Every four years, the eyes of the world turn to the United States, when Americans elect their president. Why does the American election attract more attention than any other presidential election? Is it because what happens in the USA has an impact on the entire world?
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Unlike Norway, the United States has a two-party electoral system, the two dominant parties being the Democrats and the Republicans. Because there are just two obvious options, the two parties generally have to reflect broader voter interests and goals than the political parties in Norway. If you have an idea of the main policies that separate the two parties, it is easier to comprehend what values are at stake whenever the Americans elect a new president. While the Republicans have a firm belief in private enterprise, the Democrats tend to grant more power to federal and state authorities.
The Democrats choice of the donkey as their party symbol, in contrast to the Republicans' elephant, sends a lot of signals regarding core values. What ideas come to mind when you think of a donkey and an elephant?
The Electoral Process
Watch the video below to get a better understanding of the U.S. electoral process. The video follows the chronological steps from voting to election day, focusing on each state's role, including comparisons of popular vote vs. state votes, the impact of state population on the number of electors, how electors are counted and what is required for a president to be elected.
What strikes you as the main difference between the Norwegian and the American election system?
Who Can Run for President?
The President is elected every four years. He must be at least 35 years old and a natural-born citizen of the United States. While he may have lived abroad, he must have been a resident of the USA for at least the last 14 years. The President may run for re-election only once.
Who Can Vote?
Any US citizen who is at least 18 years old and who meets the resident requirements of their state can vote. It is worth noting that citizens of the American territories can also influence the presidential election since voters in Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, Guam and American Samoa are allowed to vote in the primary elections.
The Election Procedure
The Election Procedure can be divided into different stages.
- January of election year: the primaries and caucuses
- Summer of election year: the national party conventions
- Fall: the election campaigns
- Tuesday after the first Monday in November: Election Day
- December: The Electoral College elects the President
- January 20 the following year: Inauguration Day, the new President takes office.
Primaries and Caucuses
In January of election year, the parties of each state hold either primary elections or caucuses where they select delegates to send to their party’s national convention which is held in the summer. These delegates will vote for who should be their party’s presidential candidate.
Most states hold primary elections. In open primaries, anyone who is a registered voter can vote in any party primary, no matter which party they belong to; but they can only vote in one of the primaries. In closed primaries, voters can only vote in the primary of the party to which they belong. In both cases, voters use secret ballots.
Some states, however, hold caucuses, which are similar to primaries in that they have the same purpose: to select delegates to the national conventions. Here, however, the voting is done publically: voters divide themselves physically into groups according to who they want to be their presidential candidate. Speeches are given in support of the different candidates, and some voters change groups in the course of the caucus. At the end, voters in each candidate’s group are counted.
Most delegates for both parties are pledged to vote for a particular candidate; but some delegates are free to vote for whom they please.
Since 1972, Iowa has been the first state to vote for their presidential candidate.
The National Party Conventions
The National Party Conventions mark the conclusion of the parties’ nomination process and the beginning of the race for the presidency. Although it has, by this time, become clear who will be the two presidential candidates, this is where the party formally announces their presidential ticket – who they want for president and vice-president (often referred to as running mate). It is also where they make known the party’s platform.
Today’s conventions function mainly as pep-rallies for those who attend them and as party advertisements for those who view them on TV; thus the semblance of an entertainment event. All political debates and the important speeches are televised on prime-time TV, the most important one being the presidential candidates’ pre-written acceptance speeches.
The Election Campaign
When the presidential candidates have been elected, the actual election campaign begins. The temperature in the election process increases by many degrees, and the fun starts. During the election campaign it is now important for each party’s presidential candidate to gain the support of those who voted for the other candidates. One would think that they would automatically congregate around the winner, but this is not a matter of course. First of all, one effect of the two-party system is that some people will vote more for a candidate than for a party. Another effect is that both parties have to appeal to very many people, resulting in moderate policies. This makes it less dramatic to switch sides. Finally, the two-party system also tends to polarize issues. For instance, some people will vote for the party whose stance on a particular issue – like abortion, gay marriage or the health system – is most similar to their own. Therefore, time is spent on redefining the parties’ platforms in order to attract as wide a spectrum of voters as possible.
During the election campaign, the presidential candidates travel around the country, give speeches, talk to crowds and to groups of people and take part in televised debates. A lot of money is spent on expensive media campaigns.
Finally, on the Tuesday after the first Monday in November, Election Day arrives. Voters gather at the polls to vote for the presidential ticket of their choice. However, the president is not chosen by direct popular vote. Voters are actually selecting “electors” who will formally elect the president and the vice-president on their behalf. In most cases, they will vote for the candidate that won the popular vote in their state. They are, however, not legally bound to do so.
The Electoral College
The number of electors in each state is the same as the number of senators and representatives they have in Congress: 535 in all, in addition to three electors who represent Washington D.C. These 538 electors form the Electoral College, and they meet in December to cast their ballots for president and vice-president. A candidate has to receive at least 270 electoral votes in order to win the presidency.
The Electoral College is a “winner takes all” system: the candidate who leads the popular vote in each state receives all the electoral votes from that state. This means that a candidate who won millions of votes in a particular state on Election Day may receive no votes in the Electoral College. The result of the Electoral College vote usually reflects that of the popular vote, but not always. In the 2000 election, Al Gore won the popular vote, but did not win the presidency. George W. Bush won most of the electoral votes and became president.
Listen to this video lecture from Khan Academy to learn more about the Electoral College.
The new President of the United States is sworn into office on January 20 at an official ceremony called the Presidential Inauguration. The main event of the inauguration is when the president-elect takes the oath-of-office and becomes the President of the United States: “I do solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the office of the President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States.” (The United States Constitution, Article 2, Section 1)
When the newly elected president gives his first speech, the Inaugural Address, the entire world pays attention. Some of the most memorable addresses are rhetoric masterpieces.
You will find more information about the Presidential Election 2012 here.