PRESIDENTIAL ELECTIONS IN THE UNITED STATES: A PRIMER
CRS Report for Congress
Presidential Elections in the United States: A
April 17, 2000
Kevin J. Coleman
Analyst in American National Government
Joseph E. Cantor
Specialist in American National Government
Thomas H. Neale
Analyst in American National Government
Government & Finance Division
Congressional Research Service ˜ The Library of Congress
This report describes the four stages of the presidential election process: the pre-nomination
primaries and caucuses for selecting delegates to the national conventions; the national
nominating conventions; the general election; and voting by members of the electoral college
to choose the President and Vice President. The report will be updated again for the 2004
Presidential Elections in the United States: A Primer
Every four years, Americans elect a President and Vice President, thereby
choosing both national leaders and a course of public policy. The system that governs
the election of the President combines constitutional and statutory requirements, rules
of the national and state political parties, political traditions, and contemporary
developments and practices.
As initially prescribed by the Constitution, the election of the President was left
to electors chosen by the states. Final authority for selecting the President still rests
with the electoral college, which comprises electors from each state equal in number
to the state’s total representation in the House and Senate. All but two states award
electoral votes on a winner-take-all basis to the candidate with a plurality of the
state’s popular vote.
The process of electing the President is essentially divided into four stages: (1)
the prenomination phase, in which candidates compete in state primary elections and
caucuses for delegates to the national party conventions; (2) the national
conventions—held in the summer of the election year—in which the two major parties
nominate candidates for President and Vice President and ratify a platform of the
parties’ policy positions and goals; (3) the general election campaign, in which the
major party nominees, as well as any minor party or independent contenders, compete
for votes from the entire electorate, culminating in the popular vote on election day
in November; and (4) the electoral college phase, in which the President and Vice
President are officially elected.
Presidential elections in recent years differ in several important respects from
those held earlier in American history. The first is the far wider participation of voters
today in determining who the party nominees will be; the political parties have in
recent years given a much greater role to party voters in the states (in lieu of party
leaders) in determining the nominees. The second difference involves the role of the
electronic media and, most recently, the Internet, both in conveying information to the
voters, and shaping the course of the campaign. Third, the financing of presidential
campaigns is substantially governed by a system of public funding in the pre-
nomination, convention, and general election phases, enacted in the 1970s in response
to increasing campaign costs in an electronic age and the concomitant fundraising
pressures on candidates. Thus, contemporary presidential elections blend both
traditional aspects of law and practice and contemporary aspects of a larger, more
complex, and more technologically advanced society.
I. Presidential Candidates.........................................3
Qualifications for the Office of President..........................3
Prior Occupations of Presidents.................................3
The Candidate Field..........................................3
Exploratory Candidacies–Testing the Waters.......................4
Announcement of Candidacy...................................4
Qualifying for the Primaries and Caucuses.........................5
The General Election Ballot....................................5
Secret Service Protection......................................6
II. The Nomination Process.......................................7
The Development of the Nominating System.......................7
Early Delegate Selection Methods...........................7
Emergence of the Primary.................................7
Reform and Revival of the Primary...........................8
Assignment and Categorization of Delegates by the National Parties.....9
Allocation of Delegates to the States and Other Jurisdictions.......9
Categories of Delegates...................................9
Delegate Selection Structure..................................10
The Present Mixed System of Presidential Nomination Events.....11
Methods of Selecting Delegates............................12
Timing of Delegate Selection Events........................13
Characteristics of the Contemporary Nominating System.............16
Length of the Campaign..................................16
The Accelerated Pace....................................16
Increased Number of Debates..............................17
III. The Nominating Conventions..................................19
Evolution and Traditions of the Party Convention..................19
Classic Elements of the National Convention..................20
The Modern Convention.....................................21
Ratifying the Party Choice................................21
The Influence of Television...............................22
Planning the Convention.....................................22
Timing and Location of National Conventions.................22
The Convention Day-by-Day..................................26
IV. The General Election........................................33
Traditional Methods–The Front Porch Campaign...............34
The Modern Campaign Style..............................34
The Rose Garden Campaign...............................34
Television Dominated Presidential Campaigns.....................35
Survey Research in the Presidential Election Campaign..............39
History of Selection.....................................40
V. Electoral College and Inauguration..............................43
The Electoral College in the Constitution.....................43
Size of the Electoral College and Allocation of Electoral Votes....43
Qualifications for the Office of Elector.......................43
Nomination of Elector Candidates..........................44
Selection of Electors....................................44
The Faithless Elector....................................45
Winning the Presidency..................................45
Counting the Electoral Votes..............................46
Electoral College Deadlock...............................47
Death of a Candidate....................................48
Inauguration .............................................. 49
Location of the Inauguration Ceremonies.....................50
List of Tables
Table 1. 2000 Presidential Primaries and Caucuses, by Date..............13
Table 2. Democratic and Republican National Party Conventions: 1832-2000.23
Table 3. Growth of National Convention Delegations: 1952-2000..........25
Table 4. Keynote Speakers at National Conventions: 1900-1996...........28
Table 5. Nationally Televised General Election Debates: 1960-1996........381
Table 6. Polling Hours in the States and District of Columbia.............41
Table 7. Electoral Votes by State: 1992-2000........................44
Table 8. Presidents Elected Without A Plurality of the Popular Vote........47
Presidential Elections in the United States: A
This report explains the presidential election process in the United States. It
provides general information about Presidential candidates and their campaigns and
it reviews the laws, activities, and customs that govern each of the four stages of the
process–the primary campaign, the national nominating conventions, the general
election, and the electoral college.
Chapter one discusses the candidates themselves—their qualifications for office,
the procedure for gaining ballot access, the stages of their campaigns, and the
protection accorded them by the federal government.
Chapter two focuses on the nomination process, describing the evolution of the
current system of primaries and caucuses, the basic structure, methods and rules
governing selection of delegates to the nominating conventions, and the major
characteristics of the contemporary process.
Chapter three examines the national party conventions, including both their
evolution and traditions, and contemporary structure and procedures.
Chapter four focuses on the general election campaign, from the Labor Day
“kickoff” to November election day. It offers general comments on widely used
campaign methods during this period, examines the important role played by
television—through advertising, news coverage, and debates—and provides
information on election day itself (how it was selected, polling hours in the states,
Chapter five provides information on the electoral college, the process by which
the President and Vice President are officially elected. It follows the steps in the
process of convening the electors and counting their votes, and offers information on
past discrepancies between electoral and popular vote leaders. It also discusses
possible scenarios for contingent election, in which no candidate receives an electoral
majority or when a candidate dies at some stage of the process.
One aspect of the process not examined in this discussion is treated in a
companion CRS report on the funding of presidential elections, in particular the
system of public financing available since 1976. See CRS Report RS20133, The
Presidential Election Campaign Fund and Tax Checkoff: Background and Current
I. Presidential Candidates
Qualifications for the Office of President
Article II, Section 1 of the Constitution specifies that, to be President or Vice
President, a person must be a natural-born citizen of the United States, at least 35
years of age, and a resident of the United States for at least 14 years.1 Most
constitutional scholars interpret this language as including citizens born outside the
United States to parents who are U.S. citizens under the “natural born” requirement.2
Under the 22nd Amendment, no one may serve more than two full terms, although a
Vice President who succeeds to the Presidency and serves less than two full years of
the prior incumbent’s term may seek election to two additional terms.
Prior Occupations of Presidents
American voters have chosen men of varied backgrounds on the 53 occasions
they have gone to the polls to elect a President. All 41 Presidents served the country
previously either in government or the military. Of the 24 Presidents who served prior
to 1900, seven had been Vice Presidents (three of whom were elected to the
Presidency, while four succeeded a deceased incumbent), four were Members of
Congress, four were governors, and nine previously held an appointive federal
The trend in 20th century presidential elections has favored former Vice
Presidents, Governors, and Senators. Of 17 20th century Presidents, several served
in more than one of these positions. At the time of their inauguration, one
(Eisenhower) had served as a career Army officer; two (Taft and Hoover) had most
recently served as cabinet officers; five (Wilson, F.D. Roosevelt, Carter, Reagan, and
Clinton) as governors; two (Harding and Kennedy) were Senators; and seven were
Vice Presidents. Five of the seven Vice Presidents (T. Roosevelt, Coolidge, Truman,
Johnson, and Ford) succeeded on the death or resignation of the incumbent; two Vice
Presidents were elected—one (Nixon) as a former and one (Bush) as an incumbent.
The Candidate Field
Before the primaries and conventions, the candidates determine the presidential
field. The decline of party leader dominance over the nominating process has resulted
in a system whereby self-selected candidates compete in the states for the delegates
needed for nomination. The democratization of the nominating process has meant
1 Defined as including the 50 states and the District of Columbia.
2 Citizens born in Guam, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands are legally defined as
“natural born” citizens, and are, therefore, also eligible to be elected President, provided they
meet qualifications of age and 14 years residence within the United States. Residence in
Puerto Rico and U.S. territories and possessions does not qualify as residence within the
United States for these purposes. [U.S. Library of Congress, Congressional Research Service,
U.S. Insular Areas and Their Political Development, by Andorra Bruno and Garrine P.
Laney, CRS Report 96-578GOV (Washington: Jun. 17, 1996), pp. 9, 21, 33].
that many candidates enter the race, begin raising money, and organize for the
primaries and caucuses well before the election year in order to be competitive.
According to the Federal Election Commission, 203 individuals had filed
statements of candidacy or had committees file statements of organization for the
2000 presidential election as of January 31, 2000. Just 33 of these individuals had
met the Federal Election Campaign Act’s (FECA) criteria for candidacies subject to
federal election laws, i.e., raising contributions or making expenditures in excess of
$5,000 [2 U.S.C. §431(2)]. In reality, only a small number of these are considered by
the media as serious candidates seeking the nomination of the two major parties.
Exploratory Candidacies–Testing the Waters
The formal announcement of candidacy is often preceded by a period in which
candidates “test the waters” as unannounced candidates for nomination; this may
begin several years before the convention. Likely candidates may form exploratory
committees to gauge popular support and to begin developing a base of supporters
and contributors, while avoiding some of the legal requirements (such as contribution
limits and disclosure of receipts and disbursements) of the FECA. As unofficial
candidates who are not technically campaigning for office, persons may raise and
spend unlimited amounts of money without registering as candidates with the Federal
Election Commission (FEC). Upon declaration of candidacy, however, the individual
must register with the FEC and report all financial activity while testing the waters;
these amounts become retroactively subject to all FECA regulations.
Announcement of Candidacy
An individual must file a statement of candidacy with the FEC within 15 days of
reaching the law’s financial threshold (i.e., $5,000 in receipts or expenditures), and
must name a principal campaign committee to receive contributions and make
expenditures. This committee must file a statement of organization with the FEC
within ten days after being designated; the statement must identify the committee’s
title (which includes the candidate’s name), the treasurer, bank depositories, and any
other committees the candidate has authorized to raise or spend on his or her behalf.
Such other committees which the candidate authorizes may raise and spend funds, but
they must report such activity through the principal committee.
The timing of the formal announcement is crucial because of its political impact,
and also because of the legal and tactical implications. Once a public declaration of
candidacy is made, candidates are subject to state and national spending limits if they
qualify for and choose to accept public matching funds, and they are subject to the
broadcasting provisions of the equal-time rule (47 U.S.C. 315(a)).
Nominations today are usually won during the primary campaign rather than at
the convention, and primaries have proliferated and been scheduled earlier in the
election year. Because of these developments, competitors are pressed to announce
their candidacies much earlier than in years past. Whereas in 1932, Franklin
Roosevelt formally announced for the Presidency 156 days before the convention,
Michael Dukakis formally announced his candidacy 446 days prior to the 1988
Democratic National Convention. The trend toward earlier, longer campaigns is a
hallmark of modern presidential elections.
Qualifying for the Primaries and Caucuses
The guidelines that candidates follow to qualify for primaries and caucuses differ
from state to state. In primary states, the Secretary of State (or other chief elections
officer) is the authority for listing candidate names on the ballot; in caucus states, the
parties oversee the procedures for candidates to gain ballot access (they do not always
have to file to be eligible for delegates in caucus states, however).
Candidates generally file a statement of candidacy with the Secretary of State or
the party chair at the state level. In some primary states, the Secretary of State may
automatically certify for the ballot the names of all major party candidates, those
submitted by the party, candidates who have qualified in other states, or candidates
who have applied with the FEC or are eligible for federal matching funds. Presidential
candidates may also be required to pay a filing fee, submit petitions, or both.
