Cheat sheet

Chapter 9: Campaigns, Nominations and Elections

The American electoral process has undergone considerable change. Increasingly, election campaigns have evolved from being party centered to being candidate centered. Most candidates for major office are nominated through a primary election. To nominate a presidential candidate, parties employ a mix of presidential primaries, local caucuses, and party conventions. In seeking election, an incumbent usually enjoys an advantage over a challenger, especially in elections to Congress, where challengers get far less money from organized groups.

Campaign funds are perhaps the most vital campaign resource. Campaign financing is now heavily regulated by national and state governments. At the national level, the Federal Election Commission enforces limits on financial contributions and requires full disclosure of campaign spending. It also administers the public financing of presidential campaigns. Such financing has affected campaigns by placing limits on campaign costs, by helping to equalize the amounts spent by major candidates in the general election, and by increasing the candidate-centered orientation of elections. Public funds are given to the candidate rather than the political party represented by the individual. Access to such funds has generally further isolated the presidential campaign from congressional campaigns. Candidates usually turn to pollsters or political consultants to develop a strategy that mixes party, issues, and images. The campaign message is then disseminated via the mass media through new coverage and advertising.

All seats in the House of Representative, one-third of the Senate, and numerous state and local offices are filled in general elections, which are held in November in even-numbered years. The president is elected indirectly through the electoral college, in which each state has a number of electors equal to the total of its senators and representatives. Voters may vote either a straight ticket, in which they choose only one party’s candidates for all offices, or they may vote a split ticket by choosing candidates from different parties. 

Individual voting choices can be explained as products of long-term forces, which operate over a series of elections, and short-term forces, which are associated with particular elections. Party identification is the most important long-term force. The most important short-term forces are candidates’ attributes and policy positions. Most studies of presidential elections show that issues are less important than either party identification or the candidate’s image when people cast their ballots.

Although the party affiliation of the candidates and the party identification of the voters explain a good deal of electoral behavior, party organizations are not central to elections in American. Both major parties fail to meet two of the four principles of responsible government noted in Chapter 8. They do not choose candidates according to party programs, and the governing party cannot be held responsible at the next election for executing its program because there is no governing party when the president is of one party and the Congress is controlled by the other. Even though they do not satisfy all elements of the majoritarian model, parties in the United States do fit well into the pluralist model. They function as giant interest groups themselves, and their decentralized organization provides many opportunities for other organized groups to back candidates that favor their interests.

Chapter 10: Interest Groups

The existence of interest groups represents a fundamental dilemma for the American political system. Interest groups work to gain advantages for themselves at the expense of the larger population. Indeed, Madison warned that “factions” would go as far as to suppress the rights of others to achieve their objectives. Yet interest groups are a manifestation of liberty; curbing interest groups means curbing freedom.

Interest groups do play many positive roles. Among other things, they represent people before their government. Yet a troubling aspect of interest group politics has to do with the nature of this representation. Some segments of society (particularly the wealthy, the well educated, and businesses) are more likely to be represented by lobbying organizations than other constituencies are. This inequity is also manifested in the resources available to groups.

In recent years we have observed an upsurge in the numbers of interest groups. The most troubling aspect of that growth is the increasingly significant role political action committees, or PACs, play in financing congressional elections. The greatest portion of PAC contributions comes from corporate PACs. Critics charge that PACs gain undue advantage from the access they gain with contributions. They argue that PACs exacerbate the inequities in American society. Defenders respond that PACs are a way in which people can participate in politics. Moreover, shouldn’t people have the freedom to join together with other like-minded Americans to promote the candidates they believe in?

Chapter 11: Congress

Synopsis We expect the Congress to make wise policy decisions in a democratic fashion. But what type of representation defines a “democratic” legislature? The founding fathers struggled over the apportionment of the House and the Senate to try to balance competing views of what a representative democracy should look like. When we argue today over how to improve congressional performance, we still must think about questions of representation.

The policymaking cycle in the Congress begins with issues reaching the congressional agenda. Once Congress is ready to fashion legislation, the work begins in committee. Policy is most closely scrutinized and most of the decisions over the substance of legislation are made in committee. The authority of the committee system promotes pluralism in the Congress. The leaders in the Congress can play an important role in building coalitions for legislation as it emerges from committee. Oversight can be thought of as both the final state of one legislative cycle and the beginning of another. It is the final stage in the sense that oversight activity is directed at finding out how well the legislation that was passed is working. At the same time, it provides crucial information to members of Congress to help them amend existing legislation. That is, oversight helps to start the cycle of legislating all over again.

When legislation does reach the floor, what influences the way a member of Congress votes? This chapter examines various factors that can have influence, includinginfluence, political parties, the president, constituents, and interest groups. then focuses on oversight. Oversight can be thought of as both the final state of one legislative cycle and the beginning of another. It is the final stage in the sense that oversight activity is directed at finding out how well the legislation that was passed is working. At the same time, it provides crucial information to members of Congress to help them amend existing legislation. That is, oversight helps to start the cycle of legislating all over again.

The end of the chapter turns once again to representation. Members of Congress are caught between the needs of their constituencies and what is best for the country as a whole. The classic question is posed: Should senators and representatives act as trustees or delegates? This debate is relevant to one of the larger themes of the book. Members of Congress who act as delegates help to promote pluralism in the Congress. If we decide we want a more majoritarian Congress, we need a fundamental reform of our party system.

Chapter 12: The Presidency

Although our Constitution is two hundred years old, we still argue about many of the same things that the authors of that document did. The powers of the presidency still concern us. What powers belong to the president? Although some are quite clear from the Constitution, claims of inherent powers have led to many controversies during our history. How past presidents have expanded the powers of that office is key to understanding the nature of the modern presidency.

The president is a popularly elected leader, and his political skills are critical for putting together a winning electoral coalition. The need to win favor with the public does not end with the election. A president’s popularity affects his standing with Congress and his overall ability to lead.

Candidates who successfully put together an electoral coalition and win the presidency inevitably claim to have received a mandate from the public. In recent years their ability to carry out the perceived mandate is made more difficult by divided control of government.

In exercising leadership, the president has the resources of the executive branch to draw on. None of these is more important than his personal staff. More broadly, he draws upon the Executive Office of the President and his cabinet. The task of presidential leadership is to translate his political vision into a concrete agenda and then to persuade the public and the Congress to support the legislation that is derived from that agenda.

The president is a world leader, too, and his skills at crisis management and diplomacy will affect the success of his administration. The way a president handles crisis and noncrisis decision making in the White House is often influenced by his “presidential character.”