The U.S. Election Explained


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How the electoral process works in the United States

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The U.S. Election Explained

  1. 1. The U.S. Election Explained Alan R. Cordova
  2. 2. True or False? <ul><li>The U.S. president is directly elected by the votes of the American people. </li></ul>
  3. 3. False! <ul><li>In fact, the president is chosen by 538 people, the members of the electoral college . </li></ul><ul><li>The electors meet in December of the election year, and the candidate that receives the majority of their votes becomes president on January 20. </li></ul>
  4. 4. I thought Election Day was the Tuesday after the first Monday in November! <ul><li>It is – but the American president is indirectly elected in a two-step process. </li></ul>
  5. 5. How does this process work? <ul><li>The presidential election is actually 51 separate contests. </li></ul><ul><ul><li>Each state plus the District of Columbia administers its own elections. </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><ul><li>As a result, the method of voting and the type of ballots vary greatly. </li></ul></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>The national aggregation of the votes, the popular vote , is meaningless. </li></ul></ul><ul><li>The President and Vice President run together as a ‘ ticket ’ – voters elect them together. </li></ul>Voted ballot
  6. 6. How the states add up: <ul><li>The 50 states and the District of Columbia are allocated members of the Electoral College based on their population. </li></ul>
  7. 7. Candidates must ‘win’ states <ul><li>The ballots in each state are counted, and the ticket that receives the most votes wins the right to select all of the state’s members in the electoral college. </li></ul><ul><li>The electoral college then meets, and the members cast their votes – the winners are declared President and Vice President of the United States. </li></ul><ul><li>This is known as a ‘ winner-take-all ’ system, in contrast to the proportional representation systems common in other democracies. </li></ul><ul><ul><li>No election at any level in the United States is decided by proportional representation. </li></ul></ul>
  8. 8. What does the winner-take-all system mean? <ul><li>A ticket needs only to receive the most votes (a plurality , not a majority ) in a state in order to ‘win’ the electors allocated to the state. </li></ul><ul><li>A ticket needs to ‘win’ a majority of electors in order for its candidates to be declared President and Vice President. </li></ul><ul><li>In the modern era, the ‘magic number’ is 270 , half of the 538 electors plus one. </li></ul>
  9. 9. Who can become President? <ul><li>Since 1947, president have been limited to two terms in office. Therefore, in 2008, George Bush and Bill Clinton are constitutionally prohibited from running. </li></ul><ul><li>Only certain people are qualified to run for President: </li></ul><ul><ul><li>Must be over 35 years of age. </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Must be a natural-born citizen (i.e. cannot be naturalized) </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Must have been a permanent resident of the US for 14 years. </li></ul></ul><ul><li>In theory, anyone can run for President; however in practice the contesting of a national election requires the infrastructure of a political party . </li></ul><ul><li>Since the 19 th century, only two parties, the Republicans and Democrats, have been able to consistently support nationally competitive Presidential tickets. </li></ul><ul><ul><li>For this reason, the US is considered to have a two-party system . </li></ul></ul>
  10. 10. Why do certain states matter? <ul><li>Even though there are technically 51 separate elections taking place on Election Day, it is impractical for candidates to campaign simultaneously in each state. </li></ul><ul><li>Therefore, the candidate must carefully select where to campaign. </li></ul><ul><li>To do so, careful calculations are made in order to determine which states are necessary to win the majority of electors. </li></ul>
  11. 11. How are the key states decided? <ul><li>One way would be to look at the states with the biggest population (and, therefore, the most representatives. </li></ul>California: 55 Illinois: 21 Michigan: 17 Texas: 34 Pennsylvania: 21 Georgia: 15 New York: 31 Ohio: 20 N. Carolina: 15 Florida: 27 New Jersey: 15 This adds to 271. In other words, it is possible for a candidate to win the presidency while losing 40 of 51 of the state elections!