Signatures may be required from a requisite number of voters in each congressional
district or from a requisite number of voters statewide.
The primary season gradually reduces the field of major party candidates. The
accelerated pace of the present system winnows out those who fall short of
expectations, and hence, find it difficult to raise the money needed to sustain their
candidacies. Furthermore, the reforms of the past 30 years have changed the dynamics
of the nominating process by closely tying the allocation of delegates to electoral
performance. The days when a candidate could compete in a select number of
primaries to demonstrate popular appeal have passed: the nomination goes to the
candidate who has amassed a majority of delegates in the primaries and caucuses.
Party conventions have largely become ratifying bodies that confer the nomination on
the candidate who won it in state contests. The 1976 Republican National Convention
was the most recent one at which the determination of a major party’s nominee was
in any real doubt before the nominating ballots were cast.
The General Election Ballot
The names of the major party nominees for President and Vice President are
automatically placed on the general election ballot. Some states also list the names
of presidential electors adjacent to the presidential and vice presidential candidates
whom they support. Voters mark their ballots once for a party’s presidential and vice
presidential ticket; electors also cast a single vote in the electoral college for the party
ticket. Minor party and independent candidates are also listed on the ballot, if they
qualify according to provisions of the state codes, and several such candidates are
usually on the ballot in different states.
Secret Service Protection3
In the aftermath of the 1968 assassination of Senator Robert Kennedy while he
was seeking the Democratic presidential nomination, Congress passed legislation
which, for the first time, authorized Secret Service protection of presidential and vice
presidential candidates.4 The law made the Secretary of the Treasury responsible for
determining which major candidates are eligible for protection, after consultation with
a bipartisan advisory committee comprised of the Majority and Minority Leaders of
the Senate, the Speaker and Minority Leader of the House of Representatives, and
one additional member to be chosen by the committee. (Spouses of such candidates
are also entitled to protection, within 120 days of the general election.) On occasion,
candidates have declined protection offered to them.
While the law provides protection for major party presidential and vice
presidential nominees in the general election, it does not specify the criteria for
determining major candidates in the primary season. However, criteria and standards
in the advisory committee’s guidelines specify that an eligible individual: (1) is a
publicly declared candidate; (2) is actively campaigning nationally and is contesting
at least 10 state primaries; (3) is pursuing the nomination of a qualified party (i.e.,
whose presidential candidate received at least 10% of the popular vote in the prior
election); (4) has qualified for public matching funds of at least $100,000, and has
raised at least $2 million in additional contributions; and (5) as of April 1 of the
election year, has received at least an average of five percent in individual candidate
preferences in the most recent national opinion polls by ABC, CBS, NBC, and CNN,
or has received at least 10% of the votes cast for all candidates in two same-day or
consecutive primaries or caucuses.5 Notwithstanding this, the Secretary of the
Treasury, after consultation with the advisory committee, may provide protection for
a candidate even if all of the conditions of the guidelines have not been met.
Secret Service protection for primary candidates generally begins shortly after
January 1 of the election year. On occasion, the Secretary of the Treasury has
accorded protection to certain candidates earlier than the election year.
3 Frederick Kaiser, Specialist in American National Government, in the CRS Government &
Finance Division assisted in preparation of this section.
4 P.L. 90-331; 18 U.S.C. §3056.
5 Advisory Committee Guidelines for Assignment of Secret Service Protection to Presidential
Candidates. U.S. Department of the Treasury, Washington, 2000.
II. The Nomination Process
Primaries and caucuses are the initial testing ground for the next President. The
primary season plays an essential role in presidential elections by narrowing the field
of major party candidates. The nomination is conferred on the candidate who holds
a majority of delegates at the party convention, but under the present system for
choosing delegates one candidate is likely to emerge with a majority by the end of the
primary season, if not sooner, and well before the convention meets.
The Development of the Nominating System
The emergence of the national nominating convention in 1831, in place of the
congressional caucus method of choosing nominees, gave the political parties a more
democratic means of bestowing nominations, based more closely on popular
sentiment. (See Chapter III for detailed information on national nominating
Early Delegate Selection Methods.
Delegates to the early conventions were either appointed by a party leader or
were chosen under a party-run caucus system. While both methods involved more
participants than the congressional caucus, in reality they merely shifted control of
nominations to the state party leadership, which usually controlled the state’s entire
delegation. Delegates were chosen in this manner until the beginning of the 20th
century when members of the Progressive Party, whose aim was to reform the
structure and processes of government, introduced an innovative device called the
Emergence of the Primary.
In 1904, Florida became the first state to adopt the primary as a means of
choosing delegates to the nominating conventions, and many states followed within
the decade. By 1916, 20 Democratic and Republican parties selected delegates in
primaries. The primary took democratization of the nominating process a step further
by enabling party members to choose the delegates. It was the first large-scale
innovation in the process since the introduction of the party convention about 80
Hailed as a triumph of democracy upon its debut, the primary failed to attract
many voters, and, in the first half of this century, it never became the principal route
to the nomination. In 1912, Theodore Roosevelt won nine of 13 Republican
primaries, but his name was not even placed in nomination at the Republican
Convention (which instead re-nominated incumbent William Howard Taft, who had
won only one primary, but whose forces controlled the party’s National Committee).
The primary movement made little progress in the years following the first World
War, and some states abandoned it as the method for choosing delegates. The
number of state party primaries in which delegates were chosen stood at around 14
for the next four decades.
Many candidates avoided primaries altogether or ran in a select few, simply to
demonstrate their popular appeal. In 1952, Democratic contender Estes Kefauver
entered and won 12 of 15 primaries held, only to see the convention turn to Adlai
Stevenson, who had not entered any primaries. In 1960, John F. Kennedy
demonstrated electability by winning a few selected primaries, but his delegate totals
were amassed more by his cultivation of key party leaders and state delegations.
Reform and Revival of the Primary.
The violence that marred the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago
underscored growing discontent in that party with the dominant role played by party
leaders in the nomination of candidates. In response, the Democratic National
Committee formed the “McGovern-Fraser Commission” to evaluate the delegate
selection process and to recommend changes designed to make the system more
responsive to rank-and-file party members. The Commission, in 1969, proposed a
series of reforms that addressed most aspects of delegate selection, the principal aim
of which was to increase popular participation and link it more directly to the
selection of delegates. The National Committee accepted nearly all of the
Commission’s proposals, which were subsequently adopted by the state parties.
Furthermore, some state legislatures, many of them under Democratic control,
enacted statutes applicable to both parties which incorporated the Commission’s
The Commission recommended a series of sweeping changes that addressed
nearly every major aspect of delegate selection. It established guidelines for
translating public support for candidates into delegate votes and eliminated automatic
ex-officio delegate slots by calling for the election of all of the delegates to the
convention. Guidelines for equal representation of women and minorities were
adopted, and devices that vested considerable power in the party leadership (e.g.,
proxy voting, the unit rule, etc.) were eliminated. The McGovern-Fraser
recommendations, as subsequently modified, changed the process for the Democrats,
and had an impact as well on the system used by the Republicans, who made changes
to respond to perceived public pressure for greater democratization.
Perhaps the principal effect of the reform movement was the revitalization of the
primary in determining the choice of party nominees: it was viewed as the most
suitable method for encouraging broad participation. In 1968, 37.5% of Democratic
delegates were chosen in 17 primary states; the 16 Republican primary states that year
sent 34.3% of the delegates to that party’s convention. By 1976, the Democrats held
primaries in 30 states which selected 72.6% of the delegates, while the Republicans
chose 67.9% of their delegates in 28 primary states. The percentage of delegates
chosen in states holding primaries has been higher in recent cycles. Under the present
schedule for 2000, 85.2% of Democratic delegates (in 38 states and the District of
Columbia) and 90.1% of Republican delegates (in 41 states and the District of
Columbia) will be selected in states holding primaries.
The resurgence of the primary was accompanied by changes in other aspects of
the political landscape which reinforced the importance of primary elections. The
media became a full-fledged participant in the nominating process through their
extensive coverage of primaries and their role in publicizing primary results.
Candidates are now likely to pick and choose which primaries to contest because
delegates are at stake in virtually all of them. Early primaries are especially vigorously
contested, particularly by lesser known candidates who seek to gain crucial media
coverage and establish campaign momentum; the pace of the entire season has
quickened. The nominating process in the post-1968 era thus focused attention once
again on the primaries, where nominations today are won or lost.
Assignment and Categorization of Delegates by the National Parties
Allocation of Delegates to the States and Other Jurisdictions.
Each party has its own method for assigning delegates (and alternates) to the
different states and jurisdictions.
Democrats. The Democratic Party allocates delegates and alternates according
to a formula based on population, as measured by electoral college strength and past
levels of voting for Democratic presidential candidates in the general election. The
Democratic National Committee also awards delegates and alternates to five
jurisdictions for which the allocation factor cannot be computed because they do not
participate in the presidential election—American Samoa, Democrats Abroad, Guam,
Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands. Furthermore, the party assigns additional
delegate slots for party leaders, former distinguished elected officials, and the entire
Democratic membership of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives.
Republicans. The Republican allocation system assigns three delegates per
congressional district and six delegates at-large for every state. It also assigns bonus
delegates based on the state’s Republican vote in the previous election for President,
U.S. Senate, U.S. House of Representatives, and Governor. Delegates to the
convention for other jurisdictions are assigned by the Republican National Committee.
Categories of Delegates.
Democrats. The Democratic Party has two basic types of delegates, grouped
by whether or not they are pledged to support a particular candidate. Furthermore,
there are three categories of pledged delegates (which comprise the majority of
delegates to the convention) and four categories of unpledged delegates.
Pledged delegates. The allocation formula determines only the number of
delegates in the pledged categories:
!District-level base delegates;
!At-large base delegates; and
!Pledged party and elected official delegates.
Of the number of delegates assigned to a state according to the allocation
formula, 75 % are assigned at the district level and 25 % are designated at-large.
Although district-level and at-large delegates are allocated in the same manner, they
are chosen separately at different stages of the process.
Pledged party and elected official delegates represent a 15% addition to the base
number of allocated delegates. They are usually chosen in the same manner as the at-
Unpledged Delegates. The number of unpledged delegates for a state depends
on the number of individuals available in each specified category. Delegate slots are
!Former Democratic Presidents and Vice Presidents, former
Democratic Majority Leaders of the U.S. Senate, former Democratic
Speakers of the U.S. House of Representatives, and all former Chairs
of the Democratic National Committee;
!Members of the Democratic National Committee (DNC), including
the State chairs and vice chairs and officers of the DNC; and
!All Democratic Members of the U.S. Senate and House of
Republicans. Aside from three congressional district delegates and six at-large
delegates assigned to each state under Republican allocation rules, a number of bonus
delegates may be awarded for the at-large category as well.
Four and one-half at-large bonus delegates are assigned to each state which cast
its electoral votes for the Republican nominee in the previous election. One bonus
delegate is allocated to each State in which a Republican was elected to the Senate
or the Governorship between the last and the upcoming presidential election. One
bonus delegate is also allocated to states in which half the delegation to the House of
Representatives is Republican. (In 1996, 15 at-large delegates have been allocated
to the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico has been allocated 14 at-large delegates, and
four delegates have been allocated each to Guam and the Virgin Islands.)
The national party also awards bonus delegates to states where the primary or
caucus is held after mid-March of the election year. In states where the primary or
caucus is scheduled between March 15 and April 14, a 5% increase to the national
convention delegation is awarded; a 7½% increase is awarded to state parties with
contests scheduled between April 15 and May 14; and, a 10% increase is awarded to
states where the primary or caucus is held between May 15 and the third Tuesday in
State parties have considerable flexibility to determine the means of electing or
choosing the district and at-large delegates, according to national party rules.
Delegate Selection Structure
Under the present system for choosing presidential nominees, state parties use
two main electoral devices: the primary and the caucus/convention system. State
parties combine the two in a variety of ways to choose delegates to the national
conventions and the resulting mix of methods accounts for the complexity that
characterizes the presidential nominating process. Furthermore, the timing of
delegate selection events is determined by either the state legislatures or the state
parties, depending on which electoral method is used. Primary dates are usually
determined by the legislatures, while caucus events are scheduled by the state’s
political parties. In large part, this divided authority concerning the choice of method
and the timing of delegate selection events explains and perpetuates the inherent
complexity of the nominating system.
