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AFTER reading the Lesson 2 readings this week, which address numerous historical political campaigns, please answer the following question.
What changed, if anything, in the American political culture between 2004 and 2012? This was a period that saw the reelection of two very different presidents, George W. Bush and Barack Obama. Be sure not just to describe the issues that were important in the 2004, 2008 and 2012 elections, but analyze whether or not there were differences in the way that the candidates campaigned and in the American electorate.
Feel free to utilize external resources analyzing the 2008 election, such as:
While the 2012 election happened only recently, there are some web sources which you might want to consult:
Optional (no grade):
Feel free to test your own political orientation (liberal, conservative, libertarian, populist) with this online survey. If so inclined, feel free to report your results in your Forum post and/or include any comments about the survey itself and whether you found it reasonable or biased.
The site is: http://www.politicalcompass.org/
Assignment responses should be no less than 300 words and no more than about 500 words
Lesson 2, Part 2: Campaigns and Elections
During his 1956 presidential campaign, a woman called out to Adlai E. Stevenson: “Senator, you have the vote of every thinking person!” Stevenson replied: “That’s not enough, madam, we need a majority!”
To understand how political candidates conduct campaigns; to comprehend how the American electoral system works and how the electoral map reveals political turning points; and to analyze the style and substance of leading candidates in the 2008 election.
Today, American politics has come a long way since the days of whistle-stop tours and street pamphlets, which, before the age of television, encapsulated political messages.
Some Presidential Campaign Slogans from the Past
1860 Abraham Lincoln “Vote Yourself a Farm”
1864 Abraham Lincoln “Don’t Swap Horses in the Middle of the Stream”
1888 Benjamin Harrison “Rejuvenated Republicanism”
1896 William McKinley “Patriotism, Protection, and Prosperity”
1900 William McKinley “A Full Dinner Bucket”
More sophistication has now entered the process of campaign and elections. Politicians hone their messages with “focus groups” and, often, modify their positions based on opinion polls.
As this Lesson travels across time, it reveals that the technology and sophistication of campaigns has changed dramatically. That being said, it is not possible to say that campaigns are more substantive today than in previous decades or centuries.
In the age of the whistle-stop tour, not many Americans were exposed to political messages – but those who were often got an earful. Consider, for example, the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858 (held for a US Senate seat from Illinois), were complex, nuanced, and substantive. Today, television enables candidates to reach out to tens of millions of people, but they often do so with a simplistic mix of soundbites, catchphrases and bumper-sticker slogans.
Elections for Congress are held at the state level, and rules vary from state to state. This unit is primarily concerned with campaigns and elections for national office – for the Presidency.
The United States Electoral College is the official name of the group of Presidential Electors who are chosen every four years to cast the electoral vote and thereby elect the president and vice president of the United States. It was established by Article Two, Section One of the United States Constitution, which provides for a quadrennial election of Presidential Electors in each state.
In each election, there are 538 possible electoral votes to be won (270 are needed to win), with large states such as California worth more than small states such as Rhode Island. There is a rough but not exact correlation between population size and electoral votes.
The Electoral College dilutes the votes of population centers that might have different concerns from the rest of the country. The system is supposed to require presidential candidates to appeal to many different types of interests, rather than, say, the urban voter.
Thinly-populated states like Wyoming are worth 3 votes, even though they have only about 500,000 people. As a result of these inherent imbalances, it is possible for a candidate to lose the popular vote but still win in the right combination of states, thus putting him over the top. Bush in 2000, for example, lost the popular vote but won the electoral vote as decided by the Supreme Court. This is a “winner take all system.” If a candidate wins California by just one vote, for example, he or she wins all 55 votes and the rivals win zero.
John Kerry (D-MA) actually won California in 2004 (as did Al Gore in 2000), but that was not enough to hold back the red tide of Republican states in the heartland, and President George Bush won re-election.
Each state is worth between 3 and 55 votes depending on the last census estimate of population. In the system above, small states with few people are actually overvalued because they receive 3 votes. In reality, many states are divided by county, and even many counties are divided, giving rise to the concept of a “Purple America.” Some centrist Republicans and Centrist democrats ran in 2008 not in terms of shoring up existing Red or Blue “bases” but rather by appealing to moderates and centrists in each state, hoping to sway “purple” into either “red” or “blue.”
