The American Panorama
The personal Presidency
James M. Burns, noted presidential scholar, has categorized presidents in three ways according to how each enacts policy: Madisonian: The President is mainly an administrator and relies on Congress to lead in setting policy; Hamiltonian: He or she should be above partisanship and rely on the Constitution and public opinion for support. The President should lead in all areas and ignore Congress if necessary; Jeffersonian: The President should lead through his or her party, like a Prime Minister in a parliamentary system. The party, influenced and led by the President, sets policy, and the President assists the party with getting their platform enacted. Arthur Schlesinger theorized his own model of the modern presidency. Concerned about too much power centering on the President, Schlesinger coined the term The Imperial Presidency in his book of that name.
The Constitution says nothing about the personal presidency; it defines the office. The President has two types of power: the formal or “delegated” powers laid down by the Constitution; and inherent powers that flow from the former. For instance, as Commander-in-Chief the President can make war, while the Congress can declare war. (Actually the US has not declared war since World War II. War Resolutions have been passed after the war began.) On paper the Congress appears much more powerful than the presidency, having 17 delegated powers; the framers intended that the Congress should be more powerful, although it would take longer to reach decisions. As well, the Congress thinks nationally but often acts locally because local interests have to be satisfied in order for national legislation to pass. The Constitution balances efficiency against limited power because Americans originally, as mostly now, preferred inefficient government to a powerful one.
There had been no Executive under the Articles of Confederation, which preceded the Constitution from 1775 to 1789, because the Founders feared creating a monarchy. The President has to lead a people who dislike being led. Thus the President has to know what the people want before they know what they want. What the people generally want is leadership, guidance and reassurance. The President, says Arthur Sanders, must provide a vision and an agenda (Making Sense of Politics). In this situation, the presidency has to make up for the deficiencies of the Constitution. Theodore Roosevelt said that unless the Constitution said he could not do something, then he could, and it was a short step to saying that if he could do something, then he should. Some Presidents act as leaders, others as managers. Coolidge was a managerial President. When asked what was his greatest achievement as President, he said that he had left the office as he found it. Leaders are creative, risk-takers, entrepreneurs, change-makers. A presidency may work through “transformational leadership”, in which the President and colleagues learn collectively. This was very much the case with the Kennedy Administration. Kennedy had left Harvard with a “C” but he knew his weaknesses and assembled around him a gallery of top talents. Nixon by contrast thought he could do it all and was surprised when he became unpopular. Franklin Roosevelt (FDR) ran a personal presidency and under him the role of the office expanded so much that it was necessary to create the Executive Office of the President, housed in the now famous Executive Office Building. To be a successful President today, the holder of the office must excel in several ways. He or she must be a good communicator, as Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton were. This includes looking good and projecting a good image, in a word, charismatic. It also includes having a mastery of the media. FDR pioneered the weekly radio “fireside chats” that all his successors have also used. The ugly Abraham Lincoln would have failed on TV. Presidents also have to persuade Congress, since they cannot command, and to do that they have to keep their hand on the pulse of public opinion. They must also be decisive but willing to admit their mistakes. Americans, as the fall of Nixon showed, are intolerant of attempts to hide wrongdoing.
The office of President has evolved considerably since 1789 as various Presidents have confronted issues that were not envisaged by the Founders or referred to in the Constitution. Indeed, the personalities of Presidents have greatly affected their performance and have played a significant role in their success or failure. In his book Presidential Character, James David Barber classifies presidents from Taft to Bush according to a matrix of four factors: Active or Passive in personality; Positive or Negative about being President. The best combination according to him is Active/Positive, as in the case of FDR; the worst is Active/Negative, as in the case of Nixon, who was paranoid about people trying to undermine him. Woodrow Wilson and Lyndon Johnson also fell into that category. The thesis of Barber’s book is that events define or identify the character of a President because the office is inescapably personal.
