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The Evolution of the Contemporary Presidential Election

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  • 0:02 Evolution of…
  • 1:48 Evolution of the…
  • 3:48 The First Presidential…
  • 5:14 Recent Presidential Elections
  • 6:52 Electoral Effect on…
  • 8:39 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Ashley Dugger

Ashley is an attorney. She has taught and written various introductory law courses.

Presidential elections have changed a great deal over time. These days, elections are well-publicized and hard-fought. This lesson takes a look at contemporary presidential elections and campaigns.

Evolution of Presidential Elections

The fight to win the U.S. presidency is a lengthy and expensive battle. But that's not how it used to be! George Washington had to be convinced to run for president in 1789 and was elected by unanimous vote. Conversely, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney collectively spent over $2 billion in their two-year-long bids for the 2012 presidency.

Let's take a look at this evolution. Our founding fathers purposely designed a method in which the people held much of the power and responsibility to select their own president. Remember that the United States was brand-new and only contained 13 states.

The states were used to operating on their own, with their own governments. This meant that the people of one state were largely unfamiliar with the political leaders of the other states. The founders therefore developed a two-stage method of electing the president. The states each chose electors, or voting representatives. Those electors then selected the president. This body of electors is known as the Electoral College, and this system is still used today.

However, when first initiated, most state legislatures chose their own electors. Only white, land-owning men could vote at that time. This meant that presidential candidates only needed to campaign to people just like themselves. We had a group of politically involved white men choosing another, from a nearby state, to serve as president.

Evolution of the Electoral Vote

Over time, all U.S. citizens over the age of 18 gained the right to vote, and our country vastly expanded to include 50 states. The people of a state are now largely responsible for choosing that state's electors. They are chosen by the political parties at their state party conventions and are often political party leaders. The electors can be male or female, young or old, and come from a variety of backgrounds. As a result, presidential candidates must gear their election bids to all kinds of people in every area of the country.

Additionally, the majority of states use a winner-takes-all method for distributing their electoral votes. This means that the winner of the state's popular vote automatically receives all of that state's electoral votes. For example, the winner of Oklahoma's popular vote receives all seven of that state's electoral votes. A candidate can win an entire state's electoral votes by just one popular vote, making the fight for popular votes more important.

Note, though, that the fight is more important in some states than in others. Electoral votes are divided based on a state's population. For the 2016 presidential election, Alaska only has three electoral votes, while California has 55.

Fortunately, enhanced media and technology now allow for broader campaigns. Candidates use extensive air travel to make personal appearances. They also utilize television ads, radio ads, social media, televised debates and many other outlets that simply weren't available before.

The First Presidential Election

To see how far we've come, it's helpful to take a look back. George Washington, our first U.S. president, ran unopposed. Knowing that, Washington was still hesitant to run. He felt that openly seeking a high office showed conceit and dishonor. Accordingly, he didn't campaign.

At that time, each elector cast two votes in the presidential election. The candidate with the most votes became president, and the runner-up became the vice president. The Federalist Party was newly formed but already largely controlled the federal government. It was the first American political party, and it advocated a strong central government.

Though George Washington was an Independent, he was a Federalist sympathizer. The Federalists wanted John Adams to be Washington's vice president, but it was difficult to ensure this outcome. If Adams got too many votes, he might win the presidency. If he got too few, someone else might be named vice president. They didn't want to embarrass Washington or disgrace the new electoral system.

Alexander Hamilton, the Federalist leader, therefore led a small campaign among electors for the desired result. This first presidential campaign was a success!

Recent Presidential Elections

Let's flash forward more than 200 years. In the 2000 election, Republican candidate George W. Bush won the presidency by gaining the most electoral votes, though Democratic candidate Al Gore secured the most popular votes. This is a far cry from Washington's unanimous selection!

During this close race, the candidates spent more than $67.1 million on television ads alone. Bush spent $11 million in California, but he ended up losing that state.

Though Bush was declared the winner of Florida's 25 electoral votes on election night, those votes were in dispute for several days while Florida conducted a ballot recount. The U.S. Supreme Court eventually halted the recount due to constitutional concerns. This allowed Florida's previous certification of electoral votes to stand. With Florida's votes, Bush received 271 total Electoral College votes and was declared the winner by just one.

Four years later, incumbent Bush defeated Democratic candidate John Kerry by approximately 3 million popular votes and 35 electoral votes. That may seem like a lot. However, if just 60,000 more Ohio voters had voted for Kerry, then he would have won enough electoral votes to win the election despite still losing the national popular vote.

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