Since getting an amendment to the Constitution passed is unrealistic in today’s political environment, the only realistic way to modify the Electoral College is to change how states select their electors. Most states allot electors based on who wins the popular vote in the state (“winner take all,” as previously mentioned). However, there are other ways a state could allot these votes. A state could award electoral votes based on which candidate won each congressional district in the state. Or, a state could allocate the electoral vote proportionally as a result of the state-wide election results.
Campaigns and Advertising
Reaching a position of candidacy for public office requires campaigning. It has often required meeting citizens, and pressing the flesh, in schools, factories and universities.
A century ago, candidates simply boarded a train and undertook a “whistle-stop tour” of America, stopping when crowds gathered to give a speech. Television, however, revolutionized political campaigns, especially at the national level.
While advertising for commercial products – like soap – normally emphasizes its positive qualities, political ads are distinguished by the fact that many of them are so negative. They not only point out the advantages of the principal candidate but also point out the disadvantages or weaknesses of the rival.
The first truly negative ad that made a deep impact on the campaign was that of Lyndon Johnson against Barry Goldwater, an Arizona Republican considered by many to be an extremist and a war-monger.
Johnson took out an ad that implied that under a Goldwater presidency there would be an atomic World War III. The ad showed a young girl plucking the leaves of a daisy, and then a male narrator counted down: 3, 2, 1…. BOOM!
The DAISY ad is widely considered to be the most effective and powerful political advertisement ever concocted. Check it out:
Clearly, in the past several decades there has been a shift in political advertising from positive to negative. Virtually all campaigns for state-wide office, and for the president, contain many negative ads about the opposing candidate – ads that question his or her character, record, motivations, sexuality or any feature that reflects negatively on that person. But the below are not the only incidents to consider. As you can see in the Founding Fathers’ Dirty Campaign article, contention has been around since the earliest days.
Some advertisements are positive, emphasizing the contributions and characters of the candidate. Now, you will be seeing the most interesting political ads here. Some are positive and others negative. Be sure to analyze the ad from the perspective of marketing. Who is the target audience? What is the strategy?
Please explore the following links:
Reagan 1984 Ad – “It’s Morning in America Again”
Commercial: Bush 1988 Election Ad – Willie Horton
Clinton/Gore 1996 Campaign Ad–Bob Dole’s Record Wrong for Our Future
Swiftboat Veterans Ad on John Kerry – Sellout (2004)
The 1960 Election (Kennedy v. Nixon)
In 1960, the era of Dwight D. Eisenhower was coming to an end. He had completed two terms as a Republican president and was most famous for leading US forces in Europe during WWII. Eisenhower had been a popular and relatively successful president, but many Americans were eager for a fresh face and a new party.
Recalling the experience of 1928 Catholic Democratic presidential nominee Al Smith, many wondered if anti-Catholic prejudice would affect Kennedy’s standing among non-Catholics. Kennedy’s victory over Humphrey in the largely Protestant state of West Virginia proved decisive. Kennedy, with a youthful image and the aid of his father’s Joseph P. Kennedy political skills, carried the nomination at the Democratic convention in Los Angeles. Kennedy selected Johnson, the Senate Majority Leader, as his vice presidential candidate to balance the ticket and secure Southern votes. Many Southern Democrats were opposed to the national Democratic Party’s platform on civil and voting rights.
A crucial factor in this election was the first televised presidential debate. Nixon refused television makeup and appeared tired, especially in contrast to Kennedy. It is a commonly repeated story that voters who had listened to the debate on radio thought Nixon had won, but the television audience gave the win to Kennedy.
The main economic issue during the election was the USSR’s high economic growth rate in comparison to the United States’. According to analysis at the time, the Soviet economy was expected to overtake the American economy by 1984. Kennedy also claimed the Republican administration had allowed a missile gap by not matching Soviet defense spending and allowing the military to weaken. The claim was made plausible by Soviet superiority in the space program, evidenced by their successful Sputnik program and numerous United States launch failures. However, there is evidence there never was a gap as far as missiles were concerned.