Electing the President
Only a person who is over 35 and was born in the US can run for President. For that reason, well qualified candidates like Henry Kissinger and Arnold Schwarzenegger, Governor of California, have been ineligible. Until Senator Barack Obama, a black man (although not a descendant of slaves), was elected in 2008, only white men had become President. Previously Geraldine Ferraro had run for Vice-President on Walter Mondale’s Democratic ticket in 1984 but was defeated by George H.W. Bush, who was running on Ronald Reagan’s (re-election) Republican ticket. John F. Kennedy in 1960 was the first Roman Catholic President. Before that, it had been widely feared that a Catholic would put loyalty to the Pope, the head of the Catholic church, before his duty as President. Joe Biden is the first Catholic Vice-President. Since President Eisenhower (1952-1960), candidates have been well-known political figures such as governors of states or members of Congress. Eisenhower was drafted (selected) for the Republican Party’s nomination because of his national popularity as leader of the US and Allied forces in Europe in World War II. The campaign song devised for him like an advertising jingle might sound childishly simple today: “I like Ike. You like Ike. Everybody likes Ike.” This slogan was effective because Americans believe that a President should not only be a good leader but a sincere and honest person. Similarly, because he was so successful at giving the impression that he was a “good guy”, President Clinton was widely popular despite his personal conduct. His reply to a woman’s appeal for help during an election meeting, “I feel your pain” has become one of the classic sayings of American politics. By contrast, President Nixon, who contributed so much to US-China relations, for example, had problems at home with the public perception that he was dishonest, even before the Watergate scandal of 1974.
But amidst almost universal admiration for American democracy, the question remains whether the American system even these days is more of an oligarchy. What effective role does democracy play in the selection and election of leaders and legislators? How far are elections actually controlled by a small class of rich people, with the campaigning merely an entertainment for the masses? If so, how open is the oligarchy to newcomers to join? How are leaders who are born to parents who are not members of the oligarchy co-opted to it? President Eisenhower’s family were poor; President Nixon’s father was for a time a bus conductor; President Clinton’s parents, though middle class, were not rich. Similarly President Obama’s middle class family was not rich by American standards; and he is black. A link between them was that they all studied and practiced law. The Constitution, unlike in a Parliamentary system where Parliament can generally amend the constitution by legislation, is a system of principles and precedents that need to be continually reapplied to changing circumstances. Thus the link between law and politics in America is stronger than elsewhere and the practice of law is a highway to political leadership. But many other factors such as personality, wealth, party organization, trade unions, the media, background and chance are involved. But the significant proportion of well-educated lawyers among America’s political leadership is striking.
The primary campaign
Presidents are elected in every fourth even year and candidates begin seeking their parties’ nominations at least two years ahead. Early in election year, the parties choose their nominee through a series of primary elections (primaries) or caucuses. The timing, manner and method of these elections is not laid down by the Constitution but is left to the states. This is because the framers of the Constitution could not agree on how the states should elect to the newly-created federal government. Originally House Representatives were elected by property-owners i.e., white men. The Senate was appointed by the states until the 17th Amendment (1913). The primaries elect delegates pledged to vote for a particular candidate at the party convention (selection conference) that summer. At caucuses, members gather and hear speeches and engage in discussion before voting for a candidate. The numbers at each local caucus can be quite small and the atmosphere relatively informal. The majority of candidates today are selected in primaries. To vote in a primary or caucus, a person must be a member of that party, although some states allow registered Independents to vote in primaries. In a Modified Open primary, voters registered to a party may only select candidates of that party, but Independents may choose candidates from either party. Party memberships are fluid and voters sometimes switch; it has even been known for voters to take part in one party’s primary but vote for the other party’s candidate come the election. A good start to the primaries is considered vital if a candidate is to become a party’s presidential nominee, although George W Bush bucked this trend in 2000.
Since 1952 the first primary election has traditionally been in New Hampshire, which has a state law that it always be first, but in recent polls, Iowa, a Mid-Western farm state, has voted first (January 3 in 2008). This is the first real test of opinion and receives a great deal of publicity from the media. As a result a number of other states have brought their primaries forward. In particular around 20 mostly Southern states have decided to hold their primaries on the same day on what has become known as “Super Tuesday.” Originally this was on March 8, 1988, but it is now usually held on the second Tuesday of March, although it was held on March 5 in 2008.
