Electing Candidates to Office

The culmination of the political process comes on election day when people go into the voting booths and mark their ballots for the candidates of their choice. Up to this point, most voters have been passive — they have watched the political ads on television, glanced through the campaign literature, and tried to keep up with the newspaper, radio, and TV analysis. Comparatively few have worked on a campaign or contributed money to a candidate.

As noted earlier, incumbents have many advantages when they run for reelection. Some elections have no incumbent because of resignation, death, or the creation of a new congressional or state legislative district through reapportionment. These are called open elections.

Electing a president

One of the most popular misconceptions regarding presidential elections is that voters directly vote for one candidate or another. What the voters actually do is choose a slate of electors in their state who make up the Electoral College. There are 538 Electoral College votes: 100 represent the 2 senators from each state, 435 represent the number of congressional districts, and 3 were provided to the District of Columbia by the Twenty-third Amendment (1961).

Although each state technically may decide how to choose electors, almost every state uses a winner-take-all system in which the presidential candidate with the most votes gets all of that state's electoral votes. A majority (270) of the votes in the Electoral College must be won for the candidate to be elected president. If no candidate receives a majority, the election is decided by the House of Representatives, with each state having one vote.

The Electoral College has come under particularly intense scrutiny since the 2000 election, because Vice President Al Gore won the most popular votes but narrowly lost the vote among electors. Furthermore, the closeness of the contest meant that voting irregularities in Florida, such as confusing ballots, may have cost Gore the election — and no state's election laws should decide who holds the presidency. On the other hand, some commentators say that the troublesome 2000 election showed exactly why the Electoral College system is a good one. In such a close election, representatives of both parties would have combed through the records everywhere to find more support for their candidates. With the Electoral College, though, the parties were able to focus their battle on the legal and practical issues involved in one state's voting. Regardless of the merits on each side in this debate, ending the Electoral College would require a constitutional amendment; therefore, it is unlikely to happen.

The coattails effect

A party's nominee for president is at the top of a ballot that includes candidates for the House and Senate, governor, the state legislature, and local offices. The ability of the presidential nominee to help get these other officials elected is known as the coattails effect. Ronald Reagan had long coattails in 1980, when enough Republicans were elected to give the party control of the Senate for the first time in a quarter-century.

Congressional elections

Under the Constitution, all 435 members of the House of Representatives and a third of the senators are up for election every two years. In off-year, or midterm, elections, voter participation is lower than when there is a presidential contest. Although the state and local issues are important in themselves, the results may have additional national significance. Historically, midterm elections are a referendum on the performance of the administration, and the party that controls the White House almost always loses seats in Congress. Dissatisfaction with President Clinton was so great in 1994 that Republicans won control of both the House and the Senate for the first time in 40 years. But in 1998, President Clinton was the first sitting president since the 1930s whose party gained congressional seats in a midterm election. On the other hand, President Bush's unpopularity gave Democrats a majority in Congress in 2006.