USA: Presidential Elections 2012

Electing the President

On November 6, 2012, Tuesday (it is always the first Tuesday of November), the United States will vote for a new president. The states, that is, the Electoral College, constituted of electors from each of the 50 states and the District of Columbia (which is not a “state”). In other words, given that this is a federal system, the head of the executive (and head of state) is not elected through popular vote, but by electors representing the constituting parts of this federal arrangement (which in the USA are called “states”).

The population does go to the voting booth, but through their vote they in fact delegate representatives (electors), who then will cast a ballot for the given candidate. Each state is assigned a number of electors equal to the total number of its Senators and Representatives in the U.S. Congress. Whichever candidate obtains most votes (not the majority) in each state, is allotted all the electoral votes of that state, i.e. all the electors who pledged to vote for  the specific party’s candidate. If the Republican candidate obtains the most votes in Nevada, then all the electors will be Republican and would have pledged their votes to the official candidate of the Republican party. (The official candidate of each party is chosen through the primaries process, which culminates with the National Convention of the given party.) This is the process in most states, with the exception of Maine and Nebraska, where only two of the electors are chosen in a winner-take-all manner, the remaining electors being determined according to who wins each congressional district; the electoral votes, therefore, for these two states, can be split, which can not happen in the other states.

In order to win, therefore, a candidate on the ballot in all the 50 states (and DC) must win a majority of the votes in the Electoral College, that is, 50%+1 of the 538 electors = 270 electors. American presidential elections, then, are a mathematical game in which knowing which state is decidedly of one particular political leaning or the other, and which states are “undecided”, matters a lot. In many ways, the election is decided by those few states which are still (and usually) “up for grabs”. The Washington Post has a nice breakdown of the currently available scenarios regarding the states that are still in play, and what are the paths available for Barack Obama and for his challenger, Mitt Romney, to winning this election.

The White House [source]

Obama or Romney… but does this mean that there are only two candidates available? No: in each state there are several other candidates, which can also appear on the ballot, if they or their party meet the specific requirements of that state; some states even admit write-in candidates (that the voter literally writes on the ballot). Given, however, that the US is a two-party political system (for reasons that we will not examine now), the two main parties that have most of the resources, media attention, influence and, frankly, popular following, will also dominate the presidential elections. The so-called “third parties” do campaign, however, and they organize their own, parallel presidential debates.

The Debates

The televised presidential debates have become, since their beginning in the 1980s, key events of the national electoral campaign process. They are organized by an independent organization, with the cooperation of the major media organizations. This time there were three debates, which actually had a significant impact on the campaign. In the first debate,  Mitt Romney managed to clearly outperform the incumbent, with a commanding yet reassuring presence; in the second, which was “town-hall” style, Barack Obama was much more in his medium (while Romney less so), and came poised to make up for (and make people forget) the much-criticized first debate; in the third one, their performances were more even, but given that the subject was foreign policy, Romney was less incisive and less sure of himself.

The first debate:

The second debate:

The third debate:

The American Presidency

Stepping aside for a moment from the electoral process, let us note how interesting (or curious) it is that televised debates can have such a significant impact. In the Republican primaries, for example, weak debate performances were a key reason for ending the campaigns of initially promising candidates – Rick Perry’s, for example. It brings to mind Plato’s admonition that in a democracy the person who manages to sway the people’s opinions through sheer rhetorical skills will be elected, by virtue of his sweet tongue, and not of his virtues. This appears to be true, inasmuch as the ability to be sharp and aggressive, yet also likable, during these debates, has truly no connection with the capacity  (or lack thereof) of a candidate to manage the executive and to represent the US.

On the other hand, given the peculiarities of the US political system, the public persona of the president is actually one of the key sources of his power (even after his election). Given the so-called “separation of powers” between the executive (embodied by the President) and the legislature (House of Representatives and Senate), the President can do little to sway the votes of the members of the legislature, which is the only branch that has the right to pass laws in the US (at federal level). Furthermore, the executive’s duty (as embodied and lead by the President)  is to implement and, indeed, “execute” those laws. So, how come the President is now the foremost person in US politics, and the presidential elections the prime event of the electoral season?

