5 Presidential Elections
- Dennis W. Johnson
p. 60↵Presidential elections are the crown jewel of American electoral democracy, but there are some very important issues looming. Is the electoral college the most reliable way to measure a presidential election, or should we be looking at other systems? The primary and pre-primary phases are long, expensive, and arduous. There are several ways our system could be made better. Will we ever create a better system?
Can anyone run for president, or is that just an old American myth?
In one sense, it’s true that anyone can run for president. There are just three requirements: a candidate must be native born, a US resident for fourteen years, and at least thirty-five years old. So, although millions of immigrants cannot run for president, many millions more people are eligible. In recent presidential elections hundreds of people have filled out the paperwork, paid the filing fee, and appeared on scattered ballots throughout the states. But their chances of winning are virtually zero. It’s no surprise that nearly every person who vies for the nomination of our two major parties is an elected official or a former elected official. In recent years, perhaps the closest to that “anyone” myth was Barack Obama, with his meteoric trajectory from lowly state senator in Illinois to president four years later. Occasionally, a deep-pocketed p. 61↵entrepreneur will try, for example, Carly Fiorina in 2016, Ross Perot in 1992 and 1996, and Steve Forbes in 1996 and 2000. Business executive Wendell Willkie became the Republican nominee in 1940, and, of course, billionaire entrepreneur and television celebrity Donald Trump broke all the barriers, having no prior government service, military service, or experience in elective office.
Next time around, other wealthy entrepreneurs or celebrities without a lick of governmental experience may be tempted to run. But for an average person without any previous statewide elective experience, name recognition, and money, it’s next to impossible to succeed.
Why do presidential elections last so long?
During the fall of 2015, about the time the nationwide Canadian elections were concluding, a local Vancouver radio station was fielding calls from voters who were disgusted with how long the elections had dragged on. People were incensed: the Canadian elections were ten weeks long! Such an outrage! But Canada’s election calendar was typical. In many parliamentary systems, the elections last no more than a couple of months.
American presidential elections go on for a ridiculous amount of time. Our presidential elections aren’t ten weeks long, even ten months long. They can easily go for nearly two years. (President Trump, on the day he was inaugurated in January 2017 filed papers for his re-election campaign in 2020, and by September 2018, he had accumulated over $100 million for his re-election campaign).
We could say that the official starting point of the presidential election is the first time that voters make a decision about the candidates, which is the Iowa caucus, usually held in January or February of the presidential election year. But most candidates start planning for a run at least a year before that, and those preparations culminate in an announcement speech. Political scientists call the year before the first caucuses p. 62↵and primaries the “invisible primaries.” This is the time when candidates for their parties’ nomination are flying around to key primary and caucus states, raising money, trying to win over local and state political leaders and get favorable press coverage from news outlets, participating in debates with other possible candidates, and overall, trying to show that they are solid prospects. No votes have been taken, but candidates are trying to show that they’ve got what it takes.
Why do we have so many primaries and caucuses?
We can go back to the reforms of the Democratic Party in 1972 to find the explosion of state primaries and caucuses. Before then, there were maybe ten to sixteen primaries across the country. Then Democrats, tired of losing presidential contests, decided the best cure for losing was to be, well, more democratic: Let’s let the people decide, instead of the state party leaders. The Democratic Party encouraged party members in individual states to hold primaries and caucuses. Soon the Republicans climbed on board, and we now have primaries and caucuses for both parties in virtually every state and territory.
In most presidential years, the two major parties quickly weed out second- and third-tier candidates. So the nominee is already pretty much decided by the time of the primaries and caucuses held after March. But in recent years, that has changed. In 2008, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama went through nearly the entire calendar year of primaries and caucuses before Obama was declared the nominee. And in 2016, when a record number of Republicans fought for the nomination, Donald Trump didn’t become the nominee until well into May, after Ted Cruz and John Kasich finally gave up. Incumbent presidents running for a second term usually don’t have to worry about candidates from their own party running against them (and if they do, they’re probably in a lot of trouble). Lengthy primaries help keep a candidate in the news, but they also can drain away precious money and result p. 63↵in nasty internal fights (Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders in 2016 come to mind).
What’s the difference between a caucus and a primary?
