America’s next presidential election will be Nov 6, 2012, more than 16 months from now. The candidates and the media have already begun the journey and it promises to be a great show. It’s a long and grueling process with many things happening at once.
Running a presidential campaign is an extremely difficult, expensive, and exhausting project. It involves three separate simultaneous procedures: legal, party nomination, and campaign organization. All candidates must follow the legal process, which is the easiest of the three. Each party controls its own nomination process. The campaign process isn’t required, but no candidate will win without it.
The Legal Process
State rules vary, but every state requires candidates to collect a large number of signatures from qualified, registered voters on nominating petitions. The petitions are filed with the state’s Secretary of State along with financial disclosure and other forms. There are strict deadlines for filing the paperwork. Candidates must also file financial disclosure and other documents with the Federal Election Commission. Then you wait for Election Day.
The Constitution requires the Electoral College actually to choose the president. However, your vote does matter. Each state has the same number of votes in the Electoral College as it has members in Congress. Forty-eight states require their electors to choose the winner of the popular vote. Nebraska and Maine each give three votes to the entire state’s popular winner. Then each Congressional district’s popular winner gets one of the remaining votes. There are pros and cons to the Electoral College system and I’ll discuss them in a future article.
That’s all there is to the legal process, but the party nomination is much more complicated. Every presidential election involves dozens of candidates, though most voters are aware of only two or three. The two major parties ‘” Republican and Democratic ‘” and sometimes a strong independent or third-party candidate, get most of the media attention. Some of the third parties are larger, better funded, and more organized than others. Candidates who are not affiliated with a particular party are listed as “Independent”. Most of the other candidates are not on the ballots in every state because they don’t have enough money or large enough organizations to run the big campaigns that get the attention. Most of the fringe candidates are trying to make some political point, but some are just goofy.
The Party Nomination Process
The Constitution doesn’t mention political parties at all, and no candidate is required to belong to a party. However, parties are just one example of humans’ compulsion to arrange ourselves into groups. Third party and independent candidates rarely win elections.
For major party candidates, seeking the party’s nomination is the first phase of a presidential campaign. This happens through a demanding system of caucuses and primary elections running from mid-January to mid-June. Republicans compete against Republicans and Democrats compete against Democrats to see who will represent the party against the other party’s candidate in November’s general election.
President Obama is the Democratic incumbent candidate, meaning that he already has the job and is running to keep it. Our Constitution’s 22nd Amendment limits presidents to two four-year terms. Obama is running for his second term. No Democratic candidates have come forward to run against him yet. Several Republicans are running for their party’s nomination.
The parties will organize televised debates among their groups of candidates so that the public can get to know them and begin to form opinions. We are at this phase of the process now. The Republicans have already held two debates. The next will be July 10 in Las Vegas. The Democrats won’t need to hold debates if no Democrats run against President Obama.
In a caucus, voters from each voting district meet in party groups to discuss the merits of the various candidates. They try to convince each other to support their favorite candidates. Then they vote. Five states ‘” Iowa, Nevada, Hawaii, Minnesota, and Colorado ‘” hold caucuses.
The remaining 45 states hold primary elections in which the parties choose their candidates for the general election. Some states hold open primaries in which any voter can vote for any candidate, regardless of party. Others hold closed primaries in which voters can vote only for the candidates in their own parties. Each party’s rules allot a number of delegates to each state, based on its population and other factors. The candidates for delegate slots also run in the primary elections and the winning delegates vote at the parties’ conventions in late summer.
During the primary/caucus season, most of the candidates will leave the race when they don’t have enough money or public support.
There is usually only one major candidate left standing by the time they get to the parties’ conventions in July or August. But sometimes public support is split among two or more candidates. At that time, the delegates vote for the nominee according to some very complex rules. At the end of the conventions, each party has chosen its presidential and vice presidential candidates.
Then the general election campaign begins and the winning Democratic and Republican candidates compete against each other. There are usually a few debates between them during this phase as well.
When deciding whether to run, the candidates begin posturing, exploring, and extending feelers to see if there might be enough public interest. They hire campaign managers and personnel, line up support from organizations, corporations, and wealthy donors. They recruit, train, and organize volunteers. Candidates and campaign leaders create and refine their messages, themes, slogans, platforms, positions, materials, advertising, and websites. They schedule campaign appearances, interviews, and other functions. They register voters and implement their Get Out the Vote plans. The most vital part of any campaign is fundraising, fundraising, fundraising.
The political parties help with their candidates’ campaigns, sometimes leading to tensions and disputes about who’s in charge and what their plans are.
All of these things happen at once, in a nation with 3.8 million square miles, nearly 310 million people, and nearly 150 million registered voters. Meanwhile, the candidates are physically and mentally exhausted but straining to remain alert, patient, polite, and trying not to say anything dumb. It doesn’t always work.
Enjoy the show, and remember to VOTE.
For More Information
General Information on Elections and Voting
Register to vote
Read the U.S. Constitution
Federal Election Commission
The Electoral College
State and Territorial Election Offices
2012 Election Central ‘” Debate Schedules, Primary/Caucus Schedules, Candidate Status, Convention Info, News Updates, and more
Democratic National Committee
Republican National Committee
Descriptions of Political Parties