The November 8 election was extremely close– Kennedy beat Nixon by two tenths of a percentage point (0.2%) in the popular vote. The New York Times, summarizing the discussion late in November, spoke of a “narrow consensus” among the experts that Kennedy had won more than he lost as a result of his Catholicism.
Some Republicans alleged that Kennedy benefited from vote fraud especially in Texas and Illinois. There is no certainty that Nixon would have won both Texas and Illinois (which he would have had to do to win the electoral vote). What is certain, however, is that in Illinois, Kennedy won by a bare 9,000 votes, and Mayor Daley, who held back Chicago’s vote until late in the evening, provided an extraordinary Cook County margin of victory of 450,000 votes. The Republican party urged Nixon to pursue recounts and challenge the validity of some of the votes for Kennedy, especially in the pivotal states of Illinois, Missouri and New Jersey, where large majorities in Catholic precincts handed Kennedy the election. Nixon publicly refused to call for a recount, saying it would cause a constitutional crisis.
The 1968 Election (Nixon v. Johnson)
In 1968, President Lyndon Baines Johnson announced that he would not be seeking re-election. The war in Vietnam was draining his presidency of energy and popularity, and LBJ had become a much-hated figure on college campuses. Johnson had won in 1964 shortly after assuming the presidency in the wake of John F. Kennedy’s assassination.
The election of 1968 revolved around many issues, particularly around civil rights and the war raging in Vietnam. The campaign also included the assassination of liberal Democratic candidate Robert F. Kennedy, John’s younger brother.
Hubert Humphrey, the Democratic candidate, was damaged by the scenes of riots and chaos at the Chicago Convention. Thus, Richard Nixon, who had previously been a presidential candidate, won handily on a law-and-order platform by appealing to America’s “silent majority.”
The emergence of the hippie counterculture, the rise of New Left activism, and the emergence of the Black Power movement exacerbated social and cultural cleavages between classes, generations and races. Every summer during Johnson’s administration, known thereafter as the “long, hot summers”, major US cities erupted in massive race riots that left hundreds dead and destroyed hundreds of millions of dollars in property.
The Vietnam War had escalated, with over 500,000 Americans inside the country, suffering thousands of casualties every month. The Tet Offensive of February 1968 made the war front-page news for the first time. The military demanded hundreds of thousands more soldiers–which could only be provided by a draft because Johnson refused to use the Reserves of the National Guard. In the months following Tet, Johnson’s approval ratings fell below 35%.
The American Independent Party was formed by George Wallace, whose pro-segregation policies had been rejected by the mainstream of the Democratic party. The impact of the Wallace campaign was substantial, winning the electoral votes of several states in the Deep South. Wallace also accomplished a strong showing in several northern states.
Nixon campaigned on a “law and order” theme, which appealed to many voters angry at hundreds of violent riots that had taken place across the country, with Army troops called out in Detroit and Washington. He had devised a “southern strategy,” which was designed to appeal to the middle class southern voters, who traditionally voted Democratic but who were ignored by Humphrey.
Humphrey campaigned on continuing the Great Society programs initiated by President Johnson. Labor unions took a major role attacking Wallace, who was winning half their members according to summer polls.
In the end, the war became the central issue of the Democratic campaign, with the party deeply divided and Humphrey hounded by anti-war protesters whenever he made public appearances. Late in the campaign Humphrey, who trailed badly in the polls, began to distance himself from the Johnson administration on the Vietnam War, calling for a bombing halt. He began to gain momentum, especially when President Johnson actually announced a bombing halt, and even a possible peace deal, shortly before the election. During the campaign, Nixon promised a new approach, which was ridiculed by Democrats as a “secret plan” although Nixon never actually claimed to have a ‘secret plan.’ In the final days of the election, much was riding on the success or failure of the Paris Peace Talks with the North Vietnamese.
Nixon clinched the electoral vote easily on November 5, 1968, although the popular vote was closer than expected.
The 1972 Election (Nixon v. McGovern)
By 1972, the Vietnam War had not calmed down. If anything, the war had become the central issue in American society. The issue of civil rights for African-Americans was also central. The 1972 election was a landslide.
George McGovern ran on a platform of ending the Vietnam War and instituting guaranteed minimum incomes for the nation’s poor.