  12. 12. Why not simply campaign in these eleven states? <ul><li>Candidates carefully study historical voting patterns and opinion polling in order to decide in which states to actively contest by purchasing advertising time and making appearances. </li></ul><ul><li>Certain states can be expected to deliver large majorities to one party or the other. </li></ul>
  13. 13. It can be reasonably expected that in 2008… Source: Office of the Secretary of State of California Source: Office of the Secretary of State of Texas Source: Source: The Democratic ticket of Barack Obama and Joe Biden will win California’s 55 electoral votes. The Republican candidate John McCain and Sarah Palin will win Texas’s 34 electoral votes.
  14. 14. Therefore, it does not make sense for either candidate to campaign in either state. <ul><li>Only in a few states is the outcome uncertain. These states are known as the ‘ swing states ’ because a small change in voter sentiment could ‘swing’ the outcome from one candidate to the other. </li></ul><ul><li>These states are also known as the ‘ battleground states ’ because they are the recipients of the most attention by the presidential candidates. </li></ul><ul><li>In theory, one vote could decide whether or not a candidate wins all of a state’s electoral votes. </li></ul><ul><li>Close margins have occurred: the 2000 election became infamous because George W. Bush won Florida’s 25 electors by 537 votes (a margin of victory of 0.009%). </li></ul>
  15. 15. Which are the swing states? <ul><li>One good way to tell is to track where candidates are appearing and spending money. </li></ul>Appearances by George Bush or John Kerry in the 5 weeks preceding Election Day 2004. One dollar sign ($) equals $1 million spent on television advertising by Bush/Cheney or Kerry/Edwards in the 5 weeks preceding Election Day 2004.
  16. 16. Another way would be to do the ‘electoral math.’ <ul><li>In other words, assuming that each candidate wins in the states in which they are expected to receive a majority of the vote, which swing states do they need to win in order to achieve a total of 270 electors? </li></ul>
  17. 17. Red vs. Blue <ul><li>On Election Day in 2000, the major news networks decided to represent the states won by Democrats with blue and those won by Republicans with red . </li></ul><ul><li>Note that this is the opposite of the color schemes in most other democracies, where the leftist party is represented with red and the conservative party with blue. </li></ul>
  18. 18. This coloration leads to some confusion… In 2000, did George Bush really win an overwhelming majority? No – in fact, he received fewer overall votes than his principal opponent, Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore. Moreover, he won only 4 more electoral votes (out of 538) than his opponent. However, he did win more states, although the states that he won tended to have smaller populations (and, therefore, fewer electoral votes).
  19. 19. A better way to look at the 2000 election. <ul><li>In this projection, the sizes of the states correspond to their relative populations. In this projection, small but densely populated states (Connecticut, New Jersey) appear larger than vast but lightly populated states (Montana, Idaho). </li></ul>
  20. 20. Compare two states Wyoming (three electoral votes) Rhode Island (four electoral votes) Original map Weighted by population
  21. 21. Similarly, states can be viewed by the number of electoral votes. 1 block = 1 electoral vote 2004 Election Results Source: .
  22. 22. However, each state is not entirely ‘red’ or ‘blue’ <ul><li>Both parties enjoy popular support in all states. </li></ul><ul><li>Hence, analysts speak of ‘purple’ areas that are neither Republican (‘red’) nor Democratic (‘blue’) </li></ul>Votes by county, rated on a scale of Red = 100% Republican; Blue = 100% Democratic Source: 2004 Election
  23. 23. So which are the ‘swing states’? <ul><li>Ohio (20 electoral votes) : Cleveland (north-east), Columbus (center) and their suburbs are Democratic strongholds, Cincinnati (south-west) and the rest of the state tends to vote Republican. </li></ul><ul><li>Florida (27 electoral votes) : Densely populated Miami and Palm Beach (south-east) vote strongly Democratic; Jacksonville (north-east), Tampa Bay-St. Petersburg (center-west) and the rest of the state lean Republican. </li></ul><ul><li>Pennsylvania (21 electoral votes) : Philadelphia (south-east) and Pittsburgh (south-west) are Democratic strongholds, the rest of the state tends to vote Republican. </li></ul>Winner by county in the 2004 election: Because of the number of electoral votes, three states receive a great deal of attention. Won by Democrat John Kerry in 2004 Won by Republican George Bush in 2004 Won by Republican George Bush in 2004 Source:,_2004,_by_state .
