigning possible and enables candidates to address targeted voters with specific views. Howard Dean's extensive use of the Internet in establishing himself as a viable Democratic candidate in the 2004 Democratic primaries had a profound effect on the way money is raised in future elections. President Obama raised large sums of money from many individual donors through the internet.
Campaigns acquire money from a variety of public and private sources. During the presidential primaries, candidates receive federal matching funds for all individuals' donations of $250 or less, creating incentives to raise money from small donors. During the general presidential election, all campaign money comes from the government unless the candidate decides not to accept federal money. In 2008, Obama decided not to go with public financing, as he raised $700 million in donations, far more than he would have received from the FEC. In 2012, both candidates rejected public financing, and unless reforms are made, it appears that public financing of the general election is dead. (Candidates in primaries still take the public funds.) Congressional elections are primarily funded by private donations, including those of individuals, political action committees (P ACs), and political parties. Most individual donors give less than $200, with a maximum of $2,600 (indexed to inflation). PACs are limited to contributions of $5,000, but most give significantly less than that. Incumbent candidates typically receive one-third of their campaign funds from PACs and rarely have to spend their own money on a campaign. Challengers often supply a greater percentage of their own campaign funds than incumbents do. Coupled with other illegal donations, the Watergate scandal of the 1970s convinced Congress to pass the 1974 Federal Campaign Reform Law and, as part of it, create the Federal Election Commission. The law included several provisions, including limits on individual donations (at first, $1,000 per candidate per election), a ban on corporate and union donations, and public funding for presidential campaigns.
Loopholes in the law include independent expenditures, allowing PACs to spend as much as they want on advertising as long as it is not coordinated with a specific campaign; and soft money, by which unlimited funds can be donated to a political party as long as a candidate is not named. Soft money can then be 'passed on to candidates from the party. Independent expenditures and soft money led to campaign finance reform in 2002. Reforms included a ban on soft money given to national parties, an increase in the limit of an individual donation (up to $2,000, later increased to $2,500), and a restriction on advertisements referring to a candidate by name thirty days before a primary and sixty days before a general election.
But in 2010, two Court decisions, Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, and SpeechNOW.org v FEC held that the First Amendment prohibited the government from restricting independent political expenditures by corporations and unions. This has led to the rise of the “Super PAC”, groups not connected with the candidate (???) that raise millions.
Several factors determine who wins elections. Party identification still matters, but Democrats are more likely to vote for a Republican than vice versa. Republicans also tend to get more of the independent vote. Issues, in particular that of the economy, help determine elections. A poor economy is difficult for an incumbent president to overcome; a strong economy generally means reelection. Campaigns do make a difference in an election, however, mainly by reawakening voters' loyalties and allowing voters to see the character and core values of a candidate. Retrospective voters, those who look at how things have gone in the recent past, often decide elections. They vote for the party in the White House if they like what has happened and vote against that party if they do not.
If a candidate is going to win, he or she must build a winning coalition, or combination of several distinct groups. Traditionally the Democratic coalition has been African Americans, Jews, Hispanics, Catholics, southerners, and union members. Republicans have long had a coalition of business and professional people as well as many farmers. Coalitions historically have been reorganized under certain conditions. Realignment describes this reorganization of a party's following. Realignment occurs when a new issue arises that cuts across existing party divisions-for example, slavery or a weak economy.
Interest groups have existed since the country was founded - Independence era groups such as the Sons of Liberty are early examples of interest groups. Federalists and Anti-federalists struggling over the ratification of the Constitution could be termed interest groups. The religious associations and antislavery movements of the 1830s and 1840s were also initial forms.
Broadly defined, an interest group is any organization that seeks to influence public policy. Though they may target any level of government, they rarely run a candidate for office. Most groups fall into one of two categories: institutional interests and membership interests. Institutional interests are individuals or organizations that represent other organizations. Large corporations have representatives in the capital who work full time for the firm's interests. General Motors is a good example. Representatives of the car giant carefully watch for possible legislation affecting the industry and work hard to get the federal government to adopt favorable laws or halt potentially harmful ones. Institutional interests do not always represent business and corporate concerns. They also lobby for public interests such as state governments, foundations, and universities. The other category of interest groups is membership interests. These groups depend on Americans joining their cause through membership dues and other donations. Such groups span several categories, including social, business, professional, veterans, charitable, and religious.
General reasons individuals give for joining an interest group are political efficacy and civic duty, but there are often specific differences in what individuals hope to gain from their membership. Some people join to feel connected to their community. Interest groups such as the League of Women Voters, the NAACP, Rotary, and the American Legion have all had success by fostering strong local organizations. Other people join an interest group for the material incentives that accompany membership. Farm organizations offer discounted farm supplies to their members only. The American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) offers incentives from low-cost life insurance and discounted prescription drugs to tax advice and group travel plans. Still others join a group because they believe in the goal or purpose of the organization. Members of such groups-for example, the National Resources Defense Councilor the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation are attracted to the group's ideology or its commitment to benefit society at large. The NRA (National Rifle Association) is powerful because of a forceful, committed membership.