Nixon ran a harsh campaign with an aggressive policy of keeping tabs on perceived enemies, and his campaign aides committed the Watergate burglary to steal Democratic Party information during the election.
Nixon’s level of personal involvement with the burglary was never clear, but his tactics during the later coverup would eventually destroy his public support and lead to his resignation. Also, Nixon’s so-called “southern strategy” of reducing the pressure for school desegregation and otherwise restricting federal efforts on behalf of blacks had a powerful attraction to northern-blue collar workers as well as southerners.
The 1972 campaign witnessed the birth of “gonzo journalism.” This guerrilla-style reporting paid little respect to the old code of conduct, and Hunter S. Thompson loaded up on alcohol and drugs to cover the events.
Nixon won the election in a landslide, but the seeds of his eventual ouster were planted as people working for his campaign broke into the Democratic headquarters in the Watergate hotel.
The 1980 Election (Reagan v. Carter)
Jimmy Carter had won the presidential election in 1976 rather handily. He promised to restore honesty and integrity to the White House after the Republican Party’s scandals concerning the Watergate break-in.
Jimmy Carter did in fact live up to his promise never to lie to the American people, and he is widely considered to be an honorable person, but his administration was plagued by economic recession and foreign policy disasters.
In many ways, Carter had to suffer the consequences of the 1973 oil embargo. This OPEC-led embargo was originally inspired by the Arab nations’ hostility to the US having helped Israel in the 1973 Yom Kippur War. The embargo was short, but it strengthened the oil cartel. Saudi Arabia and other nations managed to drive up the price of oil slowly but steadily, leading to inflation, recession and “stagflation” (high inflation with high unemployment, two indicators which do not normally accompany one another).
Apart from economic difficulties, the Iranian Revolution of 1979 led to the Iranian taking of American diplomats as hostages. This was an ordeal played out day after day. When Carter organized a rescue attempt, two large helicopters crashed in the Iranian desert, and the American hostages remained in Teheran. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan highlighted America’s weak military position.
Ronald Reagan, a former actor and Governor of California, found that the political landscape was fertile for his message: “It’s Morning in America.” Reagan promised a return to the 1950s-style formula of aggressively confronting communism, defending traditional values at home, and bolstering free market principles.
This election was a landslide for Ronald Reagan. The 1980 election is considered by some to be a realigning election, meaning that it fundamentally altered the electoral map for the parties. In effect, Reagan attracted many conservative Democrats, called “Reagan Democrats,” especially in the South. Reagan took the South away from the Democrats – and with the exception of Bill Clinton, who made some gains into the South, the Democrats have never been able to make inroads into this region.
Reagan ran a campaign of upbeat optimism, together with implications of a more militarily aggressive foreign policy. This contrasted with the “malaise”-ridden attitude of the late Carter administration and its apparent impotence in the face of the Iran hostage crisis. Towards the end of the campaign, as Carter’s poll numbers continued to slip and Reagan’s rose, Carter responded with more militaristic rhetoric and announced plans to reinstitute the military draft; this succeeded only in alienating some of Carter’s supporters. With inflation and interest rates at record highs, and unemployment stubbornly high, Carter had few boasts to make about the economy. He had a pro-feminist record, but the management of many women’s groups attacked him for not doing even more. On foreign policy the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan spelled the end of detente and the renewal of the Cold War. Carter moved to the right, but Reagan was already there.
Reagan promised a restoration of the nation’s military strength. Reagan also promised an end to “‘trust me’ government” and to restore economic health by implementing a supply-side economic policy. Reagan promised a balanced budget within three years (which he said would be “the beginning of the end of inflation”), accompanied by a 30% reduction in taxes over those same years. With respect to the economy, Reagan famously said, “A recession is when your neighbor loses his job. A depression is when you lose yours. And recovery is when Jimmy Carter loses his.”
In August, after the Republican National Convention, Ronald Reagan gave a campaign speech at an annual county fair on the outskirts of Philadelphia, Mississippi, which civil rights leaders said was an insensitive reminder of the Mississippi civil rights worker murders of 1964.