This article deals with presidential elections, but let us not forget that on November 6 American citizens will vote for a host of other representatives and issues as well! They will vote for their representatives in the federal legislature – certainly for their representative in the House, and perhaps for their Senator. They will probably also vote for representatives in their state executive and legislatures; for example, here is the rundown of federal and state positions for which the people of Maryland will vote. They might also be asked to vote for local races, whether at county, city or special board level (eg local Board of Education). Finally, most states also have special questions on the ballot, which can be constitutional amendments or legislative proposals (again, here is the example for Maryland).

So why the focus on Presidential elections? And why would his/her rhetorical prowess matter? And how come the President is currently the foremost actor in US politics, although the Constitution prescribes otherwise? In fact, in the US Constitution only a few paragraphs are dedicated to the Executive, while Congress (and, more specifically, the House) is the first institution mentioned (an expression of priority), and the one with most  – and more detailed – powers? Ten long sections of Article 1 about the legislature, four brief and vague sections of Article 2 for the executive (most of which deal with the manner of electing the President).

Without going into extreme detail, as this is a subject long-studied in political science, the reasons of the prominence of the office of the President have to do with the increase in the role of the federal government in the economy and in the daily life of the US citizens, through various federal programs; the increased prominence of the US in the international arena, which implicitly raises the profile and responsibilities of the head of state; the growth in the size and role of the military, and its unceasing involvement abroad; the increase in the national visibility of the federal government, especially with the advent of radio and television; the need for unified and clear leadership; the very vagueness of the Constitutional description of the powers of the president etc. Be it as it may, and bringing with it serious negative consequences regarding the “checks and balances” assumed intrinsic to the US political system, the fact is that the position of the President eclipses any other in today’s American political system.

This very prominence in policy-making, then, helps focus the attention of the population on this position. The media is attracted to it like butterflies to a light bulb, and there is no other pulpit on the national scene that could rival in attraction the one bearing seal of the presidency. Correspondingly, a significant part of the President’s power and influence comes from this public visibility. Most members of the legislature want to bask in the reflector lights that are focused on the President. Having the President come on your campaign trail, and offer his support in front of your local constituency, is an inestimable boon. And the President maintains this influence, as long as he maintains public support. When his popularity is low, or when he approaches the end of his mandate(s) – the so called “lame duck” period, corresponding usually with the last two years of his second term – the President starts losing his influence on the national scene. He still runs the immense machinery of the executive (number of employees; departments and agencies), but he is no longer able (not that able) to shape the agenda of government.

Indeed, it is in the shaping of the agenda of government that his rhetorical powers play their most  important role. Given that the head of the executive in the US, unlike in other political systems, can not introduce draft laws in the legislature, the main tool for shaping the policies of the country (which the President does) is to use his immense public visibility, his popularity and public support, and the unique single pulpit from which he speaks, to persuade the people and direct the members of the legislature in the direction that he desires. As in a democracy of the kind recognized by Plato, public support is the “be all and end all” of politics in America’s representative democracy, because everyone’s position very simply depends on that; and the competition is ruthless, and few dare to buck the trend. The ability to persuade the population, or even to be heard by it, in a country so large, therefore, is a golden asset. Given the size and complexity of the chambers of the legislature, and the straightforwardness and unique simplicity of the President’s position, the person inhabiting the office becomes uniquely able to gather and mobilize public support. And public support, as said, is power.

Should we then be pessimistic – or, rather, is this laughable? – that the power of the President rests so much on rhetoric and public persuasion? That debates, therefore, play such an important role? No, if we call to mind again the fact that the only alternative to politics is violence, and that politics is the machinery that transforms conflict (inherent in any society) into policy, through a mechanism of rules and debate. There is, then, something beautiful about the fact that access to power is decided on the screen, through public debates – and not through the force of arms, in the fields and forests of this immense country.


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