  24. 24. Other ‘swing states’ <ul><li>Ranked by the 2004 </li></ul><ul><li>winner’s margin of victory </li></ul><ul><li>Wisconsin (0.38%) </li></ul><ul><li>Iowa (0.67%) </li></ul><ul><li>New Mexico (0.79%) </li></ul><ul><li>New Hampshire (1.37%) </li></ul><ul><li>Nevada (2.59%) </li></ul><ul><li>Michigan (3.42%) </li></ul><ul><li>Minnesota (3.48%) </li></ul><ul><li>Oregon (4.16%) </li></ul><ul><li>Colorado (4.67%) </li></ul>Sources: , . Map of states won in the 2004 presidential election with less than a 5% margin of victory. However, the question of which states ‘matter’ occupies much of the election-related political commentary.
  25. 25. Therefore… <ul><li>The candidate that wins the swing states wins the election? </li></ul>How do commentators predict the results?
  26. 26. In case you thought it was that simple… <ul><li>Missouri Bellwether : Since 1904, the state has voted for the eventual winner in all but one election. The state is located at the geographic and cultural confluence between the Midwest and South and has demographics (e.g. income levels, urban/rural) close to those of the entire country. Therefore, support for a candidate in Missouri may indicate national approval. </li></ul><ul><li>Halloween masks : Because Election Day follows closely after Halloween, many people buy rubber masks depicting the candidates in order to dress up as them. The candidate whose mask has outsold his opponent’s has won every election since the concept was introduced in 1976. </li></ul><ul><li>Washington Redskins : Between 1944 and 2000, the outcome of the last home game before Election Day of the American football team presaged the outcome: if the team won, the incumbent party’s candidate would win; if the team lost, the opponent would win. This pattern was broken in 2004. </li></ul><ul><li>Kids Poll: Pre-election surveys by children’s magazine publisher Weekly Reader of its subscribers (who are under 18 and, therefore, ineligible to vote), have correctly predicted the outcome since polls began in 1956. Readers of rival Scholastic’s magazines have correctly predicted all but two elections since 1940. </li></ul>Sources: Associated Press, Topeka Capital-Journal , Los Angeles Times Images: , . Richard Nixon, the original presidential mask
  27. 27. You can look at some major trends… <ul><li>Urban areas tend to support the Democratic Party (see map of Seattle). In 2004, the Democratic Kerry/Edwards ticket won more votes than Republican Bush/Cheney ticket in all cities with more than 500,000 people and half of cities with between 50,000 and 500,000 people. Rural areas tend to support Republican candidates. </li></ul><ul><li>Democrats have historically commanded strong majorities in the North-East (New England and Mid-Atlantic), while Republicans have historically received strong support in the American South and Midwest. </li></ul>Sources: Seattle Times , “Urban Archipelago”
  28. 28. … but, of course, there are many, many more possible methods to predict the winner. Commonwealth Magazine ’s Ten Regions of US Politics: Winning tickets must receive the most votes in at least five of the regions. Statistical analysis of daily opinion polling from Political futures on
  29. 29. Q&A <ul><li>What happens if there is a tie? </li></ul><ul><li>Can the members of the electoral college freely decide to vote for any candidate? </li></ul><ul><li>Can a candidate win the majority of the electoral college while receiving fewer overall votes? </li></ul><ul><li>What’s with the donkey and elephant? </li></ul>
  30. 30. What happens if there is a tie? <ul><li>It is possible for both tickets to win exactly half (269) of the electoral college (one potential scenario is illustrated here). </li></ul><ul><li>In this case, the new House of Representatives (comprised of the winners of the legislative elections) votes for the President, and the new Senate votes for the Vice President. </li></ul>Simulation on the CNN Election Calculator. In fact, the electoral college has been tied twice, in 1800 and 1824.