Reagan announced, “I believe in states’ rights.” He also said, “I believe we have distorted the balance of our government today by giving powers that were never intended to be given in the Constitution to that federal establishment.” He went on to promise to “restore to states and local governments the power that properly belongs to them.”  Critics claimed that the speech signaled Reagan’s opposition to the civil rights reforms of the 1960s. However, Reagan supporters would argue that the speech was simply a statement of Reagan’s conservative political ideals.
As in most elections fought against an incumbent, the voters already had a clear impression of Carter, which was largely negative by this time, and both sides spent most of their effort trying to define Reagan, the challenger. The campaign was largely negative, with many voters disliking Carter but also perceiving Reagan as an intellectual lightweight, possibly unable to handle the presidency and with various questionable policies.
The election of 1980 was a key turning point in American politics. It signaled the new electoral power of the suburbs and the Sun Belt. Reagan’s success as a conservative would initiate a realigning of the parties, as liberal Republicans and conservative Democrats would either leave politics or change party affiliations through the 1980s and 1990s to leave the parties much more ideologically polarized.
Although Reagan’s candidacy was burdened by Representative John B. Anderson of Illinois, a liberal Republican who ran as an independent, the three major issues of the campaign were far greater threats to Carter’s prospects for reelection: the economy, national security, and the Iranian hostage crisis. Carter seemed unable to control inflation and had not succeeded in obtaining the release of US hostages in Tehran before the election, losing eight soldiers in a failed attempt to mount a rescue.
The election was held on November 4, 1980. Reagan won by 10% of the popular vote. Republicans also gained control of the Senate for the first time in twenty-five years on Reagan’s coattails. The electoral college vote was a landslide, with 489 votes (representing 44 states) for Reagan and 49 for Carter (representing 6 states and the District of Columbia).
The 1992 Election (Clinton v. Bush Sr.)
The 1992 election witnessed the emergence of sex scandals on the national political scene. True, Senator Gary Hart had to drop out of the Democratic primaries in 1988 because of a photograph showing he and a lover on the ship the “Monkey Business,” but 1992 was the first time such issues became truly national. Unfortunately for Bill Clinton, who would win this election, it was not the last time, and he would be periodically hindered by what his critics called “the bimbo factor.”
Gennifer Flowers – The 12-Year Affair
So, let’s go to the videotape, shall we? On January 26, 1992, Bill and Hillary Clinton appeared on CBS’s “60 Minutes” to confront Gennifer Flowers’s lurid account of a 12- year love affair with the candidate in the supermarket tabloid the Star. According to the Wall Street Journal, Flowers was paid upwards of $140,000 for her story.
On CBS’ “60 Minutes,” Steve Croft asked Bill Clinton about Flowers’ accusation of a 12-year affair. “That allegation,” he replied firmly “is false.”
In response to a backup question, Clinton added that both he and Flowers herself had previously denied the affair. He went on famously to acknowledge having “caused pain in my marriage,” added that he trusted voters to understand what he meant by that, and indicated that he and Hillary would have nothing more to say about it.
In effect, Clinton had admitted adultery. Croft never asked the conclusive “have you ever” question, and Clinton certainly never answered it. Long before the CBS interview, Clinton was firmly on record as saying that he thought it out of bounds and would never under any circumstances answer it. It’s been reported that he made that understanding an explicit condition of the “60 Minutes” interview.
In a contemporaneous ABC News poll, 73 percent of respondents said they agreed with Clinton that whether or not he’d ever had an extramarital affair was between him and his wife.
On the following day, Flowers herself held a press conference in a New York hotel ballroom. Dressed in a scarlet dress with matching lipstick, she played excerpts from tape-recordings of several telephone conversations with Clinton.
The U.S. presidential election of 1992 featured a three-way battle between Republican George Bush, the incumbent President; Democrat Bill Clinton, the governor of Arkansas; and independent candidate Ross Perot, a Texas businessman.
Bush had alienated much of his conservative base by breaking his 1988 campaign pledge against raising taxes, the economy had sunk into recession, and his perceived best strength, foreign policy, was regarded as much less important following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the relatively peaceful climate in the Middle East following the defeat of Iraq in the Gulf War. Clinton successfully capitalized on these weaknesses by running as a centrist New Democrat and won the presidency.
