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Summary Article: Presidential Elections
From Encyclopedia of U.S. Campaigns, Elections, and Electoral Behavior

AMERICAN PRESIDENTIAL ELECTIONS determine who is elected president and vice president of the United States. Local election boards throughout the 50 states and the District of Columbia administer presidential elections, and Article II, Section 1 of the U.S. Constitution, as amended by the Twelfth, Twenty-Second, and Twenty-Third amendments, prescribe the general requirements for how the president and vice president are to be elected. Presidential elections are held every four years on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November (established by Congress in 1854).

Although Americans go to the polls on Election Day to select the presidential and vice presidential candidates of their choice, they actually do not vote for these candidates directly. Rather, they vote for a list of party electors who have pledged to vote for their party’s candidates in a separate election. The winning electors from each state make up the Electoral College. Thus, in the American presidential election system, the general electorate indirectly chooses the winning ticket by voting for electors who directly elect the president and the vice president. On Election Day, Americans also elect the entire U.S. House of Representatives and one-third of the U.S. Senate, as well as many state and local officials.

The selected electors then meet in their respective state capitals on the first Monday after the second Wednesday in December to cast their votes for president and vice president. These votes are sent to the nation’s capital to be officially counted and certified by the president of the Senate (who is also the vice president of the United States) in front of a joint session of Congress the following sixth of January. The presidential and vice presidential candidates who receive a majority of the Electoral College vote are declared the winners, and assume their duties at noon on January 20th.

If no candidate wins a majority of the electoral vote, then the presidential election is decided by the U.S. House of Representatives (from among the three candidates receiving the largest number of electoral votes), with each state having one vote. The vice presidential election is decided by the U.S. Senate (from the two candidates receiving the largest number of electoral votes), with each senator having one vote. The presidential elections of 1800 and 1824, and the vice presidential election of 1836, are the only elections that have been decided in this manner. In 1800, running mates Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr each received the same number of votes (as votes for the presidency were not differentiated from votes for the vice presidency until passage of the 12th Amendment in 1804). The House of Representatives elected Jefferson as president, and Burr became vice president. In 1824, when no candidate received a majority of the Electoral College vote, the House of Representatives chose John Quincy Adams as president; despite the fact that Andrew Jackson had won a plurality, but not a majority, of both the electoral and the popular vote. In 1836, no vice presidential candidate received a majority of the Electoral College vote, and the Senate decided the election.

The Constitution allows each state to appoint “in such manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a number of Electors, equal to the whole number of Senators and Representatives to which the state may be entitled in the Congress.” Currently, this number is set at 538 (with the District of Columbia receiving three electors). Although most electors were originally selected by the state legislatures, by the mid-19th century, all states chose their electors by popular vote, with state parties designating a slate of electors in each state, and voters choosing the winning slate.

Every state, with the exception of Maine and Nebraska, awards all of its electoral votes to the winner of the popular vote in that state (winner-take-all system). Although it happens rarely, this formula can result in a scenario where the candidate receiving the largest number of popular votes does not win the electoral vote, as was the case in 1824, 1876, 1888, and 2000. The system also leads presidential campaigns to target aggressively those states with many electoral votes, as well as those considered to be swing or battleground states where the election is expected to be so close that it could easily go for one candidate or the other.

Running for the U.S. presidency is a long and protracted process. For much of American history, however, this was not the case. Until the end of the 19th century, most presidential candidates did not actively campaign, because such activity was considered demeaning to the office. Now, candidates actively campaign across the country and aggressively seek election. Most major-party candidates (Democratic and Republican) who decide to run for the presidency begin campaigning, usually with the formation of a campaign exploratory committee, at least two years before Election Day. The primary season now starts in January of the presidential election year, with the Iowa caucus and New Hampshire primary. During this time, candidates raise large sums of money to support field organizations and campaign staffs and to familiarize voters with their views through advertising. After the primary season is over, each of the two major parties holds a national nominating convention where it officially nominates its presidential candidate (the individual with the most delegates obtained through the primary system) and his/her running mate (chosen by the presidential candidate). The general election campaign season is then set to begin.

Presidential campaigns are characterized by numerous candidate appearances, partisan appeals, fund-raising events, political advertisements, and televised presidential and vice presidential debates (the first presidential debate took place in 1960, and they have been the norm in every election since 1976). Today, running for the presidency involves highly sophisticated, increasingly professionalized, and ever more expensive campaigns that seek to maximize a candidate’s chances of winning the election.

  • Campaigns, Presidential; Conventions, National Nominating Party; Elections Laws, Federal Elections; Electoral College; Nomination Process, Presidential; Presidential Debates; Presidential Primaries; Winner-Take-All System.

  • P. R. Abramson; John Aldrich; D. W. Rhode, Change and Continuity in the 2004 Elections (CQ Press, 2006).
  • J. E. Campbell, The American Campaign: U.S. Presidential Campaigns and the National Vote (Texas A&M, 2000).
  • W. G. Mayer, ed., The Making of the Presidential Candidate 2004 (Rowman and Littlefield, 2004).
  • Michael Nelson, ed., The Elections of 2004 (CQ Press, 2005).
  • Thomas Patterson, The Vanishing Voter (Knopf, 2002).
  • S. J. Wayne, The Road to the White House, 2004 (Thomson/Wadsworth, 2004).
  • Carlos E. Diaz-Rosillo
    Harvard University
    Copyright © 2008 by SAGE Publications, Inc.

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