Primaries and caucuses began to be more important in 1972, when the Democratic Party mandated that henceforth its delegates be selected in caucuses or open primaries. They did so to take power away from the state chairs, mayors and political bosses who had supported President Johnson and the Vietnam War. Until then, big states like Ohio had waited until June, but some Democratic primaries have now been brought forward to February 5. Indeed, in 2008 some states, notably Michigan and Florida, broke the rules about the dates of their primaries and the parties threatened to bar all or some of their delegates from the convention. The argument of the big states was that they were more representative because they had more cities and larger and more diverse populations. In rebuttal, the small states pointed to the fact that their voters follow the campaign closely and ask the candidates smart, tough questions. In 2008 there were 14 primaries on February 5 (and seven caucuses). Many believe that holding so many primaries early does not give time to weed out those candidates who look good early but fade under pressure (Edmund Muskie 1972, Gary Hart 1984). There is little prospect for change because the in-fighting which would be entailed in negotiating it would be too great for the politicians to stomach.
The word “caucus” comes from the Native People of America and means “to gather together and make a great noise”. A caucus is a series of party meetings at every level of party organization within a state: wards, precincts, districts and counties. At each level, party members vote for delegates who will take their opinions on the choice of presidential candidate forward to the next level. Ultimately the state conventions choose the delegates to the national convention. Caucus meetings tend to be dominated by party activists who are sufficiently committed to the party’s cause to take part in each stage. Supporters of the caucus system believe that it leads to the best candidate being selected. However, meetings are closed (i.e., not opened up to anyone other than a party member) and historically they were linked to a small group of men in Congress and in state legislatures who selected party candidates for national and state office including presidential candidates. This system of electing a presidential nominee is becoming less and less popular as it puts a great deal of power in the hands of local party bosses, and the fear is that the beliefs of the people themselves at local level are not necessarily listened to. As a result of this apparent lack of democracy, fewer and fewer states are using this type of selection. In 1980, 25% of the delegates to the national conventions (coming from 18 states) were voted for in this way. The figure has continued to shrink. In 2008 the Democrats held caucuses in only 15 states plus some dependencies and Democrats Abroad, electing 15% of the delegates. The Democratic convention also included a number of superdelegates, party leaders and officials. Their votes proved decisive between Senator Obama and Senator Hillary Clinton. The Republicans held 17 caucuses and a few conventions, electing 18% of the delegates.
This system allows a broader range of voters to express their views on who should represent the party at the next election. Consequently, primaries, in contrast to caucuses, tend to reduce the effect of party activists in selecting candidates for national office, and activists in primary states are often more involved in choosing candidates for local office. In some primaries, people do not even have to be party members to vote, although the Democratic Party rules state that voters must have publicly identified themselves with the party. There are a number of different types of primary.
Closed primaries offer a greater degree of participation than caucuses in that voting is not confined to party members. Those voters who have declared an affiliation to a party are allowed to participate in that party’s primary. This declaration can literally be made as the voter enters the polling office with a statement that s/he voted for the party at the last election and wishes to vote in this primary.
Open primaries allow even greater participation. The voters of a state, regardless of their party affiliation, can participate in either party’s primary but not both. The advantage of this system is that it allows the most popular candidate to be put forward, one who will have appeal across party lines. But the highly democratic nature of this system is open to abuse, as in the past there have been cases where supporters of one party have voted at the other party’s primary, though not at their own, and have voted for the worst candidate. Yet 29 states use this system.
Blanket primaries offer the widest possible participation. Voters are allowed to vote in both primary elections of the parties i.e., at both the Republican and Democrat primaries. States vary in the way they allocate primary delegates to the presidential candidates. Some primaries use the “winner-take-all” system (WTA) whereby the candidate who wins the most votes statewide at a primary gets all of the delegates. The alternative system is the proportional representation primary (PR) which allocates delegates in proportion to the number of votes they received. The Democrats have used PR since 1969 in an effort to increase the voice of minority groups and to broaden the appeal of candidates. However in recent years the party has used WTA in larger primaries, and some of the larger states favor such a system as they feel that WTA increases their power over the nomination. The Republicans in California have a unique and complex way of allocating the delegates, in order to ensure a balanced representation for the various parts of that large and widely divergent state. Some primaries are called advisory primaries, as the elected delegates to the national convention do not have to follow the views of the voters and are free to follow their own preference for presidential candidate. However, the voters have expressed their advice – hence the title – on the ballot paper. Other primaries are called mandatory primaries or binding primaries, as the views of the voters with regard to the presidential candidate are binding and the delegates at the national convention cast their votes accordingly. However, this was successfully challenged in 1981 when the Supreme Court declared in Democratic Party v La Follette that a state could not force a delegate to a national convention to support the winner of his/her state’s presidential primary. Nowadays the conventions are largely symbolic and serve as the media launch of each campaign.