The Present Mixed System of Presidential Nomination Events.
Primaries. A primary is a state-run election for the purpose of nominating party
candidates to run in the general election. Presidential primaries perform this function
in an indirect manner, because voters elect delegates to a national convention rather
than directly selecting presidential candidates.
Most states restrict voting in a primary to party members; these are closed
primary states. Open primary states allow the voter to choose either party’s ballot
in the voting booth on primary day; none of the open primary states require voter
registration by party.
In 1992, more state parties selected delegates in a primary than ever before—34
Democratic and 37 Republican (out of the 50 states and the District of Columbia).
In 2000, 39 Democratic and 42 Republican primaries are scheduled in the states and
the District of Columbia.
Caucuses and Conventions. A caucus is a meeting of party members or leaders
to select nominees for public office and to conduct other party business. In the
presidential nominating process, it is often used in combination with a state
convention to elect delegates to the national nominating convention.
The caucus/convention process is typically comprised of several tiers, beginning
with broad-based meetings of rank-and-file party members, usually at the precinct
level. Because of their cumbersome nature, precinct caucuses invariably attract fewer
voters than do primaries. Participants must invest substantial time to attend a caucus,
in contrast to voting in a primary, and participants usually register their support for
a presidential candidate by public declaration (by a show of hands or by gathering in
groups according to presidential preference). In some places, caucus participants may
vote by ballot for presidential candidates, but, in any event, the process requires face-
to-face contact with other participants that is not required when casting a ballot at a
Once the presidential preference vote is tallied, caucus participants elect
representatives for their preference who attend the meeting convened as the next
stage in the process. Precinct caucuses are usually followed by county or
congressional district meetings, with a smaller number of representatives selected at
each stage—based on support for them or the candidate they favor—to go on to the
next level. Delegates to the national convention are finally chosen by the
representatives to the congressional district caucus or the state convention, or both.
In 2000, both state parties in nine states will select delegates using the caucus
process; Democrats scheduled caucuses in three additional states.
Choice of Device for Electing Delegates. Because primaries are administered
by the states, the guidelines and timing are determined by state law; however, a
political party may opt out of the primary and select delegates in a caucus process
instead. Not all states provide for a presidential primary, in which case both parties
use the caucus method and accordingly set their own rules and dates for caucus
events. In many primary states, caucuses are a component of the process for choosing
delegates as well, but the results of the primary are the crucial factor in determining
the division of delegates.
Methods of Selecting Delegates.
The principal difference between the parties in choosing delegates is the
Democratic Party’s requirement that delegate candidates selected in primaries and
caucuses state their presidential or uncommitted preference as a condition for
election. The Republican Party does not require a declaration of preference and,
consequently, Republican delegate selection is less uniform and more dependent upon
the different approaches of the state parties.
Democrats. Under the present system, state Democratic parties use one of the
following four methods to elect district delegates:
Caucus/convention system. This consists of one to four tiers. As a general rule,
grassroots participation is at the first tier, at which representatives to the next tier are
elected, and so on. Delegates and alternates are chosen at a district meeting, usually
the second or third tier.
Pre-primary caucus. This nominates district delegates, who are subsequently
elected on the basis of the vote for President in the primary.
Post-primary caucus. This is held after the primary to elect the number of
delegates a presidential candidate has won on the basis of the primary vote.
Two-part primary. This requires that the voter mark the ballot for presidential
preference and again for individual delegates within a preference.
District delegates declare a presidential preference or run as uncommitted in the
primaries and caucuses. At-large and pledged party and elected official delegates also
declare a presidential or uncommitted preference, but they are chosen by the state
committee, a committee of elected district delegates, or by the state convention to
reflect primary or caucus results.
Republicans. District delegates may be elected in a primary or may be selected
by presidential candidates on the basis of the primary vote. They can be chosen in
congressional district caucuses, or they may be combined with the at-large delegates
and selected as a unit at the state convention.
At-large delegates may be elected by primary voters, chosen by presidential
candidates according to the primary vote, selected by the state committee, or, as in
most states, chosen at the state convention.
Timing of Delegate Selection Events.
With three exceptions, the Democratic Party restricts first-stage delegate
selection events to the period between the first Tuesday in March and the second
Tuesday in June. Party rules permit three states to hold delegate selection events
prior to the first Tuesday in March: the Iowa Democratic Party may conduct its
precinct caucuses 15 days earlier; the New Hampshire primary may be held seven days
earlier; and the Maine first-tier caucuses may be held two days earlier. These
exceptions honor traditional dates for holding primaries and caucuses in New
Hampshire, Iowa and Maine that pre-dated the national party’s rule that restricts
delegate selection contests to a specific period. For 2000, Iowa was given approval
by the DNC to hold its caucuses even earlier, on January 24, and New Hampshire
received approval to hold its primary on February 1. Maine Democrats no longer use
a caucus process, but elect delegates in a primary (on March 7, 2000).
National rules for the Republican Party state only that participants in caucuses
or conventions for the purpose of choosing national convention delegates shall not be
elected prior to the official call for the convention. The Party issues the call prior to
January 1 of the election year.
The timing of 2000 events appears in table 1, which presents the dates for state
primaries and caucuses in chronological order, along with the number of delegates
each state sent to the respective conventions.
Table 1. 2000 Presidential Primaries and Caucuses, by Date
(Primary or Caucus)
February 1New HampshirePrimary2917
February 7-13Hawaii (R)Caucus—14
February 8Delaware (R)Primary b—12
February 19South Carolina (R)Primary b—37
February 22Arizona (R)Primary—30
February 26American Samoa (R)Caucus—4
(Primary or Caucus)
Virgin Islands (R)Caucus—4
February 27Puerto Rico (R)Primary—14
February 29North Dakota (R)Caucus—19
Connecticut Primary 67 25
Georgia Primary 92 54
Maine Primary 32 14
Maryland Primary 92 31
Massachusetts Primary 118 37
Missouri Primary 92 35
North Dakota (D)Caucus22—
Ohio Primary 170 69
Vermont Primary 22 12
American Samoa (D)Caucus6—
March 9South Carolina (D)Caucus52—
March 10-14Democrats AbroadCaucus9—
March 11Arizona (D)Primary b55—
Michigan (D)Primary b157—
March 11-12Minnesota (D)Caucus91—
March 12Nevada (D)Caucus29—
Louisiana Primary 74 29
Mississippi Primary 48 33
Oklahoma Primary 53 38
Tennessee Primary 81 37
(Primary or Caucus)
March 18Guam (D)Caucus6—
Nevada (R)Caucus —17
March 25Wyoming (D)Caucus18—
March 26Puerto Rico (D)Primary59—
March 27Delaware (D)Caucus22—
April 1Virgin Islands (D)Caucus6—
Pennsylvania Primary 191 78
Wisconsin Primary 92 37
April 14-17Virginia (D)Caucus98—
District of ColumbiaPrimary3215
Kentucky Primary 58 31
Montana Primary 24 23
a The events listed here are the initial step for choosing national convention delegates, at
which rank-and-file voters participate. In a primary, Democratic voters mark their
ballot either for a presidential candidate (with delegates chosen or allocated afterwards,
according to the results) or for both a presidential candidate and individual delegate
candidates. Republican primary voters may have a third option, whereby the voter
marks the ballot for individual delegate candidates without an accompanying
Presidential candidate preference vote. The caucus process is comprised of several
stages (usually three or four), where rank-and-file voters participate at the first stage,
to choose participants for the next stage,
and so on. National convention delegates are chosen at a later stage, after the initial mass
participation event. Under the convention system, a group of participants assembles to choose
the national delegates. Convention participants may have been chosen through the caucus
process, they may be party officials from throughout the state, or they may have been
designated to attend the convention according to some other mechanism. Most state parties
adopt a delegate selection system that combines, in some manner, at least two of these
methods—the primary, caucus, or convention.
b Party-run primaries.
Characteristics of the Contemporary Nominating System
Length of the Campaign.
Potential candidates begin organizing their campaigns and raising money a year
or more in advance of the primary season in order to be competitive. While the length
of the nominating season has remained virtually unchanged, the pre-election
maneuvering by candidates may begin shortly after the previous presidential election,
and exploratory committees are often in operation one or two years before the
election. In 1972, 12 of 15 major party contenders announced their candidacies no
earlier than two months preceding January 1 of the election year; in 1988, all 14 major
party candidates announced before the election year began (one of whom announced
in 1986). For the 2000 election, six candidates had announced by the end of April
1999 and all twelve major party candidates had announced their candidacies (or the
formation of their exploratory committees) by September.
The Accelerated Pace.
In 1976, the Iowa Republican Party advanced its caucus date to January 19, the
same day as Democratic Party caucuses, thereby supplanting the New Hampshire
primary in its traditional role as the first two-party delegate selection event of the
nominating season. Since then, Iowa and New Hampshire have played an incipient
role in narrowing the field of candidates and setting the stage for ensuing primaries
and caucuses. Other states have reacted to the influence and attention accorded Iowa
and New Hampshire by advancing their dates as well—a phenomenon known as
The 2000 calendar was the most front-loaded ever. The nominating season began
in Iowa and New Hampshire, according to tradition, although events in these states
took place nearly a month earlier than in past years. The Iowa caucuses were moved
to January 24 (from February 21 in 1996) and the New Hampshire primary was
scheduled on February 1 (it was held on February 29 in 1996)
Following New Hampshire, Republicans scheduled events in eight states during
February. But the most significant change to the calendar was the scheduling of
primaries in California, New York, and Ohio on March 7, the first date on which
Democrats may hold delegate selection events according to national rules (from which
Iowa and New Hampshire are exempt). Seven primaries were scheduled on the first
Tuesday in March in 1996, mostly in New England states, but the addition of
California, New York, and Ohio in 2000 swelled the number of delegates at stake and
created a national event with contests taking place in each region of the country.
Twelve primaries and caucuses were scheduled for both parties on March 7, 2000,
and caucuses for one party or the other were scheduled in an additional four states.
In contrast, delegate selection events had been held in 23 states by the end of March
in the 1992 calendar, while in 1976, delegate selection had begun in only seven states
by that time.
On March 14, six southern states (Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma,
Tennessee, and Texas) hold primaries on the date previously known as “Super
Tuesday.” The event was organized by mostly Democratic members of the Southern
Legislative Conference in 1988 as a 14-state southern regional primary. “Super
Tuesday” offered nearly one-third of the delegates to either convention on a single
day, but met with mixed reviews. Some analysts suggested the event achieved its
goals, while others said it fell short of expectations. In 1992, five of the states which
participated in the 1988 “Super Tuesday” primaries rescheduled their events for later
during the campaign season, while Georgia officials moved their primary to the week
prior to “Super Tuesday.” In 2000, only six of the original 14 states will hold
primaries simultaneously on March 14.
Increased Number of Debates.
Campaign debates have become an increasingly important aspect of the
nominating process in recent years. An unprecedented number occurred during the
1988 primary season: approximately 60 debates (virtually all televised locally or
nationally) were held among candidates of one or both parties.6 For the 2000 election
cycle, 19 debates between the Democratic or Republican candidates were held
between October 27, 1999 and February 21, 2000, according to the Alliance for
In general, the increase in debates coincided with a decrease in the number of
“straw poll” elections before and during the nominating season; these polls measure
candidate popularity among party activists at state conventions but have no bearing
on the selection of delegates. To some extent, candidate debates offset one of the
most frequently cited criticisms of the process—that the combined influence of the
media and the proliferation of primaries (with their mass audience) seem to foster an
emphasis on candidate image over substantive issues. Debates will likely continue to
play an important role in the pre-nomination period.
6 R.W. Apple, Jr., “Political Debates and Their Impact on The Race,” New York Times, Apr.
23, 1988. p. 10; In 1992, some 15 debates were held during the primary season, a lower
number than 1988, partly because of a greater degree of competition in both parties in the
7 Glenn Kessler, “In Debates, Sponsor’s Can’t Lose,” The Washington Post, Feb. 29, 2000,
III. The Nominating Conventions
National conventions combine three important functions: nomination of
candidates for the office of President and Vice President; formulation and adoption
of a statement of party principles—the platform; and adoption of rules and procedures
governing party activities, particularly the nomination process for presidential
candidates in the next election cycle.
