Context clues in the American presidential campaigns
By Sandy Maisel
Presidential campaign watching is a great American game. Did Romney respond correctly when challenged on why he failed to mention our men and women in uniform in his convention speech? Does President Obama really like hanging out in sports bars and receiving giant bear hugs from pizza shop owners? How big was the Obama convention bounce and what does it mean?
However, those of us who view election watching as our favorite quadrennial sport are in a minority. Hard for us to believe, but true. The average American, and certainly the average citizen of the world, wants to know what’s going on in the presidential election, but not all that much. The day-to-day drumbeat of stories is wearing; they all start to sound the same. What do they really mean?
Separation of powers and a federal system. While Americans are electing a President on November 6th, we are also electing the entire House of Representatives and one-third of the United States Senate (and many state and local officials). These elections are all held on the same day, but citizens frequently vote for a candidate of one party for one office and of another party for another office. It is not only conceivable, but likely, that the election will result in a President of one party, one house of Congress controlled by his party, and the other house by the other party. Few legislators will feel beholden to their party’s presidential candidate for their victory — and this conclusion is equally true of Democrats to Obama and Republicans to Romney.
Listen to the campaign rhetoric. How often do you hear either presidential candidate urging voters to send him a Congress of his party. In point of fact, the public holds the Congress in very low esteem — the approval rating of the Congress has been at record low numbers for many months — so the presidential candidates more often than not try to distance themselves from their colleagues in the Congress.
The Electoral College. The presidential election is an indirect vote. As we saw in 2000, and three earlier times in our history, one candidate can win the popular vote while the other candidate wins the electoral vote. That is possible because the election is in fact 51 separate state elections (50 states plus the District of Columbia). Every state except for Maine and Nebraska gives all of its electoral votes to the plurality winner in that state. Thus, if one candidate wins many states narrowly, while the other candidate wins fewer (or smaller) states by wide margins, the electoral vote winner — and thus the new President — may well have received fewer votes than his opponent.
As a consequence, candidates spend an inordinate amount of time in relatively few states. With minor variations, those states remain the same from election to election. This year the emphasis has been and will be on New Hampshire in New England; Virginia, North Carolina, and Florida in the South; Ohio, Iowa, and Wisconsin in the Midwest; Colorado in the Mountain States; and Nevada in the West. If you live in one of those states, the campaigns for President are ubiquitous. If you live Alabama or Mississippi, New York or New Jersey, Illinois or Minnesota, California or Washington, or most of the other states, you will see few television ads, few candidate appearances, and the campaigns will seem all but invisible. (Some states are at the margins of candidate interest, e.g. Pennsylvania or Michigan, but the pattern is clear.) This emphasis may seem undemocratic to some, especially to non-Americans, and I would not disagree. But in observing the election, it is important to understand the context as it exists, not as it should exist.
Voter turnout. For Americans, voting is a right or a privilege, not an obligation. In fact, affecting turnout is an important campaign strategy. Each party tries to energize its base of supporters to vote; some claim that parties also try to discourage the other party’s supporters from voting. Democrats claim that voter suppression, not fraud reduction, is the goal of Republican efforts to make it more difficult for voters to cast their ballots.
Nate Silver of the New York Times predicts that if all registered voters actually voted, President Obama would receive approximately 4-5% more of the two-party vote than he will actually receive. But we know that fewer than 60% of eligible voters will in fact cast ballots on November 6th. Again, you can question if this is good or bad — well, actually it is hard to argue that it is good — but what is important is to understand that low turnout is a fact and has electoral consequences.
Viewing the 2012 election with these few contextual facts in mind makes understanding the campaigns’ strategies somewhat easier. When observing the election, don’t just focus on what a candidate is saying, but also think about why he is saying it and where he is saying it. The strategies will quickly become much clearer.
L. Sandy Maisel is the William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of Government, Colby College, Waterville, Maine and author of American Political Parties and Elections: A Very Short Introduction. A former candidate for Congress, Maisel is the author or editor of 15 books on political parties and elections and is a frequent commentator on contemporary politics.
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