One of the most famous images in American politics is the smoke-filled room, where the political bosses met to decide whom they would support. The bosses' power has given way to the power of the voters, who now decide on their party's nominees. Reforms during the Progressive Era started the trend toward primary elections,
in which voters directly select their party nominees, a process that was solidified for presidential elections starting in 1972.
A primary is an election in which voters choose the parties' candidates for the general election. There are two types of primaries. In a closed primary, only a party's registered voters may vote; in an open primary, registered voters in either party can participate. Sometimes winning the primary is tantamount to winning the election because voter registration in the state assembly or congressional district heavily favors one party or the other. There are often many candidates in a state or municipal primary. If one candidate does not receive a majority of the votes, the top two usually face each other in a runoff election.
Nominating a president
Each party nominates its candidate for president at the national convention. While some of the delegates are still appointed by state party leaders or are elected officials themselves, most are selected through the primary election or caucus process. Presidential primaries may be winner-take-all, in which the candidate who gets the most primary votes gets all the state's delegates, or the delegates may be divided among several candidates based on their percentage of the vote. In caucus states, delegates from the local level are selected for the county caucus, and from the county caucus they go to the state convention. Because of the primaries and caucuses, a party's nominee for president is really chosen long before the convention held in July or August. An incumbent president rarely faces a primary challenge, but Jimmy Carter did from Ted Kennedy in 1980, and so did George Bush in 1992 from Pat Buchanan.
Because of the importance primaries have assumed, and because most states have been pushing their primaries earlier and earlier, the political campaign season has become longer. Candidates may announce their plans to run for president as early as two years before the election. Combined with the huge role the media play in elections, the effect of this prolonged season has been to significantly increase the cost of campaigning for office.
Until 1971, there were no controls on campaign financing. The Federal Election Campaign Act (1971) and subsequent amendments have limited the amount that both individuals and organizations such as political action committees (PACs) can give to presidential candidates seeking the nomination and to the House and Senate candidates during the primary and general election campaigns. A spending limit is imposed on presidential primaries, and federal matching funds are distributed by the Federal Election Commission (created in 1974) to candidates who qualify by raising a certain amount of contributions on their own. The Democratic and Republican nominees for president can receive full public funding for the general election from the commission, which also oversees campaign finance disclosure requirements. The federal money comes from an income-tax checkoff that goes to the treasury's Presidential Campaign Fund.
The concern with the impact of money on politics led to passage of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act in 2002, which prohibited soft money, large contributions to national party organizations, placed restrictions on when broadcast ads by corporations or unions for or against specific candidates could be used, and significantly increased the amounts that individuals could give to candidates, parties, and political action committees. The limitations on ads was struck down by the Supreme Court.