From Super Bowl to Super Tuesday

Now that the Super Bowl‘s over and done with, attention switches back to the 2008 Presidential election, particularly the caucuses and primaries due to be held tomorrow, on what is termed Super Tuesday.

After reading Seven Days in May when I was around 12, I decided to read everything that Fletcher Knebel and Charles Bailey had ever written. Which included a book called Convention, reading which spurred me to follow the US Presidential election quite closely ever since. I have no idea why, I guess there’s something about the byzantine process that makes me feel at home; somehow, it manages to leave the bureaucracy of the Empire, Raj and even Writers’ Building quaking in its wake.

[Incidentally, I love the Knebel quote in Wikipedia: “Smoking is one of the leading causes of statistics“.]

In conversation a few days ago, someone asked me to explain what Super Tuesday was, and for that matter how the US President was elected. I wasn’t happy with my explanation, and decided I’d blog it; that way I learn by putting myself through the discipline of writing it down, I learn from my mistakes, I learn from your comments. And maybe some of you will learn something as well.

So here goes:

Elected by electoral college, not by popular vote 

The President of the United States of America is actually elected indirectly, via an electoral college, on the first Monday after the second Wednesday in December. [Technically, if the electoral college does not produce a majority winner, with at least 270 votes, then the process passes to the House of Representatives who then vote to elect the President, but this is an arcane amendment].

As a result, what we know as Election Day, the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November, is not actually the day on which the President is voted for. It is actually the day when the electoral college is elected. The votes of the electoral college, however, are normally already pledged by then, state by state, party by party, through a process of caucus and primary and national convention. [Again technically, the electors have no legal requirement to vote as directed in the caucus or primary. But they do].

It is therefore possible for a candidate to win “the popular vote” in the November election (where the presidential candidate names do appear on the ballot) while still losing the election proper (which is based on the pre-pledged voting intentions of the candidates gaining election to the college of electors). This has happened, even as recently as 2000, when Al Gore won the popular vote, yet failed to get majority in the electoral college. John Quincy Adams, Rutherford B Hayes and Benjamin Harrison, like George W Bush, all became President while losing the popular vote.

Delegates selected for national convention by caucus or primary

The actual selection of the presidential candidate by a party takes place at that party’s national convention, usually held in the August preceding a presidential election. Caucuses are local meetings which select delegates to district meetings which select delegates to regional meetings which select delegates to state meetings which select delegates to the national convention. Primaries compress all this and select delegates to the national convention.

Both caucuses as well as primaries can be closed (only available to registered party members) or open to all. Both caucuses as well as primaries can pledge delegate votes on a proportional basis or on a winner-take-all basis. There is also a concept of a semi-closed primary, open but requiring prior registration.

National convention selects presidential candidates as well as party platform

The party’s candidates for the electoral college are already known by the time the national convention comes along, so the objective of the convention is simple: nominate candidates for president and vice-president, sort out the party platform, do the necessary rah-rah to unify the party: remember that the convention follows maybe 18 months of bitter fighting within the party, as candidates battle against each other.

So. Razzmatazz. Caucus or Primary. National Convention. Election of Electors. Election of President. And that’s it.

Please do tell me what I got wrong, so that I can understand the process better.

9 thoughts on “From Super Bowl to Super Tuesday”

  1. To understand the process in terms of what I (incompletely ) know about Indian Presidential election , the operating similarity is the concept of ‘Whip’ issued by the parties. [
    From your blog post, I see that in the US, a 2.5 line Whip[]
    is getting written by a bubble up process.

    BTW, the process of franchise is so arcane in the context of technology available that a dramatically more liquid Franchise Market is imminent.

    And I see VRM as a building block that will accelerate realization of such a market. Just like VRM turns CRM on its head, the concept of going somewhere and voting on specific agenda at a specific time and place is to be phased out.

  2. :) Fascinating process.

    Martin commented already on the superdelegates in the Democratic party. Although the numbers are different in the article I read (796 vs 840), it is a sizeable faction either way made up of “Democratic members of Congress, governors, national committee members or party leaders (such as former presidents and vice presidents).”

    I guess Bill gets to vote for Hillary as a superdelegate as well as at the ballot box :)

    And these superdelegate votes, from the looks of it, can be indicated in advance of primaries/caucuses. That is the reason Hillary’s delegate count has always tracked higher than Obama on places like:

    which shows Hillary with 232 delegates and Obama with 158.

    (Detail of these superdelegates already accounted for at )

    I thought the cnn site explanations were good:

    Probably not even worth talking about the Republican pledged vs unpledged delegates :)

  3. The two-party system in the USA dates from a time when we had only two political parties in the UK – the Whigs and the Tories.

    While our party system in the UK has survived the evolution into Conservative and Liberal, the rise of the Labour party and the hiccup of the Social Democrats, I wonder what would happen to the system you describe if the two-party hegemony was upset?

    It’s unlikely ever to happen I guess, because the USA is insular and conservative and has almost infinite inertia. But achieving the 270 electoral college votes would be a lot harder with a sizeable third party in the mix.

    What prompted the mutation of the UK parties was significant political innovation like the Corn Laws, the rise of organised labour and the European issue. The USA system has survived the expansion of the union and the Cold War without change. What could change it? Climate change and the end of oil? The internet?

  4. I hope this doesn’t turn out too long…

    The US House of Representatives was actually created around the perceived likelihood of a multitude of parties in the US. Given the variety of the states and the relatively small number of votes required to elect a representative, very small, local parties would be able to win local elections. Or so it was thought.

    When this dynamic plays out as Dom suggests, with no Presidential candidate carrying the Electoral College, the House chooses the President. This, many framers believed, was how Presidents would be selected.

    Fat chance. US politics has suffered from bi-polar disorder for more than 2 centuries. Even the most successful 3rd parties fade quickly.

    But they’re always associated with a Presidential candidate, the office that has the highest barrier to entry.

    I’ve never understood why a 3rd party didn’t start as a grass-roots movement that elects a couple of representatives on a basically local platform and grow from there.

    Finally, I’m looking in my crystal ball, and I think it’s least unlikely that a large, concentrated ethnic group will execute this strategy in one way or another.

Let me know what you think

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