Evolution and Traditions of the Party Convention
The first nominating convention by one of what emerged as our two major
parties—the Democrats—was held in Baltimore, Maryland, between May 21 and 23,
1832. Nomination by party convention replaced earlier arrangements, which included
nomination by both congressional party caucuses, and by state legislatures, which
prevailed through 1828.
The Caucus System. In 1800, Thomas Jefferson was nominated by a caucus
comprised of Democratic-Republican Members of Congress. The Federalists chose
the same method to renominate President John Adams. Following Jefferson’s
successful election to the Presidency that year, the Democratic-Republicans continued
to use the caucus method until the election of 1820, when incumbent President James
Monroe was the unchallenged consensus candidate. The declining Federalists, who
relied on meetings of party leaders to nominate their choices after 1800, fielded their
last presidential ticket in 1816.
Emergence of the National Party Convention. The election of 1824 brought
an end to both the Democratic-Republican-dominated “era of good feeling” and the
use of a congressional caucus as a nominating device. Although the Democratic-
Republican caucus nominated William Crawford of Georgia as its candidate, three
other candidates (John Quincy Adams, Henry Clay, and Andrew Jackson) were also
nominated by rival factions within the party. After a bitter contest and an electoral
college deadlock, Adams was elected President by the House of Representatives.
A brief transitional period followed, in which state legislative caucuses and
conventions and various other methods were used to nominate presidential
candidates. In 1832, the three parties contesting the election—Anti-Masonic,
Democratic, and National Republican—used national conventions as vehicles for
nominating their presidential tickets for the first time. The use of nominating
conventions reflected the growing trend toward greater democratic participation
which characterized the “Jackson Era.”
“King Caucus” had been criticized as being both basically undemocratic and
insufficiently reflective of the popular choice of candidates. The national convention,
by comparison, was comprised of delegates chosen by party voters, activists and
officeholders in each state. It was a natural extension, on the national level, of the
party conventions used to nominate elected officials on the county and state levels.
The Anti-Masonic Party was the first to use the national convention, which met
in Baltimore in September 1831, to choose William Wirt as its candidate; the
Democrats and National Republicans followed suit the next year. By 1840, the
Democrats and Whigs had adopted the national convention as the standard
nominating device, which the major parties have used without exception ever since.
Classic Elements of the National Convention.
For over a century, national conventions were often unruly, strongly contested
gatherings. It was common for a number of names to be placed in nomination, with
no single candidate possessing the requisite number of votes to win on the first ballot.
In 1860, the Democrats were unable to decide on a candidate after ten days and
were forced to reconvene six weeks later in another city to finalize their selection. On
other occasions, many ballots and extensive political maneuvering were required
before a presidential candidate could be nominated. Various party rules and political
practices contributed to these characteristics.
The Two-Thirds Rule and Dark-Horse Candidates. A major factor was the
Democratic Party requirement, adopted at the 1832 convention and not abandoned
until 1936, that the party’s nominee receive a two-thirds majority of delegate votes.
The record for the number of ballots cast is held by the Democrats, who required 1038
ballots to nominate John W. Davis in the 1924 national convention.
Fear of deadlock among the most widely-known candidates led to the occasional
emergence of a “dark horse” candidate—a minor candidate or party figure who had
not originally been thought of as a candidate—as a compromise choice. James K.
Polk of Tennessee, nominated by the Democrats in 1844, is often cited as the first
dark horse candidate to win nomination. In 1936, the Democrats adopted rules
changes requiring only a simple majority for nomination, largely ending the lengthy
balloting which had occasionally resulted in the selection of dark horse candidates.
The Smoke-Filled Room. Convention deadlock was not unknown among the
Republicans, despite the fact that they required only a simple majority to nominate.
At their 1920 convention, Ohio Senator Warren Harding emerged as a compromise
candidate on the 10th ballot. According to legend, Harding’s nomination was
engineered at a secret late-night meeting of party leaders held in a hotel suite, giving
rise to an enduring element of national convention lore—selection of the presidential
nominee in “the smoke-filled room.” The term came to imply choice of a nominee by
a small group of party leaders meeting out of the view of public scrutiny.
Favorite Sons. The “favorite son” candidacy is another once-common device
which is seen much less frequently in contemporary national conventions. Favorite
8 The Republican record is held by the 1880 convention, which took 36 ballots to nominate
sons were political figures (often Governors, Senators, or Representatives) who ran
for the Presidency, usually campaigning only in their home states, for the purpose of
retaining control of state delegations. Once at a convention, the favorite son typically
used his delegates as bargaining chips, to influence the party platform, to help secure
the nomination for a preferred candidate, to seek future political favors, or to enhance
his own prospects as vice presidential nominee.
A 1972 Democratic Party rules change required that candidates secure pledges
of support from at least 50 delegates, not more than 20 of whom can be from a single
state. This rule, which essentially required candidates to secure at least a modest level
of support from a more geographically diverse representation of delegates, further
served to reduce the number of names placed in nomination at subsequent
conventions. Similarly, current Republican Party rules require that candidates must
be able to demonstrate the support of a majority of the delegates from five or more
states in order to have their names placed in nomination.
The decline of favorite son candidacies in both parties is also attributed to the
changing nature of the pre-convention nomination process: fewer uncommitted
delegates are elected in the primaries and caucuses. Moreover, as state and local
party leaders gradually lost control of the selection process, they were unable to keep
delegates from supporting major candidates for the nomination.
The Modern Convention
Ratifying the Party Choice.
Throughout most of the first half of the 20th century, national conventions were
frequently the scene of contentious struggles for the presidential nomination. It was
not uncommon for a convention to open without a clear favorite and with no
candidate holding the votes needed to win the nomination on the first ballot.
Since that time, the choice of nominees has been much less likely to be made at
the convention. Although there can be—and frequently are—spirited controversies
over rival candidacies, the nominee today is usually known well in advance of the
convention, based on an accumulation of a comfortable majority of delegate votes.
As a result, the convention now characteristically serves largely to ratify a choice
already arrived at by party primaries, caucuses and state conventions.
To a large extent, this change has resulted from a corresponding change in how
convention delegates are chosen. Traditionally, most delegates were selected by party
leaders and officials. Since World War II, and especially since the 1970s, increased
reliance on caucuses and primaries has opened the delegate selection process to larger
numbers of party activists and the voting public, effectively wresting control from
state and national party professionals. Primary voters usually declare their presidential
candidate choice at the same time as they indicate their choice of convention
Moreover, despite the large numbers of candidates who have entered the race
in recent elections (at least when no incumbent was running in a particular party), the
increasing length of the primary and caucus season has tended to eliminate weaker
candidates, winnowing the field to one or two major contenders. In almost every
convention since 1956, one candidate has gone to each party’s convention with a
clear, strong lead in delegate totals.
The Influence of Television.
Since 1952, when full-scale television coverage began, the national convention
has been transformed from a gathering of the party faithful to a media event which
attracts widespread national interest. Television coverage led to a complete
reorganization of scheduling and events. Convention sessions, once primarily
conducted during the day, are now largely scheduled for peak viewing hours, in order
to attract the widest television audience. The once-leisurely pace of events has been
tightened, time-consuming demonstrations are more strictly limited, and lengthy
speeches have largely been curtailed or eliminated.
Emphasis has been placed on producing stage-set platforms geared more to
television viewers than convention participants. Both parties also make increasing use
of professionally produced films on the candidates and the party. Included as an
integral part of the convention proceedings, these serve the dual purpose of
entertaining delegates and broadcasting a carefully tailored image and message to
As of 1992, the three major commercial television networks announced a
reduction in convention coverage, citing increased costs and declining viewer interest.
More extensive, even “gavel-to-gavel,” convention coverage has been provided,
however, by the Public Broadcasting System (PBS), Cable News Network (CNN),
Planning the Convention
The official “call” to the convention, customarily issued by the national
committees of the two major parties some 18 months in advance, announces the dates
and site of the national convention. The call also includes information on delegate
allocation and rules for deciding disputed delegate credentials. In recent years, the
Democrats have included rules governing affirmative action in the delegate selection
process, activities of convention committees, and procedures and scheduling for
various committees and convention events.
Timing and Location of National Conventions.
During the 20th century, national party conventions have come to be held during
the summer immediately preceding the opening of the general election campaign for
President. Since 1952, all conventions have been held in July or August. In a
tradition that dates to 1932, the party out of power has convened first, usually about
a month before the party holding the Presidency. In 2000, the Republican National
Convention is scheduled to be held from July 31-August 3 in Philadelphia, while the
Democrats will meet from August 14-17 in Los Angeles.
In the 19th century, difficulties of travel led to the selection of centrally located
cities as convention sites. Baltimore, located midway along the Atlantic seaboard,
was a favorite choice in early years. As the center of population moved west,
Chicago and other midwestern cities were more frequently selected. With the advent
of air travel and further population growth in the west, south, and southwest, a
broader range of locations has been considered. Chicago has been host to the greatest
number of conventions (11 Democratic and 14 Republican).
Table 2. Democratic and Republican National Party Conventions:
Year Party Location Dates
1860DemocraticCharlestonApril 23-May 3
1868DemocraticNew YorkJuly 4-9
1876DemocraticSt. LouisJune 27-29
1888DemocraticSt. LouisJune 5-7
RepublicanSt. LouisJune 16-18
Year Party Location Dates
1900DemocraticKansas CityJuly 4-6
1904DemocraticSt. LouisJuly 6-9
1912DemocraticBaltimoreJune 25-July 2
1916DemocraticSt. LouisJune 14-16
1920DemocraticSan FranciscoJune 28-July 6
1924DemocraticNew YorkJune 24-July 9
RepublicanKansas CityJune 12-15
1932DemocraticChicagoJune 27-July 2
RepublicanSan FranciscoAug. 20-23
1960DemocraticLos AngelesJuly 11-15
1964DemocraticAtlantic CityAug. 24-27
RepublicanSan FranciscoJuly 13-16
RepublicanMiami BeachAug. 5-8
1972DemocraticMiami BeachJuly 10-13
RepublicanMiami BeachAug. 21-23
1976DemocraticNew YorkJuly 12-15
RepublicanKansas CityAug. 16-19
1980DemocraticNew YorkAug. 11-14
1984DemocraticSan FranciscoJuly 16-19
RepublicanNew OrleansAug. 14-18
1992DemocraticNew YorkJuly 13-16
Year Party Location Dates
RepublicanSan DiegoAug. 12-16
2000DemocraticLos AngelesAug. 14-17
RepublicanPhiladelphiaJul. 31-Aug. 3
Source: National Party Conventions, 1831-1988. (Washington, Congressional
Quarterly, Inc., 1991.). 283 p.; 1992, 1996, and 2000 data from published sources.
Site Selection. Selection of sites for national party conventions is a lengthy
process in which facilities, security arrangements, and level of assistance offered by
local governments are all considered by a special committee of the parties’ national
committees. An incumbent President’s choice of location may also be an important
factor in his party’s decision. State and local governments actively seek conventions
due to the economic benefits conferred by the presence of large numbers of delegates,
party officials and media representatives, as well as the presumably favorable national
publicity generated by a national convention.
Delegates to national political conventions are chosen by various methods, as
detailed in Chapter II. The number of delegates is established by the respective party
committee and has risen over the years. In 2000, the Democratic National
Convention will be comprised of 4,337 delegates and 610 alternates, while the
Republicans select 2,066 delegates and an equal number of alternates. A table
reflecting the growth in delegate numbers since 1952 follows:
Table 3. Growth of National Convention Delegations: 1952-2000
Year Democrats Republicans
Source: James W. Davis, National Conventions in an Age of Party Reform (Westport,
CN: Greenwood Press, 1983). p. 43. (1952-1980); Republican and Democratic National
Committees, for 1984 and 1988; 1992, 1996, and 2000 data from Final Calls.
National conventions of the Democratic and Republican Parties follow similar
patterns of organization.
Although conventions of both parties are opened by a temporary presiding
officer, election of a permanent chair is usually one of the first points in the order of
business. The Permanent Chair, who presides for the balance of the convention, is
usually a senior party figure, most often the party leader in the House of
Representatives. (Since 1972, the Democrats have required that the permanent
chairmanship alternate between the sexes every four years.) In 1996, House Speaker
Newt Gingrich (GA) chaired the Republican National Convention, while Senate
Minority Leader Tom Daschle (SD) and House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt
(MO) co-chaired the Democratic National Convention.