Whether a state political party employs caucuses or primaries, the purpose is the same: to choose delegates to the party’s national convention. Technically, when voters went to the polls to choose, say, Kamala Harris, to use an example from the 2020 Democratic primaries, they were choosing delegates who were pledged to vote for Harris in the first round of voting at the Democratic National Convention.
When several candidates from the same party are running, the political parties can hold primary elections to determine which one will receive delegate votes. In some states, the vote is winner-take-all: the top vote getter receives all the delegates for that state’s party at the nominating convention. In other states, the vote is apportioned out to the candidates. For example, if a state Democratic Party has ten delegates, and Candidate A receives 60 percent of the vote, and Candidate B gets 40 percent, then six delegates pledged will be pledged to Candidate A in the first round, and four delegates will be pledged to Candidate B.
Most state primaries are closed: only Republicans can vote in their state’s primary, and only Democrats in theirs. After all, the argument goes, if you want to vote for a Republican candidate, you’d better be a Republican. A small number of states allow anyone to vote in any primary, that is, a Republican can vote in a Democratic primary, and vice versa, but not both. This gives a vote to independent (or Unaffiliated) individuals or those who don’t want to commit to a political party to vote.
Caucuses are different animals. Typically, only registered party members can participate and they must gather together and vote their preferences. It’s a much more intimate process than simply going to the polls and casting a vote. The best-known set of caucuses are those in Iowa, and they go through p. 64↵a series of votes over a period of weeks. But what counts the most, of course, is the initial caucus, at the lowest level. Here’s how it works: Let’s say five Democrats are running for president. The Democrats in each Iowa caucus precinct will get together, in a church basement or a community hall; at this meeting, fifty or maybe a hundred voters might turn out. In 2016, there were about 1,100 Democratic caucus meetings in Iowa, at which 11,065 precinct delegates were chosen. Advocates for each candidate will give short speeches, then the caucus-goers will go off to vote, often retiring to a different corner of the room and trying to persuade those supporting marginal candidates (those who got less than 15 percent of the vote in the first go-round) to join them. The whole process has been described as something like a junior high-school dance.1 News will get out quickly in the media about which candidate has received what percentage of votes; this, after all, is the first concrete evidence of how voters have decided. Weeks after the precinct caucuses, there will be county conventions, where the precinct delegates will be winnowed down to a smaller number, and then district conventions, and, finally, about three months after the initial caucus, the state convention, where the delegates will be pared down to the forty-four delegates to which Iowa Democrats are entitled.
Republicans go through a similar process, but there are fewer caucuses, fewer delegates chosen, and it’s all done in secret, not out in the open. Caucuses bring out the truly committed voters, not the casual voter who may have decided to show up on Election Day, or the nonparty voter.
Why does Iowa go first?
For a long time, New Hampshire held the first presidential primaries.2 The state received a lot of attention for this, and the local economy got a boost, as presidential candidates trudged through the snow with the media traipsing behind them. New Hampshire has had a primary since the 1920s, but people p. 65↵started taking notice in 1968, when Eugene McCarthy nearly defeated President Lyndon Johnson in the New Hampshire Democratic primary. After the Democratic Party’s reforms of 1972, primaries became far more popular, and the New Hampshire primary became even more so. New Hampshire, a state very unrepresentative of the rest of the nation (small, whiter, and more rural), even passed a law saying that it would always hold the first primary, no matter what other states wanted to do.
But then came Iowa. Democrats in Iowa pitched the idea this way: let us go first, and we won’t hold a primary, only caucuses. And because the caucus process is so time-consuming, we’ll have to start earlier. Nothing for New Hampshire to worry about. New Hampshire acceded, and Iowa became the first state where citizens cast votes. But really, who cared whether it was a caucus or a primary? Iowa became the place where the action was—the first time a presidential candidate would face voters in Iowa was in 1972. Jimmy Carter, the former governor of Georgia, understood the importance of Iowa. As he prepared for the 1976 presidential nomination, he practically lived in the state, showing up at coffee klatches, in church basements, and at individual homes to press his case. He barely won, but the next morning he was in New York doing the network television shows, which were suddenly proclaiming him the front runner among the Democrats. Iowa was now the big news, not New Hampshire.
How do you become a party delegate? What’s a “superdelegate”?
