INTRODUCTION The long and arduous campaign required of candidates is unique to the United States. While some argue that this extended period is a useful testing ground, others question its effectiveness in helping citizens choose the best candidate. The first part of this chapter discusses the structure and dynamics of presidential election campaigns, with special attention given to the role of money in campaigns. As the campaign nears its end, voters face two key choices: whether to vote and, if they choose to, how to vote. The second part of this chapter discusses the ways that voters make these choices.
THE NOMINATION GAME There are two types of campaigns in American politics: campaigns for party nominations and campaigns between the two nominees. A nomination is a party’s official endorsement of a candidate for office. Success in the nomination game generally requires money, media attention, and momentum. Candidates attempt to manipulate each of these elements through campaign strategy.
From February through June of election year, the individual state parties choose their delegates to the national convention through caucuses or primaries. At one time, all states selected their delegates to the national convention in a meeting of state party leaders, called a caucus. Today, caucuses are open to all voters who are registered with the party. The Democrats also require strict adherence to complex rules of representation. Only a minority of states hold caucuses today, with the earliest caucus traditionally held in Iowa.
Most of the delegates to the national conventions are selected in presidential primaries in which voters in a state go to the polls and vote for a candidate or for delegates pledged to a candidate. The most recent restructuring of Democratic party primaries began in 1968. Riots at the Democratic National Convention that year led to the creation of the McGovern-Fraser Commission, which established open procedures and quota requirements for delegate selection. The party has since replaced most of its quota requirements with affirmative action guidelines, with the exception that each delegation must be half male and half female. Many believe that the divisiveness of the Democrats’ open procedures has hurt their ability to unite for the fall campaign, and the party has tried to restore a role for its party leaders by setting aside a portion of delegate slots for party leaders and elected officials (known as superdelegates).
The primary season begins in the winter in New Hampshire. At this early stage, the campaign is not for delegates but for images. In 1988, the southern states (feeling that northern states like New Hampshire had disproportionate influence in the choice of the Democratic nominees) created Super Tuesday by moving all of their primaries to the same day in early March (referred to as frontloading). A wide variety of different procedures are used because state laws (not federal) determine when primaries are held, and each state party sets up its own rules for how delegates are allocated.
There are a number of criticisms of the primary system, including the disproportionate amount of attention that is given to the early caucuses and primaries. Running for the presidency has become a full-time job, and prominent politicians find it difficult to take time out from their duties to run. Money plays too big a role in the caucuses and primaries. Participation is low and is not representative of the voting population. There are also numerous defenders of the system, including most of the candidates—many of whom feel that the primary contest keeps candidates in touch with the public.
The winners of presidential nominations are usually a foregone conclusion by the time of the national party conventions. The preferences of delegates selected in primaries and open caucuses are known before the conventions begin. Nevertheless, conventions are a significant rallying point for the parties and they are important in developing the party’s policy positions and in promoting political representation.
THE CAMPAIGN GAME Modern campaigning is heavily dependent on technology. While television is the most prevalent means used by candidates to reach voters, between 15 and 25 percent of presidential campaign expenses now go to computer services and direct mail. As one of its most important uses, computer technology targets mailings to prospective supporters. The accumulation of mailing lists enables a candidate to pick almost any issue and write to a list of people concerned about it.
Once nominated, candidates concentrate on campaigning for the general election in November. Three ingredients are needed to project the right image to the voters: a campaign organization, money, and media attention.