Committees of the national conventions prepare reports for the conventions on
delegate credentials, rules of procedure, and party platforms. The full convention
ratifies or amends the respective recommendations from each of these committees.
Permanent Organization. The Permanent Organization Committee, which
functions continuously between conventions, has as its primary role the selection of
convention officers. As part of its 1972 reforms, the Democrats abolished the
Permanent Organization Committee, transferring its duties to the Rules Committee.
Credentials. The Credentials Committees of both parties examine and rule on
the accreditation of state delegations to the conventions. In closely contested or
unusually acrimonious nomination campaigns, the Credentials Committees
occasionally consider conflicting claims for recognition by competing slates of
delegates. The Rules and Bylaws Committee of the Democratic National Committee
monitors the delegate selection process to ensure party rules are observed.
Rules. The Rules Committees of the two parties recommend procedures under
which the national conventions are conducted.
Platform. The first party platform was adopted by the Democrats at their 1840
national convention. The task of drafting the platforms of the two major parties is the
responsibility of the Platform Committees, which draft the document for the
conventions’ approval. Typically, these committees hold hearings around the country
prior to the convention at which public views on policy questions are solicited.
The Convention Day-by-Day
Contemporary national conventions are generally held over a four-day period,
with both parties observing similar schedules. The proceedings are regularly
interspersed with films honoring party figures. A continuing procession of party
notables, usually selected to reflect the party's diversity, offer short speeches
throughout the proceedings, while clergymen from various denominations offer
invocations and benedictions to open and close each session.
The following day-by-day account provides a general overview of the course of
events at a typical national convention. Variations in scheduling, both planned and
those necessitated by time-consuming floor procedures, are not uncommon.
The first day of a national convention is generally devoted to routine business.
The convention is called to order by the national party chair, the roll of delegations
is called, and the temporary chair is elected. Welcoming speeches are delivered by the
mayor of the host city and often the governor of the state in which the convention is
held. Committee appointments, which have been previously announced, are ratified.
The Democrats generally install permanent convention officers at the first session,
while the Republicans, in recent years, have completed adoption of credentials, rules,
and the party platform before turning over convention proceedings to the permanent
chair, usually on the second or third day.
The Democratic Convention keynote address is also delivered on the first day
of convention proceedings. The Republicans tend to schedule keynote speeches for
later in the convention, usually at the second session.
The Keynote Address.
The keynote address sets the themes and tone of the convention and often of the
general election campaign to follow. Keynote speakers are usually prominent office
holders or party officials, chosen because of their national appeal and speaking ability,
or because they may be viewed as “rising stars” in the party.
The keynote address is highly partisan in tone and content. It extols the party
record and the incumbent President, when the party holds the White House. It attacks
the opposition candidates, policies, and record. Perhaps the most famous such
address was delivered at the 1896 Democratic National Convention by William
Jennings Bryan of Nebraska. His passionate attack on the gold standard, coupled with
a plea for free silver (“You shall not crucify mankind on a cross of gold”) stampeded
the convention and led to his own nomination. A list of 20th century keynote speakers
Table 4. Keynote Speakers at National Conventions: 1900-1996
Year Party Speaker State
1900DemocraticCharles S. ThomasCO
RepublicanE. O. WoolcottCO
1904DemocraticJohn Sharp WilliamsMS
1908DemocraticTheodore A. Bell CA
RepublicanJulius C. BurrowsMI
1912DemocraticAlton B. ParkerNY
1916DemocraticMartin S. GlynnNY
RepublicanWarren G. HardingOH
1920DemocraticHomer S. CummingsCT
RepublicanHenry Cabot LodgeMA
RepublicanTheodore E. BurtonOH
1928DemocraticClaude G. BowersIN
RepublicanSimeon D. FessOH
1932DemocraticAlben W. BarkleyKY
RepublicanL. J. DickinsonIA
1936DemocraticAlben W. BarkleyKY
1940DemocraticWilliam B. BankheadAL
RepublicanHarold E. StassenMN
1944DemocraticRobert S. KerrOK
1948DemocraticAlben W. BarkleyKY
RepublicanDwight H. GreenIL
1952DemocraticPaul A. DeverMA
1956DemocraticFrank G. ClementTN
RepublicanArthur B. LanglieWA
RepublicanWalter H. JuddMN
1964DemocraticJohn O. PastoreRI
RepublicanMark O. HatfieldOR
1968DemocraticDaniel K. InouyeHI
RepublicanDaniel J. EvansWA
RepublicanEdward W. BrookeMA
Richard G. LugarIN
RepublicanHoward H. Baker, Jr.TN
1980DemocraticMorris K. UdallAZ
RepublicanGuy Vander JagtMI
Year Party Speaker State
1984DemocraticMario M. CuomoNY
Sources: Proceedings of the National Conventions of the Democratic and Republican
Credentials. Routine convention business often spills over into the second day
of proceedings, as reports of the credentials, rules, and platform committees are
debated and approved by the delegates. While the acceptance of delegate credentials
is usually a perfunctory procedure, in some years credentials have been hotly
contested as rival slates of delegates from the same state, representing contending
factions, were presented.
In 1968, the Democratic National Convention voted to unseat the racially
segregated Mississippi Regular Democratic delegation and replace it with the rival,
integrated Freedom Democratic delegation. Four years later, in 1972, challenges to
both the California and Illinois Democratic delegations resulted in lengthy struggles
on the floor. These struggles grew out of infighting between supporters and
opponents of candidate George McGovern and focused on whether the delegations
had been elected in accordance with newly adopted reform rules. In both cases, the
pro-McGovern delegations were seated, helping insure nomination of the South
Dakota Senator and constituting a major defeat for more traditional party leaders.
Rules. Adoption of the Rules Committee report, setting convention procedures,
is another important function usually completed on the second day of the convention.
Consideration of the committee report has occasionally been accompanied by spirited
debate, particularly in a close convention when delegates have sought to boost their
candidate's chances by securing rules changes.
At the 1976 Republican Convention, supporters of Ronald Reagan
unsuccessfully sought a rules change which would have required candidates for the
nomination to name their vice presidential running mate before the first ballot. Failure
to comply with the proposed rule change would have freed all delegates from their
customary pledge to vote for the candidate to whom they were committed on the first
round. Reagan supporters hoped that adoption of the rule might force opposing
candidate Gerald Ford to name a running mate unacceptable to some of his committed
delegates, and thus enhance Reagan’s chances of nomination.
Platform. Adoption of the party platform is another task usually completed on
the second day of a convention, although consideration of proposed amendments to
the Platform Committee draft will occasionally continue into the third day.
The party platform, a statement of principles and policy proposals, is prepared
in advance by the Platform Committee, but is sometimes amended on the floor
through minority reports. These reports are filed by those who were unsuccessful in
incorporating their views into the draft version. Consideration of minority reports by
the convention is contingent upon obtaining a threshold level of delegate support.
The process of platform approval has also occasionally led to spirited struggles
between contending convention factions, often allied with opposing candidates. In
1984, for instance, candidate Jesse Jackson sought platform ‘planks’ (statements of
distinct party policies) renouncing ‘first use’ of nuclear weapons, denouncing runoff
primary elections (deemed discriminatory to black candidates), and embracing the use
of quotas to combat racial discrimination, all controversial positions considered by
opponents as pushing the party too far to the ‘left.’ Convention forces loyal to
eventual nominee Walter Mondale rejected all three proposals, although compromise
language allegedly acceptable to Jackson was eventually adopted.
Platforms are intended to maintain the loyalty of committed party activists, while
attracting the support and votes of political independents. As such, they generally
avoid proposals which might be interpreted as extreme. On the occasions when party
platforms have incorporated allegedly radical proposals of the left or right, they have
tended to damage the election chances of the presidential ticket.
Although serving as a statement of principles and intentions, party platforms are
not binding. Presidents, once in office, may choose to ignore the pledges made by the
party in convention. For example, in 1932, Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected on a
platform calling for increased austerity and a balanced budget. Once in office,
however, his administration undertook a program of spending measures—the New
Deal—intended to stimulate the economy and end the Depression. Furthermore,
Republican platforms in 1980, 1984, and 1988 called for a balanced federal budget,
but budget deficits throughout this period continued to increase.
The third day of national conventions is usually reserved for the nomination of
the presidential candidate. In recent years, the nomination is accomplished in one
evening, with only one ballot. The last national convention requiring more than one
ballot to nominate a presidential candidate was the 1952 Democratic National
Convention, in which Adlai Stevenson was chosen on the third round of voting.
The Nominating Speech. Prominent or promising party figures are usually
given the task of placing the names of candidates in nomination, followed by a series
of seconding speeches. The classic form of nominating speech, which generally
included a long list of the candidate’s strengths and achievements, avoided naming the
candidate until the final paragraph. This device, known as “the man who,” was
intended to postpone the inevitable and time-consuming demonstrations of delegate
support which inevitably followed mention of the candidate’s name. This classic
formulation has largely disappeared from contemporary nomination speeches.
Balloting. Following completion of the nominating and seconding speeches, the
role of states is called, by the clerk of the convention, a position usually filled by the
permanent secretary of the party’s national committee. The tally of delegate votes in
each state is announced by the chair of the delegation, often the party’s highest
ranking elected official in the state. A running count of vote totals is maintained,
usually culminating in a “spontaneous” demonstration for the nominee when he or she
receives enough votes to go “over the top” to secure the nomination. Following the
completion of balloting, the chair usually entertains a motion to demonstrate party
unity by making the nomination unanimous by acclamation. In 1984, the Republicans
departed from tradition by nominating incumbent President Ronald Reagan and Vice
President George Bush in a joint ballot.
The fourth day of the convention is usually dominated by the nomination of the
vice presidential candidate and the presidential and vice presidential nominees’
Nominating the Vice President. In a current practice embraced by both parties,
the choice of a vice presidential nominee remains the prerogative of the presidential
candidate. Franklin Roosevelt (particularly in 1940 and 1944) is generally regarded
as the first President who was able to impose his personal vice presidential choice.
In 1948, Republican nominee Thomas Dewey followed suit when he chose Earl
Warren as his running mate. Prior to these precedents, party leaders usually chose the
vice presidential nominee, often an unsuccessful presidential candidate who had wide
support, or who was perceived as adding geographical balance to the ticket.
The concept of ticket balance remains an active element in contemporary
nominations, with such factors as geography, age of vice presidential nominee, and
political ideology (i.e., a presidential nominee perceived as liberal will often choose
a more conservative running mate, and vice versa) figuring in the nominee's choice.
That choice is rarely challenged, although a notable deviation from this tradition
occurred in 1956, when Democratic nominee Adlai Stevenson encouraged open
nominations for Vice President from the convention floor. A spirited contest ensued,
in which Tennessee Senator Estes Kefauver bested a number of challengers on the
third ballot, including Senators Albert Gore, Sr. (TN), John F. Kennedy (MA), Hubert
Humphrey (MN), and New York Mayor Robert F. Wagner.
Incumbent Presidents seeking reelection usually select their current Vice
Presidents as running mates, in the interest of continuity and party unity, although
there have been occasional efforts to deny an incumbent Vice President a place on the
ticket. For instance, in 1956, some Republican leaders unsuccessfully urged President
Eisenhower to replace Vice President Nixon. More recently, in 1976, Vice President
Nelson Rockefeller announced that he would not seek the nomination, an action
widely interpreted at the time as an effort to preserve party unity by opening the slot
for a more conservative candidate and to bolster President Ford’s candidacy.
The procedure for nominating the vice presidential candidates mirrors that for
the presidential candidates, with the name placed in nomination by a prominent party
leader, seconded by others, and followed by a roll call of the states (often a motion
to nominate by acclamation occurs in place of the roll call).
Acceptance Speeches. Following his or her nomination, the vice presidential
candidate delivers an acceptance speech which is followed by the last major activity
of the convention—the presidential nominee’s acceptance speech.
Democratic nominee Franklin Roosevelt, in 1932, was the first candidate both
to appear at a national convention, and to deliver his acceptance in person. Prior to
that time, a committee of party dignitaries customarily visited the candidate to inform
him of his nomination. Republican nominee Thomas Dewey inaugurated this practice
in the GOP in 1944.
The candidate’s acceptance speech ranks with the keynote address as one of the
highlights of the convention, and it serves as its finale. It provides an opportunity for
the nominee to establish the tone, content, and general themes of the election
campaign to come, while providing incumbent Presidents running for reelection with
the opportunity to defend their record and seek a renewed mandate from the voters.
