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What is an election?

An election is the process whereby American citizens select people they want to represent them in the government.

Why do we have elections?

By having elections, we secure our freedom and liberty. We are free to choose whomever we want to run the government for us. In this way, we are assured that no one will have any undue influence over our lives.

How are election campaigns financed?

Until the 1970's, election campaigns were financed almost entirely by business organizations, labor unions, and interested parties. During the 1970's, several Federal Election Campaign Acts were passed which created a new system of election campaign financing. This new system was based upon three principles:

  1. Public funding of presidential elections

  2. Limitations on the amounts candidates could spend on their campaigns

  3. Public disclosure of how much candidates spend to get elected

Presidential candidates have the option of accepting federal funding for their campaigns. This money comes with strings attached, however. If they accept this money, then they are limited in how much they may spend. In 1992, major party candidates received $55.2 million. Third party candidates can also receive federal funding if they have received 5% or more of the popular vote in either the previous or current election.

Under federal election law, candidates, their campaign organizers, and their political parties must keep records of contributions and report all contributions of $100 or more to the FEC.

Even though candidates received over fifty million dollars, average spending for presidential candidates was an estimated $290 million. The difference comes from campaign contributions, indirect campaign financing by special interest groups, and their own wealth.

Under the new campaign finance laws, business organizations and labor unions were prohibited from making direct contributions. Individuals may contribute up to $1000 to any candidates primary or general election campaign.

The new laws also encouraged the growth of PACs. An individual may contribute up to $5000 to a PAC, and the PAC in turn can donate as many candidates as it wants. However, a PAC may not donate more than $5000 to any single candidate.

How are election campaigns planned?

To be elected President of the United States, a candidate must win 270 of the 538 total electoral votes. The number of electoral votes a state has is directly proportional to its population. Each state gets one electoral vote for each of its representatives.

Since a candidate must win a majority of the electoral votes, it only makes sense that the candidate concentrate their efforts on the largest states. The ten largest states make up 257 votes.

A presidential candidate must make many decisions for his campaign in order to succeed. Should he/she wage a character attack on his opponent, or is low-key the way to go? What kind of themes/slogans does he/she need? What issues need to be focused on? How much money should be spent to on media advertising?

Since so many factors must be accounted for during a presidential campaign, a candidate must have a campaign organization with many volunteers who can help the candidate make key strategic decisions. The top man in the organization is the campaign manager. At the state and local levels, the state party chairperson takes charge of the campaign.

The campaign manager is responsible for the overall planning and strategy of the campaign. He/she looks after all the issues, then approves and coordinates tasks with the people working for him/her. In addition to the manager, other individuals at the national level handle media relations, financing and advertising. They also create survey polls, information brochures, and other campaign material.

The state party chairperson oversees tasks at the state and local levels. His/her job is to coordinate the actions of the individuals working for him/her. Local party officials and field workers meet the voters, plan and carry out rallies for their candidate, and distribute literature. They make up the most personal level of the campaign management.

What factors influence a person's candidate choice?

Four major factors influence voter decisions:

  1. The voter's personal background

  2. Loyalty to a political party

  3. Campaign issues

  4. The candidate's image

A person's background has a lot to do with how they will vote, however it is by no means a definite indicator. Background includes things such as age, upbringing, family, income level, occupation, and general outlook on life.

One example from an occupational standpoint deals with two individuals. One of the two is a wealthy businessman while the other is a construction worker. Since the Republican Party most often aides business interests, the businessman is more likely to vote for a Republican candidate. The construction worker on the other hand is more likely to favor the Democrats and their views on labor unions.

People's backgrounds may or may not influence them to vote the way one would expect. For example, a Catholic person (religious influence) is more likely to vote for a Democrat, but suppose that person was also a wealthy business executive. Business people generally vote Republican. In this instance, we cannot be certain which way the person will vote. This person would be known as a cross-pressured voter.

Party loyalty also comes into play when looking at the factors which influence candidate choice. Most people in America identify with either the Republican Party or the Democratic Party, and often they choose to vote for the candidate that is of that party.

Not all voters who consider themselves a Democrat or a Republican vote for their respective candidates. Party loyalty is a continuum and varies from person to person. Strong party voters usually vote straight-ticket and do not pay attention to the issues or the candidates. Weak party voters are more inclined to examine the issues and candidates and make the choice that best suits them personally, irrespective of their political party.

In addition to strong and weak party voters, there are also independent voters. The number of independent voters has increased over the years so that now they can hold the key to the white house. Experts believe that more and more people will become independent voters in the future and that presidential candidates will no longer be able to rely on party loyalty.

Even though many voters are not well-informed about the issues surrounding a presidential campaign, people today know a great deal more than those in earlier time periods. This change was brought around by three factors:

  1. The introduction of television into American homes

  2. Better education

  3. Current problems have greater impact than did problems in the past

The most recent example of campaign issue concerns is from the 1980 election. Ronald Reagan used the economic decline of the seventies to get elected. He asked voters on a nationally televised debate, "Are you better off than you were four years ago?" The answer from most Americans was a resounding NO. With his focus on the economic issues, many voters that voted for Jimmy Carter four years ago switched to Reagan.

The final factor which influences voter decision is the image a candidate projects. People choose a President who they believe they can trust as a national leader. In 1964 Lyndon B. Johnson projected an image of peace while his opponent Barry Goldwater projected an image of leading America into war.

Many voters in 1988 voted against Michael Dukakis as he was thought inadequate to handle the nations problems. This led to the election of George Bush in his place. President Harry S. Truman may have said it best in these immortal words:

"Being a president is like riding a tiger. A man has to keep riding it or be swallowed. . . . A president is either constantly on top of events or, if he hesitates, events will soon be on top of him."

These pages are Copyright (C) 1999 John D. Ratliff
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