Social movements-that is, widely shared demands for change in aspects of the social or political order-often give rise to interest groups. The environmental movement has produced several such groups. The Sierra Club, the Wilderness Society, and the National Wildlife Federation are earlier environmental groups, dating from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, while the Environmental Defense Fund and Environmental Action came in the 1960s and 1970s. The environmental movement illustrates some important points about groups derived from social movements. First, one social movement may spawn several organizations. Second, the more extreme organizations within a movement will be smaller and more activist than the moderate organizations.
One broad social movement can draw members to a variety of interest groups within that movement. Some of these are more moderate than others, and some concentrate on specific aspects of the movement. The feminist movement has large, moderate solidarity groups such as the League of Women Voters. The movement also has groups drawn by material incentives such as the National Federation of Republican Women, which is openly supportive of the Republican party. Yet perhaps the best-known feminist group, the National Organization of Women (NOW), exists for ideological incentives.
Organized labor, in the form of unions, once was a social movement, but now fewer unions exist for the purpose of altering society. Unions have lost a lot of their clout over the decades. Economic changes have not helped in member recruitment, and the public's approval of unions has declined. Yet the benefits of collective bargaining sustain many unions and preserve them as significant national interest groups.
Interest groups need money to operate effectively. Those groups that are membership-based rely heavily on membership dues. Foundation grants are responsible for financing many groups, particularly public-interest lobbies. Federal grants are provided to interest groups that are engaged in a project of public interest. Direct mail is used increasingly by most interest groups to raise money. Through the use of computers, a specialized audience can be selected for mailings. Direct mailings are expensive, so sophisticated techniques have been developed to attract the public's attention, such as teasers on the envelope, famous-name endorsements; and personalization of the letter.
Interest groups engage in a wide range of activities that include the following: 1. Supplying credible information - Legislators are policy generalists who must vote on a staggering number of complicated issues. Providing information is perhaps the most important tactic available to interest groups. A lobbyist can build a strong relationship and increase access as well as influence by providing detailed and current information. 2. Raising public support - Traditionally interest groups have favored face-to-face contact between lobbyist and politician. A recent trend is grassroots mobilization. Grassroots lobbying is designed to generate public pressure directly on government officials. This strategy works well when an issue affects a large number of people. 3. Creating P ACs and making campaign contributions - Although giving money is perhaps the least effective way to influence politicians, it is a very common activity among interest groups. The campaign finance reform law of 1973 had two important provisions. It restricted the amounts that could legally be given to candidates, and it made it legal for corporations and unions to create political action committees (PACs)-organizations that finance candidates and may lobby as well-for the purpose of campaign contributions. These contributions are made regularly, but they probably do not lead to vote buying. Members of Congress commonly take the money but still decide for themselves how to vote. Incumbents get most of the PAC money, and P ACs tend to give money to candidates who already support their position. 4. Employing former government officials Hundreds of people have left government jobs to work as lobbyists. This is termed the "revolving door." Many fear that this potentially leads to corruption. If the promise of a future job influences an official to vote or act in a certain way, then a real conflict of interest exists. Studies have been inconclusive in finding if there is indeed a pattern of impropriety in government officials taking jobs as lobbyists. 5. Seizing opportunities through protest and disruption Although protest, picketing, and violence have always been a part of American politics, they have generally been considered more acceptable since the 1960s. Interest groups on both ends of the political spectrum have used public displays and disruption to publicize their causes. 6. Leading litigation Interest groups have financed and provided legal representation in many landmark Supreme Court cases, such as Brown v. Board of Education. Interest groups also file “amicus curiae” – friend of the court briefs.
Interest group activity is a form of political speech and is protected by the First Amendment. Nevertheless, there have been attempts to control interest groups. One, a 1946 law, required. groups and individuals seeking to influence legislators to register with Congress and file quarterly financial reports. This accomplished little because grassroots activity was not restricted and no staff was provided to enforce the law through review of the registrations or reports. A 1995 act provided a broader definition of lobbying and tightened reporting requirements. This more recent act also authorized the Justice Department to undertake investigations into possible violations.
Changes in the organization and technology of the media have had great impact on American politics. In general, four periods of journalistic history can be identified: 1. The party press In the early decades of the new nation. 2. The popular press High-speed presses later made self-supporting, mass readership, daily newspapers possible. 3. Broadcast journalism With the arrival of radio in the 1920s and television in the late 1940s, politicians could address voters directly. The rise of entertainment choices through these two media also meant that people could easily ignore politicians. Fewer politicians could be covered by radio and television than by newspapers. Presidents were routinely covered, but other officials had to be controversial or have a national reputation to receive attention. Nightly news broadcasts started the sound bite, a short video clip of an official boiling down an entire speech into a few catchy phrases. The brevity of sound bites created problems for officials and candidates in clearly conveying their messages. 4. The Internet - The recent growth of the Internet may create. an entirely new era in media and politics. Methods of campaign finance and facilitation between voters and political activists are two areas already being revolutionized by the Internet.