Adjournment. Immediately following the nominee’s acceptance speech, the
presidential nominee is joined on the podium by the vice presidential nominee, their
spouses, families, defeated rivals and other party leaders for the traditional unity pose.
Shortly afterwards, the convention is adjourned sine die.
IV. The General Election
Adjournment of the national nominating conventions marks the beginning of the
next phase of the presidential election process—the general election campaign. In the
months following the conventions, the candidates, parties, and campaign organizations
seek to build a winning popular and electoral vote coalition.
Labor Day has traditionally marked the start of the general election campaign.
Although party nominees make campaign appearances throughout the summer,
scheduling and media advertising begin in earnest in September. Dramatic “kickoff”
events seek to draw the greatest possible attention to the national ticket. Democratic
nominees traditionally began their campaigns with a large Labor Day rally in Detroit's
Cadillac Square. However, in recent years, both parties have varied the site.
Immediately following the conventions, the nominees are faced with several tasks.
These include uniting the party behind the candidates, establishing a general election
campaign organization, and preparing a campaign plan.
In recent years, presidential campaigns have been managed by separate candidate-
centered organizations, ad-hoc groups assembled for the specific purpose of winning
the election. After the conventions, these committees are usually expanded from the
nominee’s primary organization to include key party professionals and staff from the
campaigns of rival contenders for the nomination.
The campaign organization prepares the campaign plan, schedules appearances
by the nominees and surrogate campaigners, conducts opposition and survey research,
manages the national media campaign, and conducts both voter registration and get-
out-the-vote (GOTV) drives. The organization is organized on the national, state, and
local levels, overlapping, especially on the local level, existing party structures. The
campaign organization seeks to broaden the candidate’s appeal beyond committed
partisans, bringing his or her message to the largest number of independent voters
possible and to dissatisfied members of the other party.
Campaign plans detail the strategy and tactics which the campaign organizations
and candidates hope will bring a winning combination of electoral and popular votes
in the general election. They specify the issues to be emphasized by the nominees and
aspects of the candidates’ personal image they hope to project to the voters. They
include: plans of attack on the platform, issues, and candidates of the opposition;
targeting of socioeconomic, ethnic, and religious groups deemed to be most amenable
to the campaign message; assessments of the ticket’s strengths and weaknesses in
various states; and decisions on which geographic areas the candidates should
concentrate in order to assemble an electoral college majority.
Campaign plans, while often quite detailed, tend to be flexible. They seek to
anticipate possible events, emerging issues, and fluctuations in voter attitudes, allowing
candidate and organization activities to be adjusted or “fine tuned” in order to
strengthen the ticket as needed and to most effectively allocate resources.
The contemporary model of presidential candidates crisscrossing the country on
campaign tours, participating in a wide variety of political gatherings, is actually a fairly
recent innovation in presidential campaign activity.
Traditional Methods–The Front Porch Campaign.
Throughout the 19th century, and well into the 20th, campaigns were conducted
largely at grassroots levels by “surrogates”–party leaders and officeholders who spoke
for the national ticket. With a few notable exceptions–in 1896, Democratic nominee
William Jennings Bryan toured the country by rail in his impassioned, yet unsuccessful,
campaign, nominees conducted “front porch campaigns,” staying at home, receiving
groups of supporters, and issuing occasional statements to the press.
The Modern Campaign Style.
Active campaigning by presidential candidates became more common in the 20th
century. In 1932, Franklin D. Roosevelt conducted the first modern “whistle stop”
campaign, traveling 13,000 miles by train and visiting 36 states. In succeeding
elections, the “whistle stop” campaign, in which candidates toured the country by train,
delivering speeches from the rear platforms, became a regular fixture of presidential
politics. President Harry Truman apparently holds the record, covering 32,000 miles
and averaging 10 speeches a day in his successful 1948 election bid.
During the same period, candidates made increasing use of air travel, another area
in which Roosevelt pioneered. In 1932, he flew from New York to Chicago to accept
the Democratic nomination, the first candidate to do so in person. Modern presidential
campaigns are almost exclusively conducted by air, with the candidates able to cover
both coasts in a single day. Air travel enables candidates to touch base in media
markets in different parts of the country on the same day, maximizing their television
exposure to voters. Sometimes, the candidates’ appearances are confined to airport
rallies, after which the campaign plane flies to another metropolitan area.
The Rose Garden Campaign.
A variation of the front porch campaign survives in contemporary presidential
electoral politics. Sitting Presidents running for reelection, seeking both to maximize
the advantages of incumbency and to project a “presidential” image, are likely to make
use of the “Rose Garden” campaign style. They maintain a limited campaign schedule,
while carrying out their duties as President. The incumbent makes well publicized use
of the perquisites of the Presidency, including the use of the President’s airplane—Air
Force One, scheduling frequent announcements and activities at the White House, and
delivering grants and other federal benefits in states and localities which, it is hoped,
contribute to the reelection effort’s success.
Television Dominated Presidential Campaigns
The 1930s and 1940s saw the increasing use of radio as a major campaign
communications tool. The advent of widespread commercial television broadcasting
in the late 1940s added a further dimension. With its use of compelling video images,
TV eventually revolutionized presidential contests. In 1952, Dwight Eisenhower
became the first presidential candidate to make systematic use of the new medium,9
spending almost $2,000,000 on television advertising. The Eisenhower campaign
messages, the first created by advertising professionals, were credited with creating a
favorable image of the GOP candidate, contributing substantially to his victory.
Since that time, television has come increasingly to dominate presidential election
campaigns. Its influence is felt in three separate, but related areas: paid political
advertising, news coverage, and candidate debates.
Televised political advertising today comprises the largest single expense in any
presidential general election campaign. In 1996, more than 60% of the money spent
by the Clinton and Dole general election campaigns (by the candidates and national
parties) was devoted to electronic media advertising, most all of it for television.10
Since the advent of broadcast political advertising, first on radio and later TV,
candidate messages have grown progressively shorter. The standard 30-minute
broadcast speech by a nominee was succeeded by the five-minute spot, which in turn
has yielded to the 30- and 60-second messages most common in today’s campaigns.
Televised political advertising, which has achieved a high degree of technical
sophistication, generally falls into either of two categories: positive or negative. Both
approaches are likely to be used, aired in different markets at different times, as
dictated by the campaign plan and changing circumstances.
Positive Messages. Positive political advertising seeks to portray the candidate
and issues in a favorable light. The candidate, his family, career achievements, and
issue identifications are emphasized. If he is an incumbent running for reelection, the
achievements of his administration are detailed. Positive campaign spots generally seek
to solidify party support and attract undecided voters of either party.
9 Stanley Kelly, Professional Public Relations and Political Power (Baltimore: Johns
Hopkins Press, 1956), p. 161, 162.
10 Campaign Study Group, as reported in: Ira Chinoy, “In Presidential Race, TV Ads Were
Biggest ‘96 Cost By Far,” Washington Post, Mar. 31, 1997, p. A19.
Negative Messages. So-called negative, or comparative, political advertising has
been used increasingly in recent years. It conveys or seeks to evoke a basically
unfavorable view of the opposing candidate or party, often by means of comparison
with the sponsoring candidate. Negative spots are intended to establish doubts among
the public about a candidate or his policies, in hopes of persuading them to vote
against that candidate or party, or not to vote at all.
Television news is considered a vital source of free political advertising for
presidential candidates. A January 2000 poll conducted for the Pew Research Center
for the People and the Press reported that 75% of respondents stated that television11
was their main source for election campaign news. Campaign managers seek both
to keep the nominee in the spotlight and to insure that the candidate is positively
portrayed. Day-to-day scheduling is now largely geared to the requirements of TV
news broadcasts. Candidate appearances, often airport rallies and political speeches,
are timed for inclusion in nightly network and local news broadcasts, the latter aimed
at media markets in different regions. At the same time, campaign staff seek to
generate large and enthusiastic crowds at these events, to convey the impression of a
vital campaign effort which enjoys wide and growing support.
Political historians long pointed to the Lincoln-Douglas senatorial debates of 1858
as a model for issues to be discussed before the voters. In 1948, the first public debate
among presidential candidates was held, between Thomas E. Dewey and Harold
Stassen, a radio broadcast in connection with the Oregon Republican presidential
primary. In 1952, a joint televised appearance before the League of Women Voters’
national convention included several presidential candidates or their representatives,
although the event did not constitute a debate. The first televised debate occurred in
1956, between contestants for the Democratic presidential nomination: Adlai
Stevenson and Estes Kefauver.12 The first nationally televised presidential debate
among general election contenders was held in 1960, and since 1976, these events have
become a regular fixture of presidential elections.
The 1960 Debates. In 1960, proposals were advanced for a series of televised
debates between the major party nominees in the general election. However, an
obstacle to such debates lay in the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC)
interpretation of the Federal Communications Act’s “equal time” provision as it applied
to political broadcast debates. Under this interpretation, TV networks would be
required to give equal time to presidential candidates of the numerous minor parties
11 “Audiences Fragmented and Skeptical: The Tough Job of Communicating with
Voters,” The Pew Research Center for the People & the Press [http:/www.people-
12 Susan A. Hellweg, Michael Pfau, and Steven R. Brydon, Televised Presidential Debates:
Advocacy in Contemporary America (NY: Praeger, 1992), pp. 1-3.
if they broadcast the Kennedy-Nixon debates. In Public Law 86-677, Congress
temporarily suspended the equal time rule for presidential candidates for the duration
of the 1960 campaign, paving the way for four debates between John F. Kennedy and
Richard M. Nixon, sponsored by the three commercial networks.
Following the 1960 campaign, the FCC returned to strict enforcement of the
equal time rule. Furthermore, at least one of the major party candidates in the next
three elections (Lyndon Johnson in 1964 and Richard Nixon in 1968 and 1972)
expressed reluctance or unwillingness to participate in televised debates.
Presidential Debates Since 1976. Since 1976, televised debates have become a
regular, expected feature of presidential campaigns, both in the primary and general
elections. In 1975, the FCC reversed its longstanding interpretation of the equal time
rule [Aspen Institute, 55 F.C.C.2d 697 (1975)] when it established an exemption for
debates by qualified major party candidates as long as they were conducted as bona
fide news events, sponsored by non-broadcast entities, and covered in their entirety.
The following year, the League of Women Voters Education Fund, a non-partisan
public interest group, sponsored a series of three presidential debates between
nominees Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford, and one vice-presidential debate between
their respective running mates, Walter Mondale and Robert Dole.
In 1980, President Jimmy Carter declined to participate in any debate that
included Independent John Anderson, whom the League invited based on his public
opinion poll standing. The Fund ultimately sponsored two debates, one in which only
Anderson and Republican Ronald Reagan participated, and the second with only Carter
and Reagan (Anderson no longer met the Fund’s criteria by that point).
In 1983, the FCC modified its earlier ruling when it allowed broadcasters,
principally the commercial networks, to sponsor debates. Through 1992, debates
generally followed a familiar format: candidates appeared before a panel of journalists,
made an opening statement, took questions from the panel, heard rebuttal by the
opponent, and generally ended with closing statements.
In 1984, President Ronald Reagan met Democrat Walter Mondale in two debates
sponsored by the Fund, while their running mates—George Bush and Geraldine
Ferraro—debated in a single meeting. In 1985, in an effort to assert party control over
the debates, the Chairs of the Democratic and Republican National Committees
collaborated to establish a non-partisan Commission on Presidential Debates. After
protracted negotiations, a 1988 agreement called for commission sponsorship of the
first of two presidential debates, with the Fund sponsoring the second. Eventually, the
Fund withdrew altogether, and the Commission sponsored both presidential events and
the single vice presidential debate held in 1988.
Debates in 1992 were agreed to after an even longer struggle between Democrats
and Republicans, with the plan featuring three presidential and one vice presidential
Commission-sponsored debates and including Independents Ross Perot and James
Stockdale. The Commission experimented with different formats for each debate,
including: moderator and panel of journalists (the traditional format); single moderator
and audience questions; moderator and panel of journalists, each responsible for half
the time; and single moderator and free-form discussion among participants.13
In 1996, Bill Clinton (D) and Bob Dole (R) debated once with a single moderator
questioning them and then in a town hall meeting in which citizens posed questions.
In the vice presidential debate, a single moderator questioned Democrat Al Gore and
Republican Jack Kemp.