Party delegates choose the party’s presidential candidate. The honor of becoming a delegate usually goes to the dyed-in-the-wool party faithful, the leaders of the party, those who have worked long and hard to help candidates, as well as individuals who have given money to the party. Typically, the Democrats have more delegates than the Republicans. In 2016, for example, Democrats had 4,763 delegates. Most of them p. 66↵(4,056) were pledged delegates—that is, they were chosen in their respective states and pledged to vote for whoever won, whether it was Clinton or Sanders. In addition, there were 714 superdelegates, who were not bound by the votes in individual states. Superdelegates—who were members of Congress or high-ranking state party officials—are free to vote for whomever they wish. And in 2016, they overwhelmingly voted for Hillary Clinton. Superdelegates—who accounted for 15 percent of all delegates—played a much more important, and controversial, role for Democrats than Republicans. Many in the Bernie Sanders camp complained that the superdelegates overloaded Clinton with support, and that they did not represent the actual intent of the voters.
By contrast, the Republican Party in 2016 had 2,472 delegates, and about 95 percent of them were bound (that is, compelled to vote during the first round of voting at the convention for the candidate who had won their state); the remaining 5 percent were under no obligation to vote for any one candidate.
During its 2018 summer convention, the Democratic National Committee decided to cut way back on the influence of superdelegates for the 2020 presidential elections. The decision was applauded by Bernie Sanders and his followers, but bemoaned by some party leaders who feared that the role of party regulars would forever be diminished.
What is the electoral college and how does it work?
Our system of electing the president is antiquated and often confusing. About 130 million Americans cast their votes on Election Day, but they don’t directly vote for the president. When we go to the polls on Election Day, or when we sign our absentee or mail-in ballots, we are technically voting for the electors who are pledged to our candidate; we are not voting directly for the candidate. In many states, the official presidential ballot specifies, usually in smaller print, that voters are choosing electors who are pledged to the actual candidates. p. 67↵The 2016 Ohio ballot, for example, noted, “A vote for any candidates for President and Vice President shall be a vote for the electors of those candidates whose names have been certified to the Secretary of State.” These electors, along with those from all the other states and the District of Columbia, make up the electoral college.
Altogether, there are 538 electors, and they are divided among the states and the District of Columbia according to the number of members of Congress and senators the states have. Note that 3.4 million American citizens (more than live in five states) have no representation in the electoral college: they live in Puerto Rico. Table 5.1 shows the number of electoral college votes allocated to each state.
Table 5.1 Electoral College Votes of the States
Florida, New York
Arizona, Indiana, Massachusetts, Tennessee
Maryland, Minnesota, Missouri, Wisconsin
Alabama, Colorado, South Carolina
Connecticut, Oklahoma, Oregon
Arkansas, Iowa, Kansas, Mississippi, Nevada, Utah
Nebraska, New Mexico, West Virginia
Hawaii, Idaho, Maine, New Hampshire, Rhode Island
Alaska, Delaware, District of Columbia, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Vermont, Wyoming
p. 68↵Looking at the 2016 presidential election as an example, Tennessee had nine members of Congress and two senators, giving it a total of eleven electors. New York had twenty-seven members of Congress and two senators, giving it a total of twenty-nine electors. In Tennessee and New York, and throughout the states, both the Democratic and Republican parties selected a full slate of electors pledged to support Clinton or Trump. When Trump won Tennessee, he received all eleven of its Republican electors; when Clinton won New York, she received all twenty-nine of its Democratic electors.
The electors for each state and the District of Columbia meet in their state capitals six weeks after Election Day to cast their votes for president. (Six weeks were needed in 1789 to get everyone is the same place, because you just couldn’t hop on an airplane or travel the Interstate back then).
Once the electors have completed their work, the results are sent to Washington, DC, and opened in the House of Representatives on the first day of the new Congress. Congress then certifies the results, and the new president and vice president are sworn into office at noon on January 20.
Of course, we usually know who the next president will be around eleven o’clock on election night, and everything else becomes a mere ceremonial footnote. We might see a short news item in mid-December saying that the electoral college has met and the official vote has been cast, but by then its just a ho-hum bit of news. It is ho-hum, however, only if everything works right and there are no disputes about ballots and election procedures.
Why did the Founding Fathers decide that we needed the electoral college to determine presidential elections?