The primaries timetable is negotiated between states, as primaries are valuable publicity opportunities for small states. Candidates fight hard in the early primaries to get voter recognition and build a momentum, a bandwagon effect, that makes them seem unbeatable and makes their opponents and their supporters, especially their financial backers, give up. As the races take place, it becomes clear which candidate is the strongest. The platform of policies that candidates will advocate in their campaigns is decided at the conventions.
Since 1976 there has been a strong trend to move the primaries to the early part of the year (“front-loading”) and the trend shows no signs of abating. Yet almost everyone including academics, newspaper editorialists and most candidates is opposed to it. The general argument against front-loading claims that the real losers under the new calendar are not the candidates but the electorate. Front-loading reduces the time between nomination events and increases the number of multi-event days. As major states move their primaries to early February to maximize their influence, the voters are subjected to a barrage of 30-second TV and radio advertising spots and fleeting glimpses on the news of the candidates’ motorcades as they race to the nearest airport in what are known as “tarmac campaigns.” (Tarmac refers to the airport runways.) This type of campaign is arguably ill equipped to inform voters about what the candidates stand for. Voters receive their information from the media advertisements and have little time to process the news about one event before the next occurs. Many candidates will be eliminated from the field before voters have time to learn about them.
The absence of substantive information about the candidates has two potential consequences. The first is that voters may be unable to express their interests through their vote, instead casting ballots on the basis of non-political considerations, such as the candidate’s appearance or what the voter thought of the candidate’s advertising. This prospect is far from the democratic ideal. The second consequence of a campaign that fails to inform the primary electorate is that disparities in voter knowledge across candidates may be exacerbated. A non-informative campaign probably did not hurt well-known candidates like Rudy Giuliani or Hillary Clinton in 2008 because voters would already have learned a lot about him or her. But such a campaign also makes it impossible for lesser-known candidates to spread their messages, leaving them at a distinct disadvantage. Voters are likely to cast their ballots for the candidate with whom they are familiar, regardless of whether that candidate’s policy proposals best match their political predispositions. Such a shortened, crowded primary schedule gives a huge advantage to those who can raise the most money, have high name recognition or are the preferred choice of party insiders. Should candidates for the most powerful office on Earth be chosen in a few chaotic weeks, critics ask?
Scholars commonly speak of the “nomination campaign”, and they often treat it as one national campaign. But in truth the primary calendar is composed of a series of separate, though not completely independent, campaigns. Indeed, the Republican primary in California is more like 53 separate District campaigns because of the way the party’s delegates are chosen. Yet the implication of front-loading is that primary races may effectively be over before mid-March, suggesting that nominees now are chosen on the basis of non-political factors. In the 2008 Democratic primary season, however, the contest between Senator Obama and Senator Clinton went on until mid-June. Those who object to front-loading assume that in the traditional primary season, where the primaries were more drawn-out, the candidates would head to Ohio, for example, introduce themselves to the voters there, and Ohioans would be just as informed about them at the time they voted as New Hampshire voters at the time they voted weeks earlier. The evidence, though, does not support the belief that voters were better informed in former times than they are today.
Front-loading may not have reduced the amount of time candidates have to campaign (and the amount of time voters have to process the messages they receive). A detailed study by Travis N. Ridout of the University of Wisconsin of four elections between 1976 and 2000 concludes that the alleged negative effects of front-loading are not borne out by analysis of the available data.