  31. 31. Can the members of the electoral college freely decide to vote for any candidate? <ul><li>In theory, yes – the electors of each state meet in person at the state capital; they have the option of voting their ballot as they see fit. </li></ul><ul><li>However, in practice, this is rare, because the local chapters of the party that wins the state have the power to nominate the electors – and they rarely fail to choose loyal members. </li></ul><ul><li>In fact, 24 states have laws to punish electors who fail to vote for anyone other than the ticket for which they pledge. </li></ul><ul><li>Nevertheless, in 55 elections there have been 156 of these faithless electors , but none have affected the outcome of the election. </li></ul>
  32. 32. Can a candidate win the majority of the electoral college while receiving fewer overall votes? <ul><li>Yes . This took place in 1876, 1888 and 2000. </li></ul><ul><li>However, because of the electoral college, the popular (aggregate national) vote has no meaning. </li></ul><ul><li>This is why candidates never spend time in most of the largest cities (New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Washington, DC, Boston, Houston). </li></ul><ul><li>Nevertheless, the discussion of whether or not the popular vote should replace the electoral college (as is done in most other democracies) is a much-debated question. </li></ul>
  33. 33. What’s with the donkey and elephant? <ul><li>These are the mascots of the political parties. They are derived from some of the earliest political cartoons and have been adopted as visual symbols. </li></ul>Source: . Source: . Thomas Nast (1874) Source: . Source: . Thomas Nast (1870)
  34. 34. Election Vocabulary <ul><li>G.O.P. : ‘ G rand O ld P arty,’ referring to the Republicans </li></ul><ul><li>Soccer mom/NASCAR dad : Two of the numerous demographic profiles created by campaigns in an attempt to craft their message and win support. The first refers to suburban mothers who drive children to sports practices and are believed to care most about issues affecting families. The second refers to working-class men who enjoy watching car racing (NASCAR) or other action-oriented sports. Some are harmless, but many border on offensive cultural stereotypes. </li></ul><ul><li>October surprise : An unexpected news event that occurs shortly before the election that dramatically shifts public opinion. </li></ul><ul><li>G.O.T.V. : G et O ut t he V ote, referring to initiatives (both affiliated and unaffiliated with the parties) designed to register voters and ensure that they vote on Election Day </li></ul><ul><li>Veep : Vice President </li></ul><ul><li>Base : Voters who are extremely loyal to a particular party and would support any ticket that it nominates. Parties face the challenge of convincing members of the base to cast their ballot instead of not voting at all (voting is not compulsory in the US). </li></ul><ul><li>Undecided voter : Citizens who tell pollsters that they do not yet know who they will support. Parties devote considerable attention to determining the demographics of these people and crafting messages to attract them. </li></ul>
  35. 35. So, to review… <ul><li>On Election Day in early November, Citizens in each state and the District of Columbia vote for a ticket (President + Vice President). </li></ul><ul><li>The ballots are counted, and the ticket that receives the most votes wins for its party right to select the state’s electors. </li></ul><ul><li>The number of electors is pre-determined according to the state’s population. </li></ul><ul><li>The electors in each state chosen by the winning party cast their own ballots in December. </li></ul><ul><li>The candidates that receive over 269 votes (out of 538) are inaugurated as President and Vice President on January 20 of the subsequent year. </li></ul>… it’s that simple!
  36. 36. Notae bene <ul><li>The preceding presentation is intended purely for educational purposes. It does not imply any support or endorsement. </li></ul><ul><li>Some stickier points (i.e. the special distribution of electors in Maine and Nebraska) has been omitted for simplicity. Don’t rely on this presentation if you’re looking to write a paper on the subject! </li></ul><ul><li>The presentation was created on October 26, 2008. All information is correct as of that date. No attempt will be made to update the information. </li></ul><ul><li>The presentation is intended for the public domain – usage rights are granted as long as the author is credited. </li></ul>