The US Constitution does not mention the “electoral college” (for that matter, there is no mention of political parties in the Constitution either). However, both Article II (the Executive Branch) and the Twelfth Amendment (which clarifies that p. 69↵the president and vice president will run as a team) mention “electors.” The Twelfth Amendment, ratified in 1804, spells out how the electoral system works and acknowledges the role that newly formed political parties play. In fact, the Twelfth Amendment spells out the electoral college and the selection of the president, more so than the original Constitution. The electoral college mechanisms and presidential selection process were written into federal law in 1845.
One central argument for having the elector system was that at the beginning of the nation’s history, individuals in the new far-flung country had little understanding of the candidates and issues, hence the need for a well-informed gentry (all men, of course) who could be electors and make reasoned decisions about who should be president. The idea of a nationwide vote, and no electors, was floated at the Constitutional Convention by Pennsylvania’s James Wilson, but Virginia’s James Madison and other southerners quickly scotched it in favor of an electoral system that favored the South.
One of the controversial sections in the Constitution is what’s known as “the three-fifths clause,” the stipulation that slaves would be counted as three-fifths of a person for the purpose of the apportioning congressional seats and electoral votes. This gave the slave states a decided advantage in the electoral college. In 1803, a Massachusetts congressman calculated that the three-fifths clause added thirteen members of Congress to the southern states and eighteen electors for the next presidential contest.
Yale University constitutional law professor Akhil Reed Amar has argued that, though it has been little discussed, the fundamental rationale for keeping the electoral college system during its earlier days was not a struggle between big states and small states, but the struggle between the North and the South, especially over slavery.3 Without the additional electoral votes Virginia gained from the three-fifths clause, Thomas Jefferson would not have defeated incumbent president John Adams (from Massachusetts) in 1801, for example. As Amar p. 70↵observed, Thomas Jefferson “metaphorically rode into the executive mansion on the backs of slaves.”
The electoral college became a part of our presidential election system, and until the Civil War, the southern states had more electors than their numbers would justify, thanks to the three-fifths clause.
But over the course of American history, the electoral college system has worked without controversy, except for the five times in history when the winner of the popular vote did not become president. In 1824, Andrew Jackson had more popular votes but not enough electoral votes to win in a four-way race, and the House chose John Q. Adams instead. In a contentious election in 1876, Republican Rutherford B. Hayes was chosen by a specially appointed election commission, though Democrat Samuel J. Tilden had more popular votes. In 1888, incumbent president Grover Cleveland had more popular votes than his opponent, Republican Benjamin Harrison, but lost in the electoral college. In 2000, Democrat Al Gore had more popular votes, but lost to Republican George W. Bush when the Supreme Court halted the recount of the Florida votes. Then, of course, in 2016, Trump handily won the electoral vote while losing the popular vote to Hillary Clinton.
Who are the electors, and how do you get to be one?
Here’s a question to ask at your next dinner party: Can anyone name one or two electors who cast votes for your state during the last presidential election? You’ll probably get a blank stare. I know I can’t name any of the nine electors from my state of Colorado. Each state political party chooses its own slate of electors, and they are usually party bigwigs, state or local party officials, big-time donors, and others who are deeply involved in their political party. So, if you want to become a presidential elector, you’d better be tight with one of the political parties.
What if “faithless” electors refuse to vote for the winner of the popular ballot?
p. 71↵A “faithless” elector is one of those rare electors who decides not to follow the popular election returns or the wishes of the party and votes for someone else. That happened seven times in 2016 (a record), when one Democratic elector in Hawaii voted for Bernie Sanders instead of Clinton. Three Washington state Democratic electors cast their votes for former secretary of state Colin Powell, a Republican, while a fourth Democratic elector cast a vote for Native American activist Faith Spotted Eagle. Instead of supporting Donald Trump, one Republican elector from Texas voted for former congressman Ron Paul; another Texas Republican voted for Ohio governor John Kasich.
The votes against their parties’ candidates were unusual, but they did not affect the election results. How can an elector, who is supposed to be a true party faithful, do this? Isn’t it illegal? There is no federal law, or anything in the Constitution that binds the electors to the will of the voters. But in twenty-six states and the District of Columbia, there are laws that require electors to follow the election results. The curious thing, however, is that Hawaii has such a binding law, but there is no penalty for breaking it, and the faithless Democratic elector could not be punished. Two Colorado Democratic electors wanted to break their pledge to vote for Hillary Clinton, and backed her only after being threatened with criminal charges.