The Bush reelection effort was built around a set of ideas traditionally used by incumbents: experience and trust. It was in some ways a battle of generations. George H. W. Bush, 68, probably the last president to have served in World War II, faced a young challenger in Bill Clinton who, at age 46, had never served in the military and had participated in protests against the Vietnam War. In emphasizing his experience as president and commander-in-chief, Bush also drew attention to what he characterized as Clinton’s lack of judgment and character.
For his part, Bill Clinton organized his campaign around another of the oldest and most powerful themes in electoral politics: change. As a youth, Clinton had once met President John F. Kennedy, and in his own campaign 30 years later, much of his rhetoric challenging Americans to accept change consciously echoed that of Kennedy in his 1960 campaign.
As Governor of Arkansas for 12 years, then Governor Clinton could point to his experience in wrestling with the very issues of economic growth, education and health care that were, according to public opinion polls, among President Bush’s chief vulnerabilities. Where President Bush offered an economic program based on lower taxes and cuts in government spending, Governor Clinton proposed higher taxes on the wealthy and increased spending on investments in education, transportation and communications that, he believed, would boost the nation’s productivity and growth and thereby lower the deficit. Similarly, Governor Clinton’s health care proposals to control costs called for much heavier involvement by the federal government than President Bush’s. During the campaign, Governor Clinton hardened a soft public image when he controversially traveled back to Arkansas to oversee the execution of functionally retarded inmate Ricky Ray Rector.
The slogan “It’s the economy, stupid” (coined by Democratic strategist James Carville) was used internally in the Clinton campaign to remind staffers to keep their focus on Bush’s economic performance and not get distracted by other issues. Governor Clinton successfully hammered home the theme of change throughout the campaign, as well as in a round of three televised debates with President Bush and Ross Perot in October.
On November 3, Bill Clinton won election as the 42nd President of the United States by a wide margin in the U.S. Electoral College, despite receiving only 43 percent of the popular vote. It was the first time since 1968 that a candidate won the White House with under 50 percent of the popular vote. The state of Arkansas was the only state in the entire country that gave the majority of its vote to a single candidate; the rest were won by pluralities of the vote.
The 2000 Election (Bush Jr. v. Gore)
The 2000 election was held between Democrat Al Gore, Bill Clinton’s former Vice President, and Republican George W. Bush, former Governor of Texas.
The period of economic growth under Bill Clinton did not translate into support for Al Gore. Some analysts even wonder if Gore’s distancing himself from Clinton’s sex scandal hurt his reputation among voters, who value personal loyalty to a president. Other analysts think that George Bush won largely because of Karl Rove’s “smear machine,” which elevated the tactics of negative campaigning to new heights (or depths).
Certainly, the 2000 election was one of the first in which national economic issues and military issues largely took a back seat to the “culture wars.” Evangelical voters, who had felt sidelined by the Clinton administration, turned out to vote for Bush and his policies of “family values.”
The 2000 election was settled in the Supreme Court, and the outcome angered many liberals and centrists, largely because the justices appeared to vote along partisan lines – that is, in favor of the party under whose previous presidents had nominated them to office. Furthermore, the conservative justices distanced themselves from the states’ rights argument, which is often invoked on the conservative side, and they cited the 14th Amendment, generally their least favorite amendment. Critics charged that the conservative justices were rejecting their basic principles in order to decide the election in favor of Bush.
Infuriating democrats and liberals even further, the Court then claimed that their opinion – which can be certainly be considered “activist” for overturning a state decision – should be restricted to this case and should not set precedent: “Our consideration is limited to the present circumstances…”
The 2000 Supreme Court Per Curiam:
The recount process, in its features here described, is inconsistent with the minimum procedures necessary to protect the fundamental right of each voter in the special instance of a statewide recount under the authority of a single state judicial officer. Our consideration is limited to the present circumstances, for the problem of equal protection in election processes generally presents many complexities…
None are more conscious of the vital limits on judicial authority than are the members of this Court, and none stand more in admiration of the Constitution’s design to leave the selection of the president to the people, through their legislatures, and to the political sphere. When contending parties invoke the process of the courts, however, it becomes our unsought responsibility to resolve the federal and constitutional issues the judicial system has been forced to confront.
