Chapter Study Outline

Introduction

The most profound expression of an individual’s political preferences is the vote, and regular elections are the hallmark of democracy. Still, the vote is a blunt instrument of expression. America holds frequent elections and does so for many different offices, from the national level down to the state and local levels of government. In electing these officeholders, the citizens are selecting agents to act on their behalf, but as is the case in any principal-agent relationship, the people confront two key problems: Have they selected the right person? And how do they hold politicians—their agents—accountable? Among the numerous ways that the American electorate seeks to hold its agents accountable is through a system of competitive elections, as competition creates strong incentives for politicians to be faithful and effective agents.

1. Institutions of Elections

How do the institutional features of the American electoral process affect political outcomes? What is the composition of the electorate and how has it changed over time? How is electoral choice structured by factors such as the structure of the ballot and the geography of district and state lines? What is the primary criterion for winning in American elections? In addition to selecting politicians, how might American voters use more direct means of democracy?

  • The potential American electorate—those who have suffrage rights—has expanded greatly throughout American history, but voter participation in American elections is quite low compared to other Western democracies and turnout levels generally declined throughout much of the twentieth century. Two structural features help to explain America’s low levels of turnout:
    • Voting in the United States is treated as a right and not a requirement; countries with compulsory voting have much higher levels of turnout.
    • Voter registration requirements in America have traditionally been onerous, making it difficult for Americans to become and remain registered to vote.
  • The structure of the ballot is a key institutional feature of the electoral system that affects outcomes. The American ballot follows the structure of the Australian ballot which, first, provides for ballot secrecy, thus strengthening individual voter choice in elections, and second, lists the names of all candidates for any given office on the same ballot, thus encouraging voters to think of their choice as a choice between individual candidates rather than parties.
  • The American electoral system is structured by political geography, and America’s elected officials represent places as well as people. America’s most common electoral devices, like the single-member district and the electoral college, place a premium not only on how many votes a candidate receives, but also on how many votes he or she receives in a specific geographic area, thus making seat apportionment and redistricting critically important political processes.
  • The criterion for winning most American elections is the “plurality rule,” whereby the candidate who receives the most votes (even if not a majority) in a particular district or constituency wins the election.
    • The use of the plurality system (compared to proportional representation systems, for example) tends to favor majorities over less advantaged groups.
    • According to “Duverger’s Law,” this also explains why America has a two-party system.
  • Direct democracy mechanisms are used in some states.
    • Twenty-four states provide for referendum voting, whereby citizens in elections directly approve or reject legislative proposals.
    • Twenty-four states provide some form of initiative voting, whereby citizens may place policy proposals on the ballot for a public vote.
    • Eighteen states provide for recall elections, whereby a public official can be removed from office by popular vote before his or her term has expired.

2. How Voters Decide

Who votes and who doesn’t vote? Among those who do vote, what factors influence voters’ decisions in election?

  • Roughly half of America’s eligible voters do not vote, and demographic factors seem to explain who is likely to vote and who is not.
    • Older cohorts of citizens are more likely than younger citizens to vote.
    • Education is a critically important factor; the more highly educated a citizen, the more likely he or she is to vote.
    • Other social factors such as residential mobility also provide strong explanations as to whether a particular citizen will turn out to vote.
    • Moreover, voter turnout varies by state and is likely to be influenced by the relative ease of voter registration laws within a particular state.
  • Party identifications capture voters’ predispositions to support a particular party’s candidates. Partisan loyalty is the single strongest predictor of how an individual will vote; in 2008, about 90 percent of each party’s identifiers supported that party’s presidential candidate.
    • Party identification is a psychological attachment that individuals hold.
    • Party identification also reflects the underlying ideologies and policy positions of voters and the parties, thus providing an informational shortcut that allows voters to economize on information collection and processing when choosing between candidates.
    • Party identification may also reflect voters’ long-running evaluations of, and experiences with, the political leaders and representatives that are affiliated with that party.
  • Sometimes voters decide based on the issues, often choosing the candidates with positions closest to their own on salient issues. Voters evaluate those candidates either prospectively (that is, based on the imagined future performance of the candidate) or retrospectively (that is, based on the past performance of the candidate or his or her party).
    • In our system, the median voter theorem suggests that candidates who are more centrist on the issues will be more successful.
    • By the same token, valence issues like economic performance can determine which candidate is likely to win.
  • Candidates’ personal characteristics—including race, ethnicity, religion, gender, geography, social background, appearance, and especially incumbency—influence outcomes. Other relevant candidate characteristics include personality traits such as decisiveness, honesty, and vigor.

3. Campaigns: Money, Media, and Grass Roots

Do political campaigns matter? How do factors such as fund-raising, media strategy, and popular mobilization impact electoral outcomes?

  • Contemporary campaigns are increasingly temporary, candidate-centered organizations that form for the sole purpose of winning a given election and disband soon thereafter.
  • All campaigns face similar problems of trying to raise money, recruit volunteers and staff, coordinate activities, determine messages, and communicate with the public.
  • The competitive nature of campaigns provides an opportunity for accountability in that each opposing candidate has an incentive to expose the opponent’s weaknesses.
  • The American campaign season is extraordinarily long by world standards, thus increasing the cost of running for office.
  • Money matters in contemporary American elections, and because not all groups are equally wealthy and able to influence outcomes, the increasing importance of money raises questions about the ability of ordinary Americans to influence outcomes, and thus has spurred calls for campaign finance reform.
  • Congress—through legislation such as the Federal Election Campaign Act (which established political action committees)—and the Supreme Court—through decisions such as Buckley v. Valeo and Citizens’ United v. FEC—have sought to place boundaries on political contributions and spending in federal elections.

4. The 2008 and 2010 Elections

What factors determined the outcomes of the 2008 and 2010 elections? How did each party select its presidential nominee? What issues and strategies dominated the presidential elections? What affected the outcome of the 2010 midterm elections?

  • Given the unpopularity of George W. Bush, the sluggish economy, and seemingly endless war, Barack Obama’s adoption of “change” as a campaign theme in 2008 was particularly apt and effective.
    • Obama won 53 percent of the popular vote and bested rival John McCain by a total of 365 to 173 in the electoral college vote.
    • Democrats also increased their numbers in both houses of Congress, including winning unexpectedly in several traditionally Republican districts and states.
  • Both Barack Obama and John McCain were, in their own ways, surprise choices of their parties.
    • McCain, who had been defeated by George W. Bush for the Republican nomination in 2000, overcame early losses in the Republican primaries to outlast former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, and the surprisingly strong social conservative Mike Huckabee, a former governor of Arkansas.
    • Barack Obama’s performance in the debates sparked interest in his campaign and eventually catapulted him to the top of the Democratic list, passing both former vice presidential nominee John Edwards and former first lady Hillary Clinton, who was the presumptive favorite to win the nomination. After a long-fought contest with Clinton, Obama secured the delegates necessary to clinch the nomination.
  • Obama’s political skills helped him capitalize on public disfavor with the Bush administration and the Republican Party. With ongoing financial challenges to the economy, McCain’s campaign suffered as voters blamed the Bush administration and Republicans.
  • A number of factors explain the Democratic losses in the 2010 congressional elections:
    • In such “midterm” years, the party in power often finds itself defending vulnerable seats it won on the coattails of the president’s victory. Democrats were particularly disadvantaged in this way heading into 2010 as they held seats in many districts that tend to favor Republicans.
    • The composition of the electorate changed, with young voters and minority voters (both of which tend to be more Democratic) making up a lower proportion of voters in 2010 compared to 2008.