Woe unto us as a country if an upcoming presidential election goes down to the wire (as in 2000, when Gore had 268 electoral college votes and Bush had 271), and some electors decide to withhold support and vote their own conscience. It might just be the spark that would force change in the cumbersome way presidents are elected.
What if the president-elect dies before the electoral college meets?
What happens if the presidential winner dies, say, of a heart attack, before the electoral college meets in December? Does p. 72↵the winning vice-presidential running mate then become the new president-elect? Or does the winning political party meet in an emergency session and possibly choose someone else (such as the runner-up nominee at the party’s national convention)? That’s never happened, but we can see how volatile the situation could become. Many commentators argue that it is the right (and duty) of the winning political party to choose a replacement (and for political reasons, it may not be the vice-presidential running mate). Then the electors would vote the substitute into office. But we can imagine all kinds of crazy infighting: suppose the vice-presidential winner is not chosen, and there’s a big fight internally among the electoral college members. Considering that this scenario is entirely unprecedented, election law expert Thomas H. Neale has predicted that there would be “confusion, controversy, and a breakdown of party discipline among the members of the electoral college might also arise.”4 Or the public at large would be angered, rightly claiming that voters had no voice in choosing the substitute president. Such a scenario could greatly strain our already fragile election system.
What happens if no candidate receives 270 votes when the electoral college tallies the votes?
This has happened once, in 1824, when John Q. Adams won the presidency (but not the popular vote) after a four-way race. Adams didn’t have a majority in the electoral college, but was elected through a vote in the House of Representatives. Could this happen again? Indeed, it could, if there is a tight race between a Republican and Democrat and a third-party candidate who is able to win a modest number of electoral votes. Here’s how it might play out: Candidate A gets 265 votes; Candidate B gets 264 votes; and the third-party Candidate C gets 11 votes. When no candidate receives p. 73↵a majority (270 votes) in the electoral college, then the House of Representatives must make the decision. The electoral college vote is held in mid-December. As a practical matter, everyone will know immediately that a 270 majority hasn’t been raised. But officially, the results of the electoral college cannot be revealed before a session of the House until it meets on January 3.
Here’s where it gets trickier. The members of the newly elected House vote by state for the new president, and each state (no matter how big or small) gets one vote. So, the candidate who gets a majority of states, twenty-six, will win the presidency. What happens when a state congressional delegation is evenly divided, say, it has four Democrats and four Republicans? Will these lawmakers play hardball and only vote for their party candidate? Will they refuse to vote for the opposing party’s presidential candidate who won their state? What happens if lawmakers in six or seven states with evenly divided delegations refuse to compromise, and no presidential candidate receives the required twenty-six state votes?
In that case, the US Senate determines who the vice president will be. Senators vote as individuals, not by states, and if the House is deadlocked on a president, the Senate might be able to decide on a vice president much sooner.
What happens if the House is hopelessly deadlocked, split right down the middle? Then the House appoints a temporary president, who presumably would have all the powers of president, until the House can figure out the mess. And what a mess it would be! Such uncertainty and partisan bickering would pose an unprecedented threat to our already fragile democratic system. But it would also reflect a political reality: the country is so deeply and evenly divided that any decision would be denounced by a sizeable minority. Lawmakers of both parties would have to display enormous courage to resolve the crisis, considering that no p. 74↵matter what they decide many of their constituents will be furious.
What’s the “winner-take-all” system?
“Winner-take-all” is one of the unique features of the electoral college system. In 2016, Donald Trump received 49.8 percent of the popular vote in North Carolina; Hillary Clinton received 46.2 percent. But under the winner-take-all system, all fifteen electoral votes went to Trump and Clinton received none. Winner-take-all is used in every state except Nebraska and Maine. In those states, the winner receives two votes for the entire state and one electoral vote for each congressional district won. In 2016, for example, the state of Maine went for Clinton, but in one of Maine’s two congressional districts, Trump had prevailed. Trump thus received one elector, while Clinton received three.