The judgment of the Supreme Court of Florida is reversed, and the case is remanded for further proceedings not inconsistent with this opinion.
Justice Stevens wrote a dissent:
Time will one day heal the wound to that confidence that will be inflicted by today’s decision. One thing, however, is certain. Although we may never know with complete certainty the identity of the winner of this year’s Presidential election, the identity of the loser is perfectly clear. It is the Nation’s confidence in the judge as an impartial guardian of the rule of law.
After the Court’s 5-4 decision, George Bush emerged as the winner of the 2000 election because he reached, with Florida, the sufficient number of electoral votes. He did lose the total number of popular votes, however. George Bush is the only president to be reelected after having lost the popular vote in his first election. Previous presidents who did not win the majority of the popular vote (John Quincy Adams, Rutherford B. Hayes, and Benjamin Harrison) were not reelected.
The 2004 Election (Bush Jr. v. Kerry)
The election campaign was widely seen as a referendum on Bush’s job performance to date, in particular his leadership in the prosecution of the “War on Terror.” Bush defended the actions of his administration, while Kerry contended that the war had been incompetently executed, and that the Iraq War was a distraction from the “War on Terror,” not a part of it.
President Bush focused his campaign on national security, presenting himself as a decisive leader and contrasted Kerry as a “flip-flopper.” Bush’s point was that Americans could trust him to be tough on terrorism while Kerry would be “uncertain in the face of danger.” One of Kerry’s slogans was, “Stronger at home, respected in the world.” This advanced the suggestion that Kerry would pay more attention to domestic concerns; it also encapsulated Kerry’s contention that Bush had alienated American allies by his foreign policy.
Americans who based their vote on the issues of terrorism or moral values tended to support President Bush. Those who focused on the war in Iraq or economic issues like jobs and health care more often backed Kerry.
Over the course of Bush’s first term in office, his extremely high approval ratings immediately following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks steadily dwindled, peaking only during combat operations in Iraq in the Spring of 2003, and again following the capture of Saddam Hussein in December the same year. Kerry supporters attempted to capitalize on the dwindling popularity to rally anti-war sentiment, symbolized by the box-office success of Fahrenheit 9/11 in the summer of 2004.
However, there was also a surprising focus on events that occurred in the late 1960s and early 1970s. This scrutiny was most intense in August and September of 2004. Bush was accused in the Killian documents of failing to fulfill his required service in the Texas Air National Guard.
Meanwhile, Kerry was accused by the Swift Vets and POWs for Truth, who averred that “phony war crimes charges, his exaggerated claims about his own service in Vietnam, and his deliberate misrepresentation of the nature and effectiveness of Swift boat operations compels us to step forward.” The group challenged the legitimacy of each of the combat medals awarded to Kerry by the U.S. Navy, and the disposition of his discharge. None of these accusations proved truthful.
The election took place on Election Day, November 2, but it was not until the next day that the winner was determined. The election hinged on Ohio, a controversial battleground state which operated black box voting machines, except in some southern counties, such as Hamilton which used a paper punch card ballot. But, at midday the day after the election, Kerry conceded he had lost the Buckeye State, and the election along with it. The final certified count showed 286 votes for Bush, 251 for Kerry, and 1 for Edwards (due to a faithless elector pledged to Kerry voting for Edwards).
According to Republicans (and some Democrats), President Bush won the 2004 vote in terms of both popular and electoral votes (it’s the latter that matters). Bush supporters insist that the president won re-election because of his strong stance on the war on terror and the overall economy, which had been growing.
According to some Democrats, however, the decisive factor in the Ohio election was setting up too few voting booths in African American neighborhoods (which lean heavily democratic), leading to excessively long lines compared to white Republican voting places.
The Conyers Report was an attempt to document the “voter suppression” that allegedly put George W. Bush into the lead. Not all Democrats – and certainly few if any Republicans – agree with the Conyers Report, but it contributes to the perception among international election monitors that there are deep problems in the current voting process.