Although candidates are usually nominated by the Democrats or Republicans, there are a few “third parties” such as the Green Party, the Libertarian Party and the Communist Party. Their candidates only attract about 2% of the vote, if that. It is also possible to run as an individual with an ad hoc campaign team as Lyndon H. LaRouche and Harold Stassen did in the past. In 2000 Ralph Nader, the consumer rights champion, did so, as did Pat Buchanan, TV journalist, author and former speechwriter for President Nixon, who ran on an anti-immigration platform. Such candidates can either organize petitions in each state to get their names put on the ballot, or run write-in campaigns, asking voters to write their names on the ballot paper. Write-in votes are sometimes used to register a protest by writing ridiculous names on the ballot paper. Third party candidates have been unsuccessful in modern times for three main reasons: they lack resources, the other parties steal their issues, and voters think they cannot win and a vote for a third party is wasted. Even so Ross Perot polled around 20% in 1992 when Americans were frustrated with the gridlock in Washington politics. Currently another factor working against third party candidates is what political scientist John Kenneth White calls the “values divide”. This, even more than economics (“pocketbook issues”) is polarizing voters into two camps.
The Presidential campaign
Presidential candidates spend hundreds of millions of dollars on campaigning, mostly on TV, newspaper and poster advertising. It is estimated that the two parties together spent $1billion on the 2008 election. In recent elections, the candidate with the biggest campaign “war chest” (funds) was the winner. The money is raised by the parties at fundraising events, through appeals and increasingly by candidates themselves over the internet. Even billionaire Independent, Ross Perot, was not successful, nor did wealthy Steve Forbes, proprietor of Forbes magazine, win the Republican nomination in 2000, and nor did multi-millionaire Mitt Romney win the Republican nomination in 2008. There is also Federal funding available in equal amounts for both parties, but if a party receives Federal funding it cannot accept money from other sources. In practice, the parties raise so much money themselves that they can forgo Federal funding and thus evade the effective cap on spending that a Federally-funded election would impose.
Party loyalties, party organization, personality and tradition are key factors in elections as well as money. Candidates criss-cross the country holding rallies, making speeches and meeting voters (“pressing the flesh.”) Even so, there have been complaints that election campaigns are just a circus lacking any real interaction between candidates and voters. This is a particular grievance of many smaller states (the “fly over” states). But the Electoral College system puts a premium on the 16 larger “must win” states such as California, New York, Texas and Florida. In some New England states the old tradition of town meetings has been revived for candidates to get into closer contact with voters. A popular candidate may make speeches in favor of candidates from the same party seeking lower offices so that they can benefit from the coattail effect. In the last few weeks of the campaign, staff, who are often volunteers, man banks of phones, and actually go to voters’ homes to ask them to vote. These Get Out the Vote drives have become extremely sophisticated. The parties do market research and target voters with the demographic characteristics which seem most favorable to them. They do this because Americans are only interested in one or two issues at any one time, and because modern computer databases make profiling and targeting possible. Also, the parties need to tailor their messages because at least one-third of the voters are not registered with either party but are Independents. Karl Rove, the campaign strategist for President Bush, is acknowledged as the pioneer of this technique. According to pollster John Zogby, the characteristic which best predicts voting behavior is whether or not the voter goes to church.
American Presidential elections are the longest in the world. Effectively they start the day after the previous election and hence last four years. They are dominated by media coverage, primarily television, and by the results of polls, principally those of the Roper, Harris and Gallup organizations. The intensive use of TV and other media for advertising makes American elections enormously expensive, and fund raising is perhaps even more important for the candidates than the campaigning itself, since the candidate with more money, and hence more advertising, tends to win. Does this mean that American Presidential elections are bought, and hence rigged by special interests? Many Americans suspect so. Fortunately the competitive nature of the political system, freedom of information, and freedom of media comment counterbalance the effects of advertising to some extent, but many Americans are worried about the health of their electoral system, and question whether it discourages good candidates from running. In any case, since the President cannot guarantee that Congress will pass any particular piece of legislation, money tends to buy access and the opportunity to influence rather than directly affect the process of government. Another effect of the predominance of television is that the voters’ choices are made much more on the perceived personalities of the candidates and their positions on particular issues, not only economic management such as taxes but also on cultural “hot button” issues such as gun control, abortion and immigration. Thus personal and single-issue factors overshadow the party policy platforms voted on at the nominating conventions, although it is those that the party’s representatives will pursue in Congress. Because the voters’ personal preferences are diverse and changeable, the role of television has been to make election campaigns more volatile and the statements of the candidates more bland, as they seek not to offend Independents while reassuring their base. It is Independents, typically aged 18 – 26 and socially more liberal, who decide elections. A third major effect of television campaigning has been to make candidates the mouthpieces of their handlers – speech writers, media consultants, psephologists, consultants – rather than independently-operating public servants. Even the televised “debates” (three presidential and one vice-presidential) are scripted and rehearsed; the questions, format and studio presentation are negotiated between the candidates’ teams and the television station in advance. The debates have little influence. They tend to confirm what the viewers already think rather than change their minds.