A national media has evolved, one which draws great attention from Washington. The national press includes the following: 1. Wire service (AP – Associated Press), 2. national magazines such as Time, Newsweek, and U.S. News and World Report, 3. televised evening news broadcasts (ABC, CBS, NBC, PBS), cable News Network - Fox News Network, 4. newspapers with national readerships such as the Wall Street Journal, the Christian Science Monitor, USA Today, the New York Times, and the Washington Post. The national press is significant not only for the attention it gets from politicians but also because national reporters and editors are better paid, tend to come from prestigious universities, have a more liberal outlook (with the exception of The Wall Street Journal and Fox News, known for its appeal to conservatives and Republicans), and often do investigative or interpretive stories. The national press traditionally takes on the following roles:
1. Gatekeeper - The national press influences what subjects become national political issues and for how long. 2. Scorekeeper - The national press tracks political reputations and candidacies. It covers elections as though they are horse races rather than choices among policy alternatives. Media momentum during the presidential primary season is crucial. 3. Watchdog - The national press investigates personalities and exposes scandals.
Newspapers are almost entirely free from government regulation. Upon publication, newspapers can be sued only for libel, obscenity, or incitement to an illegal act. Each of these conditions has been narrowly defined by the courts to enhance the freedom of the press: The Supreme Court has ruled repeatedly that there can be no prior restraint on published materials (Pentagon Papers case). Sometimes the government is eager to coerce reporters to reveal their sources. Reporters are steadfast in maintaining the confidentiality of sources, sometimes to the point of willingness to accept jail time. The Supreme Court allows the government to compel reporters to divulge information in court if it bears on a crime.
Radio and television are licensed and. regulated. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) issues licenses that must be renewed periodically. Several rules still exist for radio and television in regard to campaigns: Equal access must be provided for all candidates, Rates must be no higher than the cheapest commercial rate, Debates at one time had to include all candidates, but recent debates have been sponsored by the Commission on Presidential Debates and can be among only the major candidates. Fairness regarding debates remains a hotly contested topic, particularly inflaming third-party candidates and negotiators for candidates from the two major parties.
Although studies of the impact of the media on elections have been inconclusive, there is no doubt that the media have a major effect on how politics is conducted, how candidates are perceived, and how policy is formulated. National conventions have been changed to fit the needs of television broadcasts. Some candidates have won their party's nomination for senator or governor with media advertising campaigns that bypass parties. Interest groups (particularly environmental and consumer groups) have used the media effectively to get a variety of issues on the national agenda. Studies indicate that television news stories affect the popularity of presidents. Politicians also use the media to float "trial balloons" -statements intentionally leaked by unnamed sources to test the public's reaction to a controversial issue.
Today's media focus far more on the president than any other public official. Theodore Roosevelt was the first to court the press heavily. He favored reporters who wrote friendly stories over those who did not. Franklin Roosevelt made the press secretary a major job, one that would carefully cultivate and manage the press. Modern press secretaries head large staffs, meet regularly with reporters, brief the president on questions he is likely to be asked, and attempt to control the flow of news coming from the White House. Congress receives less coverage than the president.
Though the percentage of people who think the media are biased is increasing, most people still believe that the press is objective. This is especially true of television, because it allows us to judge not only words but also images. Members of the press generally think of themselves as unbiased, but polls indicate that journalists are much more liberal than the public at large, and those in the national media are the most liberal of all. Having liberal views does not mean that stories will inevitably be biased, however. Conservative talk radio and the increasingly popular Fox News Network offer views that some use to counter claims of a liberal bias in the media. Many factors influence how a story is written, among them urgent deadlines, a desire to attract an audience, a professional obligation to be fair, and the need to develop sources. The type of story also affects whether a reporter or editor will tend towards bias. Stories can be classified as: 1. Routine stories - Regularly covered stories such as public events are typically simple and easily described. 2. Feature stories - Stories not routinely covered are called feature stories, and these require reporter initiative. Selection of topics for these stories involves a reporter's or editor's perception of what is important. Liberal and conservative papers often do different feature stories. 3. Insider stories - Stories that involve investigative reporting or political leaks are called insider stories. These stories require a reporter to select which facts to use, so the ideology of the reporter or editor may surface.
Leaks to the press are becoming more frequent. One reason is that the separation of powers creates competition among government officials who give secrets to the press as a weapon. It is not illegal to print most secrets in the United States. Another reason is that, since Vietnam, Watergate, and the Iran-contra affair, the press has often had an adversarial relationship with the government. The press and politicians tend to mistrust each other. The cynicism of the past few decades has created an era of attack journalism.
The press today relies increasingly on sensational news stories that often include sex, violence, and intrigue among politicians. Sensationalism draws an audience and is cheaper than investigative reporting, but it is often drawn from unreliable sources. The result is less substantive news and often even greater cynicism towards the press. Fewer and bigger players in this intense competition mean that the stakes are even higher and the pressures to win audience are greater.