The 2008 Election (McCain v. Obama)
The 2008 Presidential Election was a very hard fought battle as there was no incumbent President or Vice President running, and there was no clear favorite. The Democrats made the ongoing conflict in Iraq a central issue of the campaign, while the Republicans tried to maintain their historic advantage in foreign policy. On the domestic front, Republicans argued that the economy expanded rapidly since 2003, while the Democrats tried to make the point that only the wealthiest citizens were benefitting from the economic expansion.
On the Democratic side, New York Senator Hillary Clinton had name recognition, but she was a very divisive figure in the opinion polls. Illinois Senator Barack Obama was the party’s golden child, but it was questionable if voters thought he would be ready for the presidency. Obama managed to win the Democratic Party nomination over Clinton, Biden, and many others.
Arizona Senator John McCain led the pack for the Republican Party and leaned to the right politically to secure his party’s nomination for president over many other candidates.
The 2008 Presidential Election was dominated by the following issues:
In the three most recent presidential administrations in which the president could not run for a third term due to term limits (those of Eisenhower, Reagan, and Clinton), the incumbent vice president ran for president (Richard Nixon lost the 1960 election, George H. W. Bush won the 1988 election, and Al Gore lost the 2000 election).
However, Vice President Dick Cheney, announced in 2001 that he would never run for president, a statement he reiterated in 2004. While appearing on Fox News Sunday, Cheney stated: “I will say just as hard as I possibly know how to say… If nominated, I will not run; if elected, I will not serve.”
The 2008 race was a non-incumbent or “open seat” election in which a sitting president wais not a candidate. It was the first time since 1928 that neither the sitting president nor the sitting vice president ran for president, though the 1952 general election between Dwight D. Eisenhower and Adlai Stevenson did not include a sitting president or vice president since neither President Harry Truman (who dropped out after losing the New Hampshire Primary) nor Vice President Alben Barkley won the Democratic nomination.
Senator Obama defeated Senator McCain mainly by positioning himself as the candidate for change, from the war in Iraq to the domestic economy. He campaigned hard across the country and across the Internet, targeting minority voters. This approach worked as he handily defeated McCain.
The 2012 Election (Obama v. Romney)
With an incumbent president running for re-election against token opposition, the race for the Democratic nomination was largely uneventful.
For the first time in modern Republican Party history, three different candidates won the first three primary contests in January. Although Mitt Romney had been expected to win in at least Iowa and New Hampshire, Rick Santorum won Iowa by 34 votes, Newt Gingrich won South Carolina by a surprisingly large margin, and Romney won only in New Hampshire.
Santorum, who had previously run an essentially one-state campaign in Iowa, was able to organize a national campaign after his surprising victory in Iowa. He unexpectedly carried three states in a row on February 7, and overtook Romney in nationwide opinion polls, becoming the only candidate in the race to effectively challenge the notion that Romney was the inevitable nominee. However, Romney won all of the other contests and regained his first-place status in nationwide opinion polls by the end of February.
The 2012 election marked the first time since FDR’s last two re-elections in 1940 and 1944 that a Democratic presidential candidate won an absolute majority of the popular vote in two consecutive elections. Obama was also the first president of either party to secure at least 51% of the popular vote in two elections since Dwight Eisenhower in 1952 and 1956.
Romney lost his home state of Massachusetts by more than 23%, the first time this has happened for a major-party candidate since John Fremont in 1856! In addition, since Obama carried Ryan’s home state of Wisconsin, the Romney-Ryan ticket was the first major-party ticket since 1972 to have both of its nominees lose their home states.
Combined with the re-elections of Bill Clinton and George W Bush, Obama’s victory in the 2012 election marked only the second time in American history that three consecutive presidents achieved re-election (the first time being the consecutive two-term presidencies of Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe).
Presidential elections are more than determining who is going to occupy to Oval Office. The direction of the nation itself is largely determined by the presidents it chooses, and for this reason, every four years the United States witnesses the spectacle of a presidential election.
Alexis de Tocqueville, a Frenchman who wrote Democracy in America, commented on this phenomenon.
Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America:
“Long before the appointed day arrives, the election becomes the greatest, and one might say the only, affair occupying men’s minds…. The President, for his part, is absorbed in the task of defending himself before the majority…. As the election draws near, intrigues grow more active and agitation is more lively and widespread. The citizens divide up into several camps…. The whole nation gets into a feverish state…”
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