Table 5. Nationally Televised General Election Debates: 1960-1996
October 7Kennedy and Nixon
October 13Kennedy and Nixon
October 21Kennedy and Nixon
October 6Carter and Ford
October 15Mondale (D); Dole (R)
October 22Carter and Ford
October 28Carter (D); Reagan
October 11Ferraro (D); Bush (R)
October 21Mondale and Reagan
October 5Bentsen (D); Quayle (R)
October 13Dukakis and Bush
October 13Gore (D); Quayle;
October 15Clinton, Bush, and Perot
October 19Clinton, Bush, and Perot
October 9Gore (D); Kemp (R)
October 16Clinton and Dole
Sources: Commission on Presidential Debates web site, visited Feb. 17, 2000
13 Richard L. Berke, “Bush and Clinton Agree on Debates; Plan to Ask Perot.” New York
Times, Oct. 3, 1992, p. 1,9.
Role of Televised Presidential Debates. Televised debates now constitute one
of the most important elements in presidential electoral politics. They draw what is
easily the largest audience of any public activity associated with the election. The final
presidential debate of the hotly contested, three-way election of 1992 was watched by14
an estimated 97 million TV viewers, for example.
Candidates devote substantial time and effort in preparing for debates, as it is
widely believed that their performance may significantly affect their chances of
electoral success. Extensive briefings and rehearsals are conducted, to anticipate
questions and issues which may be raised. Careful attention is paid to the nominee’s
physical appearance, in order to project an appealing, if not “presidential,” image.
Survey Research in the Presidential Election Campaign
The use of survey research is an integral aspect of contemporary electioneering.
The public watches the fluctuations in candidate match-ups by polling organizations
during the campaign, but more important to the campaigns than the “horse race” data
are the tracking polls conducted on a continuing basis. These surveys, done by
organizations on contract for the campaigns, are designed to identify issues of concern
to potential voters, as well as to measure support for the nominee and his running mate
among key demographic groups and in different geographical areas.
The tracking polls, along with even more in-depth devices like focus groups
(wherein carefully selected groups of representative voters are interviewed for their
reactions to the candidates and their messages), provide a source of vital information
for campaigns. If support is low among particular social, economic, or ethnic groups,
or in certain states, such resources as candidate appearances and political advertising
are redirected and targeted to strengthen the campaign where needed. In this way, the
candidates seek to change or minimize negative personal images or to emphasize their
strengths and achievements, based on trends monitored often on a daily basis.
On election day, voters in the 50 states and the District of Columbia cast their
ballots for electors pledged to their favored presidential and vice presidential nominees.
The law establishes the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November for the
choice of all federal elective officers. In the interest of convenience and economy,
most states and many localities also hold elections on federal election day.
Elections for President and Vice President are held every fourth year, in years that
are divisible by the number four (i.e. 1988, 1992 and 1996). Congressional elections
are held on this day every even-numbered year, with those in between presidential
contests termed mid-term or off-year elections.
14 Commission on Presidential Debates web site, visited Feb. 17, 2000
History of Selection.
The Constitution originally made no provision for election dates for presidential
electors or representatives, delegating the power to establish such times to Congress.
In 1845, Congress set a uniform time for holding elections for presidential and vice
presidential electors, specifying that such individuals would be chosen on the first
Tuesday after the first Monday in November every fourth year (5 Stat. 721). The
States, however, were specifically empowered to set different times by legislation.
Maine provided the best known exception to the November practice, holding its
presidential election on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in September, until
gave rise to the not always accurate phrase, “As Maine goes, so goes the Nation.” As
of 1960, Maine has held its presidential election in conformity with the other states.
In 1872, Congress extended the November election day to cover Members of the
House of Representatives (17 Stat. 28). In 1915, following ratification of the 17th
Amendment to the Constitution (establishing direct popular election of Senators), the
same date in November was also designated for Senate elections (38 Stat. 384).
Reasons for Selection. Several reasons are traditionally cited for the selection
of November as the time for federal elections. In a largely rural and agrarian America,
harvesting of crops was completed by then, and farmers were able to take the time
necessary to vote. Travel was also easier before the onset of winter throughout the
northern part of the country.
Tuesday was chosen partly because it gave a full day’s travel time between
Sunday (often strictly observed as a day of rest) and voting day. This was considered
necessary when travel was either on foot or by horse, and the only polling place in
most rural areas was at the county seat. The choice of Tuesday after the first Monday
prevented elections from falling on the first day of the month, which was often
reserved for court business at the county seat.
Voting hours are regulated by the states. Current polling hours in the 50 states
and the District of Columbia, arranged alphabetically by time-zone, are illustrated
below. States which fall into two time-zones are denoted by an asterisk (*). The
polling hours are local time in each zone, except as noted.
Table 6. Polling Hours in the States and District of Columbia1
StatePolls OpenPolls CloseTime Zone
Alabamano later than 8:00 a.m.6-8:00 p.m.2Central
Alaska7:00 a.m.8:00 p.m.Alaska
Arizona6:00 a.m.7:00 p.m.Mountain
Arkansas7:30 a.m.7:30 p.m.Central
California7:00 a.m.8:00 p.m.Pacific
Colorado7:00 a.m.7:00 p.m.Mountain
Connecticut6:00 a.m.8:00 p.m.Eastern
Delaware7:00 a.m.8:00 p.m.Eastern
District of Columbia7:00 a.m.8:00 p.m.Eastern
Florida *7:00 a.m.7:00 p.m.Eastern
Georgia7:00 a.m.7:00 p.m.Eastern
Hawaii7:00 a.m.6:00 p.m.Hawaii
Idaho8:00 a.m.8:00 p.m.Mountain
Illinois6:00 a.m.7:00 p.m.Central
Indiana *6:00 a.m.6:00 p.m. Eastern
Iowa7:00 a.m.9:00 p.m.Central
Kansas *6-7:00 a.m.7-8:00 p.m.3Central
Kentucky *6:00 a.m.6:00 p.m.Eastern
Louisiana6:00 a.m.8:00 p.m.Central
Maine6-10:00 a.m.8:00 p.m.Eastern
Maryland7:00 a.m.8:00 p.m.Eastern
Massachusetts7:00 a.m.8:00 p.m.Eastern
Michigan7:00 a.m.8:00 p.m.Eastern
Minnesota7:00 a.m.8:00 p.m.Central
Mississippi7:00 a.m.7:00 p.m.Central
Missouri6:00 a.m.7:00 p.m.Central
Montana7:00 a.m.8:00 p.m.4Mountain
Nebraska *8:00 a.m.8:00 p.m.Central
7:00 a.m7:00 p.m.Mountain
Nevada7:00 a.m.7:00 p.m.Pacific
New Hampshire11:00 a.m.7:00 p.m.5Eastern
New Jersey7:00 a.m.8:00 p.m.Eastern
New Mexico7:00 a.m.7:00 p.m.Mountain
New York6:00 a.m.9:00 p.m.Eastern
North Carolina6:30 a.m.7:30 p.m.Eastern
North Dakota7-9:00 a.m.7-9:00 p.m.6Central
Ohio6:30 a.m.7:30 p.m.Eastern
Oklahoma7:00 a.m.7:00 p.m.Central
Oregon7:00 a.m.8:00 p.m.Pacific
Pennsylvania7:00 a.m.8:00 p.m.Eastern
StatePolls OpenPolls CloseTime Zone
Rhode Island6-9:00 a.m.9:00 p.m.Eastern
South Carolina7:00 a.m.7:00 p.m.Eastern
South Dakota7:00 a.m.7:00 p.m.Mountain
8:00 a.m.8:00 p.m.Central
Tennessee *no standard opening77:00 p.m.Central
Texas7:00 a.m.7:00 p.m.Central
Utah7:00 a.m.8:00 p.m.Mountain
Vermont6-10:00 a.m.7:00 p.m.Eastern
Virginia6:00 a.m.7:00 p.m.Eastern
Washington7:00 a.m.8:00 p.m.Pacific
West Virginia6:30 a.m.7:30 p.mEastern
Wisconsin7-9:00 a.m.8:00 p.m.8Central
Wyoming7:00 a.m.7:00 p.m. Mountain
* States located in two time zones, listed under the eastern most time zone.
1 Local time, except as noted in states which are split between time zones.
2 Polls must be open 10 consecutive hours.
3 Polls must be open at least 12 consecutive hours between 6:00 a.m. and 8:00 p.m.
4 Polling places with fewer than 200 registered voters may be open from noon-8:00 p.m., or
until all registered electors have voted.5
All polling places open not later than 11:00 a.m. and close not earlier than 7:00 p.m. In cities,
the city council sets polling hours at least 30 days prior to the State election day.
6 In precincts where less than 75 votes were cast in the previous election, polls may open at
7 Polls must be open for at least 10 hours.
8 Polls open at 7:00 a.m. in 1st, 2nd, and 3rd class cities; in 4th class cities, towns, and villages,
the polls may open between 7:00 a.m. and 9:00 a.m.
Source: The Council of State Governments, The Book of the States, 1998-99 edition
(Lexington KY, 1998), p. 163.
V. Electoral College and Inauguration
When voters go to the polls on election day, they actually cast their votes for a
slate of electors, who are entrusted by the Constitution with election of the President15
and Vice President. The electors are known collectively as the electoral college.
The Electoral College in the Constitution.
The question of the manner in which the President was to be elected was debated
at great length at the Constitutional Convention of 1787. At one point, the delegates
voted for selection by Congress; other proposals considered were for election by: the
people at large; governors of the several states; electors chosen by state legislatures,
and a special group of Members of Congress chosen by lot. Eventually, the matter
was referred to a “committee on postponed matters,” which arrived at a compromise:
the electoral college system.
Size of the Electoral College and Allocation of Electoral Votes.
The electoral college, as established by the Constitution and modified by the 12th
and 23rd Amendments, currently includes 538 members: one for each Senator andrd
Representative, and three for the District of Columbia (under the 23 Amendment of
Each state has a number of electoral votes equal to the combined numerical total
of its Senate and House delegation. Since the size of state delegations in the House
of Representatives may change after the reapportionment mandated by the decennial
census, the size of state representation in the electoral college has similarly fluctuated.
The most recent House reapportionment and reallocation of electoral votes followed
the 1990 census, in effect for the 1992, 1996 and 2000 presidential elections. Current
electoral vote allocations are listed in table 7.
Qualifications for the Office of Elector.
Article II, section 1 of the Constitution provides that, “No Senator or
Representative, or person holding an office of trust or profit under the United States
shall be appointed an elector.” Aside from this disqualification, any person is qualified
to be an elector for President and Vice President.
15 For additional information on the contemporary role of the electoral college, see CRS
Report RS20273, The Electoral College: How it Operates in Contemporary Presidential
Table 7. Electoral Votes by State: 1992-2000
State No. State No. State No.
Alaska 3 Louisiana 9 Ohio 21
Arizona 8 Maine 4 Oklahoma 8
Arkansas 6 Maryland 10 Oregon 7
California 54 Massachusetts 12 Pennsylvania 23
District of Columbia3Missouri11Tennessee11
Florida 25 Montana 3 Texas 32
Georgia 13 Nebraska 5 Utah 5
Hawaii 4 Nevada 4 Vermont 3
Indiana12New Mexico5West Virginia5
Total:538Required for Election: 270
Source: U.S. Library of Congress, Congressional Research Service, Electoral Votes
Based on the 1990 Census, by David C. Huckabee, CRS Report 91-809 GOV (Washington,
November 19, 1991), pp. 2-3.
Nomination of Elector Candidates.
The Constitution does not specify procedures for the nomination of candidates
for the office of presidential elector. The states have adopted various methods of
nomination for elector candidates, of which the two most popular are by state party
convention, used in 36 states, and by state party committee, used in 10 states. In
practice, elector candidates tend to be prominent state and local officeholders, party
activists, and other citizens associated with the party which they are nominated.
A list of elector candidates and those chosen as electors in each state may be
obtained from the Secretaries of State (Commonwealth), at the state capital. Lists
of electors for 1992 and 1996 and other related information may be obtained from the
National Archives and Records Administration’s electoral college home page at:
Selection of Electors.
The Constitution left the method of selecting electors and of awarding electoral
votes to the States. In the early years of the Republic, many states provided for
selection of electors by the state legislatures. Since 1864, all states have provided for
popular election of electors for President and Vice President.