The election takes place on the Tuesday following the first Monday in November. This date was fixed around 1800 when most people lived in the country and there was little work to do on the farms in November and the weather was good enough to travel to a town or city to vote. Even today, because many Americans are disinclined to vote, the weather can have an impact on turnout. The Democrats tend to benefit from good weather and higher turnout, the Republicans from the reverse. After the election the President-elect goes to Washington to take the oath of office and give the Inaugural Address setting out the key themes for his or her administration. Then follows a parade along Pennsylvania Avenue, the road that connects the White House and the Capitol and passes the FBI, Federal Trade Commission, Commerce Department and the Treasury. In the evening the Inaugural Ball takes place at the White House. Some weeks before the Inauguration, if the President-elect is new to office, transition teams are appointed by the President-elect and the outgoing President to ensure an orderly handover of power. Between the election and Inauguration an outgoing President has little power and is called a lame duck.
Under the Voting Rights Act (1965), all Americans over the age of 18 who have been resident in the US for one year have the right to vote without the need for property qualifications or to pass a literacy test. Previously some Southern states such as Mississippi had imposed a poll tax as a qualification, while Alabama had imposed a literacy test on blacks which had unreasonable questions. Even so only about half of Americans vote in Presidential elections, even fewer in other elections.
A few weeks before the poll, voters receive a card telling the address of the polling station where they should go to vote, usually a school or church hall. Voting is voluntary. People who will be away on election day or who are ill may use an absentee ballot and post it to officials. Polling stations are open from early morning until night. Voters first have to sign their name in a book that lists all the voters in that precinct (small local area). Voters usually vote in a voting booth that has three sides with a curtain that closes the entrance. In the booth are lists of candidates for each office. Voters pull down a metal lever beside the name of the person they want to vote for. The levers operate mechanical counters that record the number of votes for each candidate. It is possible to vote for all the candidates from one party, and this is called voting a straight ticket, But many voters choose candidates from both parties, for example, one for national and one for local office, and vote a split ticket.
Sometimes there are complaints that there are not enough staff on duty at the polling stations and voters have to wait in line for hours to cast their vote. In Florida and elsewhere too there have also been complaints about inefficient voting machines. It took weeks and numerous court hearings to determine the result in Florida in 2000 and hence confirm the outcome of the national election. Generally, however, the voting goes smoothly and complaints are few. One reason is that in such big electorates, the numbers are so large that even small percentage differences in popularity between candidates yield clear cut results with numerical majorities too large to be affected by problems at individual polling stations. The Help America Vote Act 2002 provided funds for states to buy or lease new voting machines. These are optical scan or direct recording electronic technology (touch screen), replacing the gear-and-lever and Votomatic punch card machines which have been used since around 1960. Better communication with voters, especially posters and signage, have been introduced through the Design for Democracy project. Optically read paper ballots have also been introduced in about one-third of voting districts. Voters can mark their ballots at home and drop them off at designated points. Since 2000 all voting in Oregon has been conducted by mail.
Journalists and pollsters are allowed to ask people how they voted and these exit polls help predict election results. However, the results of exit polls may not be announced until polling stations have closed everywhere in case they influence the results. In the past, Western states such as California complained that news of results in Eastern states hours earlier had discouraged Western voters from going to the polls.
The percentage of people voting has been declining since the 1960s and is a matter of concern, but no effective remedy has yet been found. One of the reasons is that people have to re-register to vote when they move to another state, which happens quite often in America’s mobile society. A solution that has been effective in some areas is voter registration drives, where supporters of one of the parties or of a candidate call people and offer to help them register. In some places voter registration forms are available in locations such as fast food restaurants. In general, though, Americans tend to believe that voting is only one means of exerting political influence. Besides there is currently a climate of disillusion, even cynicism, about the political process. The turnout of 56.8% in 2008 was the highest since 1968.
