Electing a President: Not a National Election

Posted: June 3, 2015 | By: Iowa Caucus Project Staff Tagged: About the Caucuses

By Dennis J. Goldford, Harkin Institute Flansburg Fellow

Professor of Political Science, Drake University

To understand the factors that shape the Iowa Caucuses, we have to recall a fundamental fact about the American electoral process: there are no truly national elections in the United States. Of course we know that state and local elections are, by definition, not of national elections, but this McCaughey fact pertains to the branches of the federal government as well.

Consider the case of Congress. If we had truly national elections, along the lines of a parliamentary system, then we would hold elections across the country and then compile the overall results. Assuming a perfectly proportional scheme of representation, which is not always the case even in parliamentary systems, then, say, if the Republicans won 52% of the total national vote, the Democrats 47%, and a minor or “third” party 1%, then the Republicans would control 52% of all the seats in Congress, the Democrats 48%, and the minor party 1%.

This, however, is not what we have in the American political system. The first complicating factor is the bicameral nature of Congress: instead of having one chamber or house—think of the Nebraska state legislature—we have two, the Senate and the House of Representatives. We might think nevertheless that we could take the total national vote for the Senate and the total national vote for the House and then compile our proportional award of seats accordingly.

Yet this is not what we do in the American electoral process, because of the And second and more important complication. The lack of truly national elections in the United States stems from the fact that we do not count—“aggregate,” to use the term political scientists employ—votes on a national cheap mlb jerseys basis. The House of Representatives as a whole is elected by and represents the people of the United States, but no single member of the House does. He or she is elected by and represents the people of one of 435 Congressional districts distributed across the 50 states. Likewise, the Senate as a whole is elected by and represents the people of the United States, world! but no single member of the Senate does. He or she is elected by and represents the people of one of the 50 states.

Because the American electoral process aggregates votes on a district (House) and state (Senate) basis, therefore, we usually have a disjunction between the total percentages of wholesale nfl jerseys the national vote the candidates of each party win and the resulting percentages of the seats they thereby win in the legislature. Without getting detailed, I can point to the example of the House of Representatives.

According to Harkin Institute Advisory Board member Charlie Cook, in 2012 House Democratic candidates won 1.17 million more votes (50.59% of the two-party, rather than total, vote) than House Republican candidates. Nevertheless, they won just 46.21 percent of the seats, leaving the Republicans with 234 seats (53.8%) and Democrats with 201.

Similarly, in 2014, the total vote for Republican House candidates was 40,024,866 (50.91%), but that netted them 247 seats (57%). The total vote that year for Democratic House candidates was 35,626,309 (45.32%), which yielded 188 seats (43%).

The closest we come to having a truly national election in the United States is the race for the presidency, but even here the American electoral process does not consider the entire country to count as a single election district. That would be the case if we awarded the presidency to the winner of the popular vote nationwide—and we recall that Al Gore beat George W. Bush on that basis—but in fact we award the presidency to the winner of the electoral vote. Presidential candidates run for the office not on a truly national basis, but rather by running in 51 separate elections—those in each of the 50 states and the District of Columbia—for which they receive “points,” if you will (electoral votes) for each win. In 2012, President Obama won 51.01% percent of the popular vote (65,918,507) but won 61.7% of the electoral vote; Governor Romney won 47.15% of the popular vote (60,934,407) but won 38.3% of the electoral vote.




For an example of a greater extreme, consider the 1980 presidential election. Governor Ronald Reagan beat President Jimmy Carter in the popular vote, 50.75% to 41.01% (there were several other candidates), but that popular vote margin translated into an electoral vote difference of 90.9% Reagan to 9.1% Carter.

There is of course a tremendous amount of additional detail attached to what I have described thus far, but suffice it to say that this essentially state-and-local character of the American electoral process creates the context for the operation of political parties and elections in general cheap jerseys and the Iowa Caucuses in particular.