Elections are short and simple in most modern democracies. Voters usually
pick only congressional candidates during a four- to six-week election season,
and the winning party or parties then pick the head of state. Where presidential
candidates run separately from congressional candidates, there is usually no
lengthy nomination process, and a runoff may be required if no candidate wins a
majority of the popular vote in the first round of voting.
But American elections are different.
presidential elections last roughly 10 months—from the first caucuses and
primaries in Iowa and New Hampshire through the November election day. Public
opinion can be volatile, especially during the early primaries, the national
conventions and the fall debates. Parties and interest groups raise hundreds of
millions of dollars to support their candidate.
Yet while American
presidential elections are complex, they are by no means unpredictable. In
modern elections, at least nine factors help predict the winner. How do these
factors aid either George W. Bush or John Kerry this fall?
economy, incumbency, party loyalty and voter turnout
The American economy usually tops the list as the most important influence in
voting. When the economy fails to grow—or more rarely, when it shrinks—or when
inflation or joblessness are high, incumbent presidents and their parties
usually lose. While running against Jimmy Carter in 1980, former President
Ronald Reagan popularized the term "misery index" and encouraged voters to ask
whether they were better off than four years ago. Today's inflation rate at
about 2 percent annually and unemployment under 6 percent—a "misery index" of 8
percent—would usually help an incumbent win re-election. Yet with the media's
focus on the weak job growth, a stagnant stock market and jobs moving overseas,
call this no net advantage to either Republicans or
Beyond the economy, the advantages of incumbency
usually help a sitting president. By dominating the news and handing out federal
grants, a president can hold public attention without appearing to campaign. A
large and experienced White House staff also helps to supplement the campaign.
For 2004 call this a small net Republican
Party loyalty and turnout rates also influence
presidential elections. Through the mid-1980s Democrats enjoyed a big advantage
in party loyalty, although it did not guarantee that their nominees would win
the presidency. Today the partisan balance between Republicans and Democrats is
razor thin. Recent Gallup Polls put the split at 45.2 percent Democrats and 45.5
percent Republicans, with only 9 percent of Americans not leaning to either
party. Since party identifiers vote overwhelmingly for their own party's
nominee, neither Bush nor Kerry seems likely to pull out a landslide win. As a
further twist, barely half of adult Americans vote in presidential elections at
all, and both parties spend heavily getting their voters to the polls,
especially in the 15-20 competitive states. Call this no net
The Electoral College, running mates and
The Electoral College dictates that candidates pitch their campaigns in
competitive states and ignore large but uncompetitive states like New York,
California and Texas. The Electoral College virtually guarantees each major
party candidate 150-200 electoral votes of the 270 needed to win. Unique among
worldwide democracies, the Electoral College allows a popular vote loser to
become an Electoral College winner. Since Democrats usually "waste" so many
votes in California and New York, today's Electoral College has a
small net Republican advantage.
candidates seldom rank high among voter concerns, although they do receive heavy
media attention and occasionally help pick up a state. Neither Vice President
Dick Cheney nor North Carolina Sen. John Edwards seems likely to add many votes
nationwide or even an extra state to the ticket's Electoral College total.
No net advantage.
Campaign finance laws are
among the oddest features of American elections. Once nominated, a major party
candidate is limited to $75 million in federal funds to run his fall campaign.
This is dramatically inadequate for a two- to three-month nationwide effort.
Consider that Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ grossed $76
million its first weekend or that this summer's sci-fi film, I Robot,
grossed $95 million its first two weeks. Fortunately for both Kerry and Bush,
their parties and interest groups supplement this figure with millions of
additional dollars directed at likely supporters and swing voters. Campaign
finance reformers notwithstanding, both candidates' supporters can be counted on
to raise up to $200 million extra this year. No net
Up to a third of American voters
explain their vote choice in terms of personal qualities, according to exit day
Campaign staff, personal image and third-party
Political scientists too often overlook the quality of a candidate's staff.
Both the Kerry and Bush campaigns have been competently managed, so far avoiding
any major gaffes. Even so, both campaigns have left questions about whether they
can achieve a breakaway advantage. Why did the Democrats schedule their
convention in Boston with a leadoff lineup of faded Democratic politicians? Why
did the Republicans schedule their national convention in New York, a state they
cannot win? No net advantage.
personal image is the eighth influence on presidential elections. Up to a third
of American voters explain their vote choice in terms of personal qualities,
according to exit day polls. By mid-July, Gallup Polls put "caring about the
needs of people like you" as John Kerry's strongest image (a net advantage of 6
percent). Being a "strong and decisive leader" and "not changing his positions
on issues for political reasons" were George W. Bush's strongest personal traits
(a 17 percent and 24 percent net advantage, respectively). Personal traits are
especially important in a year where voters do not focus on a single most
important issue. In mid-July Gallup Polls, for example, 28 percent of registered
voters called the economy their most important concern, followed by Iraq (23
percent), terrorism (19 percent) and health care (16 percent). Abortion, gay
marriage and gun control ranked further down. No net
Finally, in rare cases third-party candidates
affect presidential elections. Seldom do they do so by winning large shares of
votes, but often they can force major candidates to change their strategies or
tip the balance in close states. Since Ross Perot's Reform Party has virtually
disappeared and Ralph Nader has struggled to mount a campaign, count this as
no net advantage.
This short review suggests two conclusions. First, no single factor like the
fall debate performance or celebrity endorsements usually "decides" American
presidential elections. Second, neither George W. Bush nor John Kerry goes into
this fall's election with an overwhelming advantage.
The 2004 election may well be as close and competitive as the 2000
presidential election. There is also no guarantee that November's popular vote
winner will also win enough Electoral College votes to take office as president
in January 2005.
— Thomas R. Marshall