According to practices adopted universally by the states beginning early in the
19th century, popular votes are cast for a unified ticket of party candidates for
President and Vice President. This insures that they will be of the same party,
avoiding a source of potential partisan divisiveness in the executive branch.
General ticket system. In 48 states and the District of Columbia, all electoral
votes are awarded to the slate that receives a plurality of popular votes in the state.
This practice is variously known as the general ticket or winner-take-all system.
The general ticket system usually tends to exaggerate the winning candidates’
margin of victory, as compared with the share of popular votes received. For
instance, in 1996, Bill Clinton and Al Gore won 49.2% of the popular vote, as
compared with 40.7% by Bob Dole and Jack Kemp. The Democrats’ electoral vote
margin of 379 to 159 was a much higher 70.4% of the total, due to the fact that the
Democratic ticket received a plurality vote in 32 States and the District of Columbia.
District system. Currently, Maine and Nebraska provide the only exception to
the general ticket method, awarding one electoral vote to the ticket gaining the most
votes in each of their congressional districts, and awarding the remaining two
(representing their senatorial allotment) to the winners of the most votes statewide.
This variation, more widely used in the 19th century, is known as the district system.
The Faithless Elector.
The founding fathers intended that individual electors be free agents, voting for
the candidates they thought most fit to hold office. In practice, however, electors are
not expected to exercise their own judgment, but, rather, to ratify the people’s choice
by voting for the candidates winning the most popular votes in their state. Despite
this understanding, there is no constitutional provision requiring electors to vote as
they have pledged. Over the years, a number of electors have voted against the
voters’ instructions, known as the phenomenon of the unfaithful, or faithless, elector.
Although a number of states have laws which seek to bind the electors to the
popular vote winners, the preponderance of opinion among constitutional scholars
holds that electors remain free agents. Moreover, all of the seven votes of the
faithless electors between 1948 and 1988 were recorded as cast. 16 The most recent
occurrence was in 1988, when a West Virginia Democratic elector voted for Lloyd
Bentsen for President and Michael Dukakis for Vice President.
Winning the Presidency.
The 12th Amendment of the Constitution requires that winning candidates
receive an absolute majority of electoral votes (currently 270 of the 538 total).
16 Neal Peirce and Lawrence D. Longley, The People's President, rev. ed. (New Haven CT:
Yale University Press, 1981), p. 98-101. The vote of the “faithless elector” in 1988 (see
below) was also recorded as cast.
Counting the Electoral Votes.
Once the voters have chosen the members of the electoral college, the electors
meet to ratify the popular choices for President and Vice President. The Constitution
provides (again, in the 12th Amendment) that they assemble in their respective states.
Congress has established (in 3 U.S.C. §8) the first Monday after the second
Wednesday in December following their election as the date for casting electoral
votes, at such place in each state as the legislature directs.
In practice, the electors almost always meet in the state capital, usually at the
State House or Capitol Building, often in one of the legislative chambers. The votes
are counted and recorded, the results are certified by the Governor and forwarded to
the President of the U.S. Senate (the Vice President).
The electoral vote certificates are opened and counted at a joint session of the
Congress, held, as mandated (3 U.S.C. §15), on January 6 following the electors’
meeting (or, by custom, on the next day, if it falls on a Sunday); the Vice President
presides. Electoral votes are counted by the newly elected Congress, which convenes
on January 3. The winning candidates are then declared to have been elected.
A major criticism of the electoral college is that it could deny victory to the
candidate with the most popular votes, which can occur when one ticket wins the
requisite majority of electors but gets fewer popular votes than its opponent(s).
Popular vote winners have failed to win the Presidency on three occasions since
adoption of the 12th Amendment: in 1824, 1876, and 1888. In 1824, the electoral
vote was split among four candidates, necessitating election by the House of
Representatives, which chose the popular vote runner-up. In 1876, due to contested
returns from four states, Congress set up an electoral commission, which awarded the
disputed votes to the apparent popular vote runner-up, resulting in a one-vote margin
in the electoral college. In 1888, the apparent popular vote runner-up won a
comfortable electoral college majority. Electoral college ‘misfires’ are listed below.
Table 8. Presidents Elected Without A Plurality of the Popular Vote
Year CandidatesPartyPopular VoteElectoral Vote
1824 1Andrew JacksonD-R152,933 99
John Quincy Adams *D-R115,696 84
William H. CrawfordD-R46,979 41
Henry ClayD-R47,136 37
1876Samuel J. TildenD4,287,670184
Rutherford B. Hayes *R4,035,924185
Benjamin Harrison *R5,445,269233
D-R = Democratic Republican; D = Democratic; R = Republican.1
Popular returns for 18 states; in 6 states, electors were appointed by the state legislatures.
Source: Peirce and Longley. The People’s President, p. 241-242.
Electoral College Deadlock.
The Constitution, in the 12th Amendment, provides for cases in which no slate
of candidates receives the required electoral college majority, a process usually
referred to as contingent election. Under these circumstances, the House of
Representatives elects the President, choosing from among the three candidates17
receiving the most electoral votes, with each state casting a single vote.
In the course of the usual presidential election, in which only the two major party
candidates have a chance of victory, such occurrences are extremely unlikely. In
those elections characterized by the emergence of a strong third party candidate
(George Wallace in 1968, John Anderson in 1980, and H. Ross Perot in 1992),th
electoral college deadlock is possible. Only once since adoption of the 12
Amendment, in the four-candidate election of 1824, was the President—John Quincy
Adams—elected by the House of Representatives.
If there is no electoral vote majority, election of Vice President is entrusted to
the Senate, with each member casting one vote, choosing from the two candidates
with the most electoral votes. Only once, in 1837, did the Senate so elect a Vice
President—Richard M. Johnson. Although Democratic presidential nominee Martin
Van Buren won a clear electoral college majority, votes were cast for two Democratic
vice presidential candidates, yielding a three-way contest requiring Senate resolution.
17 For additional information on contingent election, see CRS Report RS20300, Election of
the President and Vice President by Congress: Contingent Election.
In the event contingent election is necessary, the House has two weeks between
counting the electoral votes (January 6) and Inauguration Day (January 20) in which
to elect a President. If it is unable to do so during this time, the Vice President-elect,
assuming one has been chosen by the electors or the Senate, serves as acting President
until the House resolves its deadlock. In the event the Senate has been similarly
unable to elect a Vice President, the Speaker of the House of Representatives serves
as Acting President until a President or Vice President is elected, but he must resign
the offices of both Speaker and Representative in order to so serve. In the event there
is no Speaker, or the Speaker fails to qualify, then the President Pro-tempore of the
Senate (the longest serving Senator of the majority party) becomes Acting President,
under identical resignation requirements.
Death of a Candidate.
Before December meeting of electors. In the event a presidential or vice
presidential candidate of either party dies or resigns between the convention and the
meeting of electors in December, the rules of the major parties provide that their
national committees shall meet and fill the vacancy. In the Democratic Party, the
replacement nominee is approved by a per capita vote of the members of the national
committee. For the Republicans, each state delegation to the national committee casts18
a number of votes equal to its delegation to the national convention.
In 1972, the Democratic National Committee selected R. Sergeant Shriver as
vice presidential nominee, to replace Senator Thomas Eagleton, who resigned as
nominee after the national convention. The Republicans most recently replaced a
candidate on the national ticket in 1912, when Vice President James S. Sherman died
on October 30. Meeting after the election, the Republican National Committee
elected Nicholas M. Butler to receive Republican electoral votes for Vice President.
Between December and January 6. If there is a vacancy due to the death of the
President-elect after the electoral votes have been cast in the states, most authorities
maintain that the provisions of the 20th Amendment apply: Section 3 specifies that the
Vice President-elect becomes President-elect in these circumstances. Some observers,
however, maintain that there is no President-elect until the electoral votes are counted
by Congress on January 6 of the following year, and that since no living candidate
received a majority of electoral votes, then the House would elect the President, and
the Senate, the Vice President.19 Other sources dispute this inference, however,
maintaining that Congress “has no choice but to count all the ballots provided the
‘person’ voted for was alive at the time they were cast.”20 Moreover, this
interpretation is corroborated by the House report accompanying the 20th
18 Democratic National Committee. Rules of Procedure for Filling a Vacancy on the National
Ticket; Rule 27 of the Republican Party.
19 Walter Berns, ed., After the People Vote: A Guide to the Electoral College (Washington:
AEI Press, 1992), p. 27,28.
20 John D. Feerick, From Failing Hands: The Story of Presidential Succession, (NY:
Fordham Univ. Press, 1965), p. 274.
Amendment, which states that “the votes, under the above circumstances, must be
counted by Congress . . . . Consequently, Congress would declare that the deceased
candidate had received a majority of the votes.”21 The balance of opinion and
precedent thus suggests that electoral votes cast for a deceased candidate would be
valid, provided they were cast when the candidate was living.
A final question is whether these provisions would apply if a winning presidential
candidate withdrew from consideration after the electoral votes were cast, but before
they were counted, as the 20th Amendment cites only the case of a candidate’s death.
Would Congress count the votes, proclaim the results, and then have the option to
declare the position of President-elect vacant? If so, it is then arguable whether the
Vice President-elect would become President-elect. On the other hand, it can also be
argued that Section 3 of the 20th Amendment provides only for cases in which a
President-elect has died, and would not cover other circumstances. In this case, it
could be argued that sentence 2 of Section 3 would apply:
If a President shall not have been chosen before the time fixed for the beginning
of his term or if the President elect shall have failed to qualify (emphasis added),
then the Vice President elect shall act as President until a President shall have
Under these circumstances, the Vice President-elect would serve only as acting
President. While the differences in these two situations may seem to be a “difference
without a distinction,” it can be argued that it is preferable for the nation to have a
duly inaugurated President serving a full term to an acting President whose term of
office and constitutional status are largely undefined. This question would appear to
merit further legal and constitutional study.
Between January 6 and January 20. If a winning presidential candidate dies
after Congress has counted the electoral vote, the Vice President-elect becomesth
President-elect, under the provisions of the 20 Amendment. The new President
would then be empowered, under the 25th Amendment, to nominate a person to fill
the consequent vacancy in the Vice Presidency. If both the President and Vice
President-elect die before the inauguration, but after the electoral votes are counted,th
Congress is then empowered (by the 20 Amendment) to provide by law who shall
act as President, or the manner in which a President is to be selected.
Although the President and Vice President were inaugurated on March 4 of the
year after their election from 1789 to1933, the 20th Amendment, ratified in 1933 and
effective in 1937, changed the commencement date of the presidential term of office
to January 20. The purpose of this change, which also moved the start of the
congressional term from March 4 to January 3, was to shorten the time between
21 U.S. Congress, House, Committee on Election of President and Vice President, and
Representatives in Congress, Proposing an Amendment to the Constitution of the United
States,72nd Cong., 1st sess., H.Rept. 72-345 (Washington: GPO, 1932), p. 5.
election and inauguration, to eliminate “lame duck” sessions of Congress, in which
defeated and retired members had regularly met for a final session after the election.
In a tradition dating to the 19th century, Presidents are not publicly inaugurated
on Sundays. When January 20 falls on that day, a brief private inauguration is held,
usually in the East Room of the White House, with a public ceremony the next day.
This occurred most recently in 1985, when President Ronald Reagan was privately
installed for his second term on Sunday, January 20, and publicly inaugurated on
Monday, January 21. Inauguration Day next falls on a Sunday in the year 2013.
Location of the Inauguration Ceremonies.
In a tradition dating to Andrew Jackson’s first inaugural in 1829, Presidents
were previously installed at outdoor ceremonies at the East Front of the U.S. Capitol
(facing the Supreme Court). Vice Presidents were customarily sworn in the Senate
Chamber until 1933, when the two ceremonies were held jointly for the first time, a
practice which continues.
On seven occasions since 1837, the presidential inaugural has been held
elsewhere than the East Front. In 1909, due to inclement weather, William Howard
Taft was installed in the Senate Chamber; in 1945, in consideration of the President’s
health and wartime security demands, Franklin D. Roosevelt was sworn in for his
fourth term on the South Portico of the White House; in 1981, 1989, 1993, and 1997,
Ronald Reagan, George Bush, and Bill Clinton were inaugurated at the West Front
of the Capitol (facing the Mall); and in January 1985, due to inclement weather,
President Reagan was publicly installed for his second term in the Capitol Rotunda.
The West Front venue appears to have gained wide acceptance since 1981, and may
be expected to continue to be the site of future inaugurals, barring unforeseen