The Electoral College
The President and Vice-President are actually chosen by the Electoral College, a method peculiar to the American system created by the 12th Amendment to the Constitution in 1804 after the House of Representatives had had to act to resolve a tie between Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr in 1800. The Electoral College at present comprises 538 representatives who are elected from each state and the District of Columbia. The electors in each state are equal in number to the number of senators and representatives that state has in Congress. Thus, although the people vote for the candidates by name, they are actually voting for representatives in the Electoral College. The Electoral College never meets as a body. Instead, the electors in each state gather in their state capital on the first Monday after the second Wednesday in December and cast their votes for the candidate with the largest number of popular votes in their state. (In theory, they could vote for someone else, but this has never happened. In practice, each party has a slate of electors who, if their party’s candidate is elected, cast their state’s votes for him/her.) Maine and Nebraska award two electoral votes to the statewide winner and one electoral vote to the winner of each Congressional district. Neither state had split electoral votes between candidates as a result of this system in modern elections until 2008, when Barack Obama received one electoral vote by winning Nebraska’s 2nd congressional district. The Secretary of State transmits the results to Washington, where they are formally recorded in a ceremony in the Senate presided over by the Vice-President. In theory, the legislature of each state determines who the electors should be. This might have been put into practice by the Florida legislature in 2000 when the state Republican leadership made it clear that if the disputed procedures for recounting the votes in some counties resulted in a statewide majority for the Democratic candidate, Al Gore, the legislature, where they had a majority, would nevertheless elect Republican electors to the Electoral College and thus determine the outcome of the Presidential election. In the event, the Republican candidate, George W. Bush, was declared the winner of the popular vote by 537 votes (a tiny margin in American elections) and a potential constitutional crisis was thereby avoided.
To be successful, a candidate for the presidency must receive 270 electoral votes. The Constitution stipulates that if no candidate has a majority, the decision shall be made by the House of Representatives, with all members from a state voting as a unit. In this event, each state and the District of Columbia would be allotted one vote only. Thus the large states would lose their numerical advantage. The procedure has only been used once, in 1824, when although Andrew Jackson had the most votes, but not a majority, in the Electoral College, the House of Representatives elected John Quincy Adams. In the 2000 election, because of the dispute over the result in Florida, there was speculation that it might have to be “thrown to the House.”
From time to time, a President elected in the Electoral College has won only a minority of the popular vote: John Quincy Adams 1824, Abraham Lincoln 1860, Rutherford B. Hayes 1876, Benjamin Harrison 1888, Woodrow Wilson 1912, Harry S. Truman 1948, George W. Bush 2000. In the 2000 election, the Democrat candidate, Al Gore, won the national popular vote by a margin of half a million. But the Republican, George W. Bush, won more Electors through the 25 Electors of the state of Florida, where the result was contested for weeks of court hearings, owing to confusion over which ballot papers should be counted as valid.
The electoral college system makes the large states such as California, Texas and New York very important while allowing reasonable representation to the small states, thus ensuring national unity. Abolishing the Electoral College and determining the Presidential election according to the popular vote in each state, or nationally, has been suggested but rejected, since it would give the Republican Party an advantage. Supporters of the Democratic Party point out that, since every state has two Senators, the 7% of the population that live in the 17 least populous states has effective control of 34 Senate seats, and also have numerically disproportionate influence in the Electoral College, even though the US has not been a predominantly rural country for over a century. California, the biggest state, with a population of 36 million, commands 55 electoral votes. The 12 inland states of the Great Plains and the West have 23 million people but 59 electoral votes. But the opposition of the small states to reform of this part of the Constitution, and their power to block it, since three quarters of the states must approve a constitutional amendment, means that it is not a serious issue. The small states fear that they would lose influence if the election were decided purely by a mass national vote where they would be in the minority. As it is, the system makes both parties pay attention to the rural Mid-Western and Southern states, particularly the Democrats, who draw most of their support from the cities. Almost always, though, the Electoral College is a formality.
