After candidates enter the race, they must fight for the party’s nomination with the other candidates. Before 1972, party leaders chose nominees through negotiation and compromise. Since the early 1970s, the parties have opened up the nomination process to voters through primary elections: The winner of a primary becomes the party’s nominee. In a closed primary, only party members may vote; most states hold this type of primary. In an open primary, all voters, regardless of party, may vote as long as they participate in only one primary.
In the presidential campaign, a candidate must win a majority of convention delegates in order to win the nomination. Each state holds either a primary or caucuses (meetings of party members to select a candidate). Candidates win a number of delegates based on how many popular votes they receive in these primaries; these delegates go to their party’s national convention to vote for the party’s nominee. The candidate with the most delegates wins the nomination. Superdelegates are prominent party members (including elected officials and party organization leaders) who automatically get to vote in the national convention. Winning delegates also helps candidates raise money: The more delegates they win, the more legitimate they appear as contenders. The candidate who appears to have the lead is called the front-runner.
Over the past few election cycles, many states have moved their primaries up to an earlier date, a process called front-loading. Due to front-loading, the nominations are decided early, usually by the end of March, even though the national conventions do not meet until late summer. States do this in order to maximize the impact they have on the nomination. States with primaries toward the end of the campaign have little impact because one candidate has emerged as the clear winner. Front-loading also limits the time in which party members disagree about candidates and potential nominees, allowing the party to unite in preparation for the general election.
Example: In 1988, a group of southern states agreed to hold their primaries on the same day, early in the campaign, in order to increase the chance of nominating a moderate southerner. Since then, many states have held primaries on the same date in March, now known as Super Tuesday, during the election year.
Every four years, the major parties hold massive conventions, whose major purpose is to choose the party’s nominees for president and vice president. Delegates from across the country arrive, meet with party leaders, and vote on a number of matters. The credentials committee established by each party decides which delegates are legitimate and therefore allowed to participate.
Parties officially nominate their candidates at national conventions. Delegates chosen in primaries gather together and vote for the party’s nominees; they also approve their party’s platform. In theory, conventions could be bitterly fought affairs, but in practice, the voting is a formality: By that point, the party’s nominee has become clear. Conventions have become highly staged and scripted and serve primarily to rally the party behind the nominees.
The general election commences after the conventions. Candidates from Republican, Democratic, and independent parties vie for votes by giving speeches, shaking hands, holding rallies, proposing policies, courting the media, and debating one another. In modern campaigns, the media relentlessly follows candidates and polls likely voters, so coverage often seems akin to sports reporting on pennant races. Many voters rely heavily on the debates to make their choice.
The Electoral College officially decides the presidential election. Each state has the same number of electoral votes as it has total seats in Congress. In most states, all of the state’s electoral votes are awarded to the presidential candidate who receives the most popular votes in that state, whereas the losing candidates receive none. Presidential candidates, therefore, usually focus their energies on winning the popular vote in the large states that have many electoral votes or in states in which the voters are deeply divided. Republicans stand little chance of winning liberal California and New York, for example, and Democrats are no longer popular in conservative Texas, but both parties have spent millions of dollars on campaigns in recent presidential elections in the populous swing states of Florida and Ohio.
Political campaigns, especially presidential ones, cost a lot of money to run. During the 2004 presidential race, for example, both major party candidates spent more than $100 million. Generally, the candidate with the bigger war chest tends to win the race. Campaign finance laws limit the amount of money people and corporations may donate to a campaign, as well as dictate how candidates may spend that money.
For much of American history, there were no regulations at all on campaign finance: Anyone could give as much as he or she wished, and candidates could spend all they had in any way they saw fit. Two landmark laws in the early twentieth century regulated campaign finance for the first time:
The 1970s saw the first significant campaign finance reforms. In 1971, Congress passed the Federal Elections Campaign Act (FECA), which began to substantially regulate campaign contributions. It limited spending on media advertisements, required disclosure of all donations over $100, and restricted the amount of money candidates could donate to their own campaigns.
The Watergate scandal exposed a wide range of illegal activities being performed by the Nixon Administration, among them campaign finance law violations. For example, the Nixon reelection campaign had a large “slush fund” of cash to be used for covert purposes. In response to these revelations, Congress toughened campaign finance regulations by amending FECA and by doing the following:
In 1976, Congress allowed businesses, unions, and political groups to form political action committees (PACs) in order to give money to candidates. PACs are significant because they allow a variety of organizations to donate money to campaigns. Also, although each person can only donate $5,000 to a PAC, he or she may donate $5,000 to as many PACs as he or she wishes. The PACs can then, in turn, donate the money to the campaigns.
Since the 1970s, campaigners have found a number of ways around the reforms of the 1970s:
Example: In 2002, several wealthy donors, including Haim Saban, whose $7 million donation was the largest in history, gave money to the Democratic National Committee to build a new headquarters.
Example: Most issue ads are clearly designed to sway voters. An ad supporting a candidate may say flattering things about the candidate and conclude by saying, “Call X and tell her you appreciate her work.” An attack ad can portray a candidate very negatively and finish by saying, “Call Y and tell him he’s wrong.”
For much of the 1990s, Senators Republican John McCain and Democrat Russ Feingold fought to reform campaign finance laws, aiming at restricting or banning soft money. In 2002, however, the two men finally generated enough support to pass the McCain-Feingold bill, now called the Bipartisan Campaign Finance Reform Act. The House passed the bill as the Shays-Meehan Act, and President George W. Bush signed it into law. This act placed more stringent restrictions on campaign finance by doing the following:
The new law did not ban soft money donations to local and state parties, although it did limit the amount of such donations. It also increased the amount of money an individual could donate to $4,000 and upped the limit on donations to all campaigns to $95,000 in each two-year election cycle. Many political scientists think that the bill might ultimately weaken political parties and strengthen independent groups, which can still raise and spend large amounts of money.