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:

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