The Constitution provides for the election of a Vice-President, who succeeds to the presidency in case of the death, resignation, or incapacitation of the President (25th Amendment, 1967). A Vice-President who serves as Acting President for more than two years can only be elected once (22nd Amendment, 1951). The Constitution does not delegate any specific executive powers to the Vice-President, who takes the oath of office immediately after the President at the Inauguration Day ceremony and serves concurrently with the President. In addition to holding the right of succession, the Vice-President is the Presiding Officer of the Senate, where the Vice-President has no vote, except in the case of a tie. When the Vice-President is absent, the Senate elects a President pro tempore. Since World War II, Vice-Presidents have become working figures. They have received assignments to deal with such problems as race relations, the space program, and unemployment. The Vice-President is also a member of the National Security Council. Richard Nixon was the first Vice-President to travel abroad extensively on diplomatic missions. Vice-Presidents have also become partisan defenders of their Presidents’ policies. Vice-President Al Gore perhaps worked more closely with his President, Bill Clinton, than any previous Vice-President and played a prominent role diplomatically (especially with Russia) and in reform of the bureaucracy.
The President is empowered to name a Vice-President, with congressional approval, when the second office is vacated. This procedure was used for the first time in 1973, when Representative Gerald R. Ford was named by President Nixon upon the resignation of Spiro T. Agnew. Subsequently, when President Nixon resigned in 1974, Ford became President and Nelson T. Rockefeller, former Governor of New York State, Vice-President, without either of them having been elected to their office by the people.
The Constitution gives Congress the power to establish the order of succession after the Vice-President. At present, should both the President and Vice-President vacate their offices, the Speaker of the House of Representatives would assume the Presidency. Next comes the President pro tempore of the Senate, and then cabinet officers in order of the date of creation of their office.
The Executive Departments
Although the Constitution gives no specific powers to federal officials, day-to-day administration and enforcement of federal laws is in the hands of the various executive departments created by Congress. In addition to the Departments, there are a number of staff organizations grouped into the Executive Office of the President.
The Constitution makes no provision for a presidential cabinet, which nowadays consists of the 15 heads of the federal Departments. The Constitution simply provides that the President may ask opinions, in writing, from the principal officer in each of the executive departments on any subject in their area of responsibility, but the President is not bound to accept this advice. Similarly, there are no specific constitutional qualifications for service in the cabinet. The cabinet developed outside the Constitution as a matter of practical necessity. Cabinets are what any particular President makes them. Cabinet members are, however, responsible for directing the activities of the government in specific areas and meet regularly with the President. Each Department has thousands of employees, with offices throughout the country as well as in Washington. The Departments are divided into divisions, bureaus, offices, and services.
The President also asks advice from the National Security Council and the Council of Economic Advisers, which consists of three advisers appointed by the President and a staff of economists, mostly academics on secondment from their universities.
Unlike in a Parliamentary system, members of the Cabinet are not members of Congress, in order to safeguard the separation of powers between the executive and legislative branches of government. While this ensures the President a wide choice of officials, it does not ensure that the Congress is free of the effects of Presidential political patronage. Indeed such patronage in the form of financial and other help for local projects supported by members of Congress is often negotiated in order to pass legislation desired by the President. Most of the people working in departments and agencies are career officials. A number of top appointments, however, are made under the “spoils system”, by which an incoming Administration gives certain jobs to party supporters. This can mean a high turnover of top officials, but sometimes a President will make a “holdover” appointment i.e., reappoint a trusted, experienced official from a previous Administration. A long-serving holdover was Alan Greenspan, who was Chairman of the Federal Reserve from 1987- 2006. Heads of departments are called Secretaries. The head of the State Department is called the Secretary of State. Well-known Secretaries of State have include Henry Kissinger and Madeleine Albright.
The Independent Agencies
The Executive Departments are the major operating units of the federal government, but many other agencies have important responsibilities for keeping the government and the economy working smoothly. These are often called independent agencies, since they are not part of the Executive Departments. The nature and purpose of these agencies vary widely. Some are regulatory groups with powers to supervise certain sectors of the economy. Others provide special services either to the government or to the people. In most cases, the agencies have been created by Congress to deal with matters that have become too complex for the scope of ordinary legislation. In 1970, for example, Congress established the Environmental Protection Agency to coordinate governmental action to protect the environment.