The winner-take-all provision can easily distort the reality of the popular vote. Theoretically, a presidential candidate could lose each of the fifty states and the District of Columbia by a mere one vote (for, say, a total vote count of 64,950,051 to 64,950,000) and end up losing 538–0 in the electoral college. This scenario, of course, is far-fetched, but we saw during the Trump and Clinton election how the winner-take-all system distorted the results. Clinton won nearly three million more popular votes than Trump, but lost in the electoral college by 304 votes to 227.
What is a “battleground” state?
Winner-take-all also means that campaigners may bypass many “safe” states to focus on states that are considered “battlegrounds.” The battleground states—those eight, ten, or perhaps twelve states—are typically toss-ups. Why, for example, would a Republican pour major resources into p. 75↵California, knowing that it is solidly Democratic; or why would a Democratic candidate even bother campaigning in Alabama or Nebraska, which are Republican strongholds? Democratic strategist Peter Fenn in 2012 noted that some 80 percent of the nation’s voters are ignored during campaigns, whereas those living in heavily contested battleground states receive all the media attention and ground activity.5 If you live in battleground Pennsylvania, you know all about the barrage of presidential advertising. If you live in Alabama or in Massachusetts, you rarely see commercials for the candidates, because those states are pretty much locked up: Alabama is reliably Republican; Massachusetts is reliably Democratic.
What was the Democrats’ “Blue Wall”?
The “Blue Wall,” consists of states that are reliably Democratic. Starting with California (55 electors), New York (29), and Illinois (20), Democratic presidential candidates could count on the eighteen states that in the past six presidential elections had all voted Democratic and produced 242 electoral votes. Winning those states would mean Hillary Clinton would need just thirty-eight more electoral votes to win. But in politics, walls often crumble, and they did so in 2016. Before there was a Blue Wall, there was a “Red Wall,” which gave Republicans a strong backup support. Just as Trump shattered the Blue Wall in 2016, Bill Clinton shattered the Red Wall in 1992, capturing 118 of the Red Wall’s 191 electoral votes.6
How close have recent presidential contests been?
Surprisingly, in the past seven presidential elections, only three times did the winning candidate receive more than 50 percent of the vote. As Table 5.2 shows, only George W. Bush, in 2004, and Barack Obama, in 2008 and 2012, received more than 50 percent of the popular vote.
Table 5.2 How Recent Presidential Candidates Have Fared
Winner (Percentage of Popular Vote) and Electoral College Vote
Loser (Percentage of Popular Vote) and Electoral College Vote
Bill Clinton (43.0%), 370
George H. W. Bush (37.4%), 168;
Ross Perot (18.9%), 0
Bill Clinton (49.2%), 379
Bob Dole (40.7%), 159;
Ross Perot (8.4%), 0
George W. Bush (47.9%), 271
Al Gore (48.4%), 266
George W. Bush (50.7%), 286
John Kerry (48.3%), 251
Barack Obama (52.9%), 365
John McCain (45.7%), 173
Barack Obama (51.1%), 332
Mitt Romney (47.2%), 206
Donald Trump (46.1%), 304
Hillary Clinton (48.2%), 227
What about third-party candidates, with no chance of winning, acting as spoilers?
p. 76↵A major reason winning candidates have not reached 50 percent of the popular vote is the presence of third-party candidates on the ballot. Table 5.3 shows the percentage of p. 77↵popular votes that third-party candidates have received in recent elections.
Table 5.3 Third-Party Presidential Candidates, 1992 to 2016
Candidate, Party, Percentage of Popular Vote
H. Ross Perot, independent, 18.9%
H. Ross Perot, Reform, 8.4%
Ralph Nader, Green, 2.7%
Several third-party candidates, totaling 1.0%
Several third-party candidates, totaling 1.4%
Several third-party candidates, totaling 1.74%
Gary Johnson, Libertarian, 3.28%
Jill Stein, Green, 1.10%
Several others, 1.30%
In recent years, there have been candidates for the Libertarian Party, US Taxpayers Party, the Green Party, New Alliance Party, Reform Party, and many others from the fringes. Note that no candidates from these third parties have ever won an electoral vote. Nevertheless, they were able to siphon off popular votes that would have otherwise gone to a Republican or a Democrat. In earlier races, third-party candidates did gain electoral votes—George Wallace (American Independent Party, 1968), 46 votes; Strom Thurmond (Dixiecrat Party, 1948), 39 votes; Robert LaFollette (Progressive Party, 1924), 13 votes; and Theodore Roosevelt (Progressive Party, 1912), 88 votes.
Republicans have long complained that Ross Perot’s 1992 showing robbed George H. W. Bush of a re-election victory; Democrats grumbled that Ralph Nader’s campaign in 2000, especially in Florida, cost Al Gore the victory; Democrats also complained that in 2016, Green Party candidate Jill Stein, who came in fourth, got more votes than the difference between Clinton and Trump in the key states of Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. But supporters of third-party candidates argue that it is their right to vote for whomever they wish, and that the choices offered by the two major parties aren’t acceptable.
How much money is spent in presidential elections? Do the candidates (and their allies) who spend the most money always win?
Modern presidential campaigns are multi-billion-dollar contests. For the 2016 run, the Clinton campaign and its allies spent $1.4 billion, and the Trump campaign and its allies spent $957.6 million. Using the Federal Election Commission data, the Washington Post summed up the money raised for both campaigns:7
Party and joint fundraising
Trump Presidential Campaign, Grand Total: $957.6 million
Party and joint fundraising
$ 79.3 million
It certainly didn’t hurt Trump’s cause that he received at least $2 billion in free advertising as the media followed his every move and reported his every outrageous statement.
The campaign that spends the most money isn’t always the winner. We saw that in 2016, when Clinton’s side spent more than Trump’s side. In 2012, Mitt Romney and his allies spent more than Barack Obama and his allies, but the Obama campaign spent the money more wisely and strategically.
Of course, a considerable amount of money was raised by other candidates who didn’t win their party’s nomination: the biggest spenders in 2016 were Bernie Sanders ($240.6 million), Ted Cruz ($182.8 million), and Marco Rubio ($128.6 million). The biggest bust was former Florida governor Jeb Bush’s bid. The early “smart money” was going to this safe, predictable candidate, and to his super PAC, the Right to Rise. The Bush campaign and super PAC spent $139 million, much more than any other Republican candidate during the early days of the primaries. But Bush was able to gather a measly four delegates, an investment of $34.75 million per delegate.
Jeb Bush wasn’t the only presidential candidate that year who spent a bundle of money and got little to show for it. Business executive Carly Fiorina spent $25.9 million on her campaign, and gathered just one delegate. Former Arkansas p. 79↵governor Mike Huckabee, running again for the presidential nomination, spent $9.14 million and gained just one delegate. Wisconsin governor Scott Walker ($40.9 million) and former Texas governor Rick Perry ($15.4 million) both dropped out four months before the first primary. Donald Trump was far more efficient in 2016: during the primaries, he spent $76.9 million, a lot of it out of his own pocket, and gathered 1,543 delegates, a cost of around $50,000 per delegate.
What kinds of reforms have been suggested for our lengthy primary and caucus season?
For years, political party officials, good-government groups, and political scientists have been writing about reforming the primary and caucus system.8 There are many things to complain about: there is a lengthy pre-primary stage, sometimes a year long, when candidates traipse around the country and participate in contrived televised debates. The system is not uniform throughout the states: it involves very few voters, and the nominating process can be over before most states have participated. In sum, the primary and caucus system is complicated, undemocratic, expensive, and exhausting.
Some have suggested regional primaries. For example, let all the New England and Northeastern states have their primaries on the same day, then two weeks later, all the southern states, then two weeks after that, all the Western states, then the Midwestern states, and then the Mountain states. In the next presidential cycle, rotate the regional primaries. Over the past several cycles, some southern states have held their primaries on the same day, called Super Tuesday. They have done this hoping to draw more attention to their region of the country.
Why not hold a national primary? For example, on a given day, all Republicans throughout the country would have a chance to chose from among the five candidates running for president from their party. Democratic hopefuls and those p. 80↵from smaller parties would do the same: conduct national primaries for their candidates. If no Republican (or Democrat) receives the majority of votes, a runoff election could be held the following week.
How about rotating the primary calendar? Let California, or Texas, or New York go first instead of Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina. After all, those three big states represent 122 electoral votes, whereas the current first three states represent just nineteen votes.
With every suggested reform come objections. For example, a national primary would favor the well-known candidates, who usually have amassed large amounts of money. Well-qualified but not very well-known candidates would be swept aside. A national primary would also mean a campaign based on expensive television ads and consultants. It’s a lot better, some would say, to have the candidates conduct retail campaigning—that is, show up at peoples’ homes, coffee shops, and local gatherings to give voters a real chance to take their measure. You simply can’t do all that with a national, or even regional, campaign calendar.
People and politicians complain, but there doesn’t seem to be any groundswell of support for making fundamental changes. There doesn’t seem to be any major reforms coming in the foreseeable future, not from within the national and state parties or from federal or state law. So what the Democratic Party put in place in the early 1970s—an expansion of primary and caucus states—seems to be the new normal, for both major political parties. Like it or not, our presidential campaign calendar will remain eighteen months to two years long!
Why don’t we just have a nationwide election where whoever gets the most votes wins, and not worry about the electoral college vote?
If we haven’t done something about the electoral college, it’s not for a lack of trying. The US National Archives and Records p. 81↵Administration noted that there have been more than seven hundred attempts in Congress to change or abolish the electoral college system, and none of them have gone anywhere.9 These are the biggest stumbling blocks: how difficult it is to amend the federal Constitution and the rising popular resistance to reform. For nearly fifty years of polling, the Gallup Poll found that well over half the population wanted to get rid of the electoral college. But after the 2016 election, that number sharply constricted, and just 49 percent of respondents said they want to get rid of the current system. Not surprisingly, given the results, far more Democrats (81 percent) than Republicans (19 percent) want to do away with the electoral college system.10
How about a straight popular vote? It sounds so simple: forget state boundaries, forget the electoral college, don’t worry about faithless electors, no need to focus on battleground states. Just let people vote: whichever candidate gets the highest number of votes wins. If, in the future, we are so splintered that there are five or six viable candidates, then require that the winner receive 50 percent of the vote. And if that candidate can’t reach 50 percent, then have a runoff the next week between the top two candidates.
You’d think that Republicans would like this idea: the 3,916,209 Republican votes in the 2016 California presidential race would have had all counted, and those votes wouldn’t have been wasted under the winner-take-all system. Same thing for Democrats: their 3,877,868 votes in Texas would have counted, not been nullified by the winner-take-all system.
But you can see the opposition. California Democrats would say, why give Republicans these votes? Texas Republicans would say the same thing, why reward Democrats in our state? (How undemocratic is that sentiment—don’t count the other guy’s vote!) In the current system, the losing side gets zero electoral votes. Small states would probably complain the most. Wyoming, Alaska, Delaware, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Montana—all have just one US representative, p. 82↵but add to that their two US senators each, and these small-population states now have a little bit more than they should. The smaller, rural states would complain that the densely populated big cities would have an advantage over them.
Moving to a national popular vote (as originally suggested by James Wilson) would require an amendment to the Constitution. It’s possible, but enough political interests that have some sort of leverage in our current system would fight it tooth and nail.
What is the idea of a national popular-vote compact?
One recent idea, the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, has been considered in several states. It would fix the electoral college problem without requiring a constitutional amendment. It would make electors pledge to support the winner of the national popular vote, regardless of how the state they live in voted. For example, suppose that in 2024, a Democrat wins the popular vote nationwide, but the Republican candidate wins in Florida, and Republican electors are chosen. If Florida had joined the compact, those Republican electors would be obligated to vote for the Democrat who won the nationwide vote, even if that meant going against all their partisan instincts. As of May 2019, the compact has been endorsed by fourteen states and the District of Columbia (with 189 electoral votes) and is being considered in several state legislatures. It won’t be an easy task. The compact would still need 81 electoral votes in order to reach the majority, 270.
Even if the compact were put into place, we can easily imagine the intense partisan pressure—especially in our deeply divided times—for those electors to refuse to abide by its terms. Using our Florida example, suppose that the Republican electors from Florida refuse to go along and do not vote for the nationwide winner. This would be a new version of the “faithless” elector.
p. 83↵Support has come mostly from Democratic-controlled states, but there is also some Republican support. But legislatures in Florida, Texas, and Virginia haven’t even considered the measure. Thus it may have a chance, or it could die on the vine like so many other attempts to change our method of electing a president.