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Understanding American Politics: Presidential Campaigns

Updated on September 9, 2012

In my previous articles, we’ve talked about how a bill becomes law, and how to deal with your Congressman. Today, we're going to cover the granddaddy of them all: running for president.

In this article we’ll follow a fictional candidate all the way through the process; from the time he first decides he wants to be president, through the primary season, on to Election Day, and perhaps, even to the White House.

Fair warning: this is going to be a long one folks, so I would advise you to bookmark it now, so that you can come back later if you need to.

A Warning Before We Begin

As with my last article, this is an article on the process and not the ideology. Save the talking points for the forums. Discussion on this article should be kept to the topic at hand.

(My thanks to Lone77star for illustrating what happens when I forget to add this warning. I promise it won't happen again.)

John Has an Idea

Meet John, a three term congressman from Florida, who woke up this morning and decided he wanted to be President of United States. After talking with his family and friends, and discussing the insanity that would most likely ensue, they agree to support John in his run for the White House.

Before John runs however, we need to make sure that he's actually eligible. As of right now, here are the requirements to be elected president of the United States:

  • You must be at least 35 years old
  • You must be a “natural-born” citizen of the U.S.
  • You must have been a permanent resident of the U.S. for the last 14 years

As luck would have it John fits all these criteria (let's face it, this would be a pretty pointless article if he didn't).

So now we know that he qualifies to run, what steps does John actually have to take to make his dream of being the next Commander-In-Chief a reality? Well, the first thing John has to do is solve a problem that you have right now. Have you noticed what the problem is yet? Anyone? Let me give you a hint: what's John's last name?

Like Magellan… Only Not

The first thing John will need to do, is to form what's called an "Exploratory Committee". What an Exploratory Committee does, is assess the viability of a person as a possible Presidential Candidate. To put is simply, they just figure out if there's any point in John running. As a three term congressman from Florida, unless John has been doing something to make some noise on Capitol Hill, and making a name for himself, his odds are not very good.

However, since it would otherwise kill my article right now, let's assume that John has been busting his butt up here in Washington. He’s gotten himself on a few committees, kept his name out there in the public, co-sponsored some groundbreaking legislation, and has been generally an all-around great guy.

Way to go John.

It's important to note that Exploratory Committees are not the same as the official Campaign, or Political Action Committees (PACs as they’re most commonly referred to). Exploratory Committees have very strict rules about fundraising, and are generally only allowed to raise as much as would be necessary to do the requisite tracking polls and possibly some preliminary opposition research.

Exploratory Committees are expressly forbidden from campaigning of any sort, and aren’t even allowed to refer to the person as a “Candidate”. Up until the time you form an Exploratory Committee, there is generally a lot of "will he/won't he" speculation. While the simple act of forming an Exploratory Committee doesn’t necessarily mean that you will run, it's definitely your point of no return; your last chance to “take the blue pill” so to speak.

Time To Get Organized

Once we’ve determined that he would make a viable candidate for President, the next thing John needs to do is to set up His Election Committee. Again, even though your Election Committee is technically a Political Action Committee (we’ll talk more about PACs in a couple sections I promise) it’s not the same as the ones you hear about in the media all that time. There are different rules governing the two. The easiest way to tell the difference between a pack and the actual election committee is that the election committee will have the candidates name in it.

For John (whose last name is Davis by the way), we’re going to call his Election Committee “Davis for America”. The biggest reason you need to set up your Election Committee, is because that's when the fundraising begins. You’ll need to designate a few officers (treasurer, records custodian, chairman, etc.) and file with the Federal Election Commission (FEC), but once that's done, it's official, you’re a Candidate for President of the United States. The next thing you need to do is make sure people can actually vote for you.

Say My Name, Say It!

Now that Davis for America is up and running, the next thing to do is to find out how to get on the ballot in all 50 states. Each state has its own requirements for getting on the ballot during the primaries, and you’ll have to meet those requirements for each individual state in order to get on that particular ballot.

While the requirements for every state are different, they're pretty basic, and pretty much common sense things. Generally, you'll need things like signatures, a filing fee, or minimum polling numbers to get on, and stay on the ballot. So why isn't the ballot opened anyone who wants to run? I'm glad you asked.

Ballot access laws exist for a very good reason; they’re a way of weeding out unfavorable candidates, without weeding out unfavorable issues. Let me explain that one a little better. By restricting access to the ballot, you ensure that only serious candidates are up for consideration. The requirements are put on the person, not the party. So, for example, if someone from the Communist Party of America, or the Nazi party met the requirements for ballot access, they would be allowed on, which is as it should be*.

*Before the angry comments and e-mails start, settle down. No I'm not endorsing either communism, or Nazi's. I'm simply saying that the rules should be equal for everybody, regardless of your opinion on their political views. The only way to ensure that the Libertarian party, or the Green party get to run, is by ensuring that Communists and Nazi's can also. It's one of the many things that make the American political system the greatest in the world, in my humble opinion.

Iowa And New Hampshire… Really?

The first thing any candidate will do, once they’re all squared away with the paperwork, is head to New Hampshire. Yes, you read that right, New Hampshire. Why is New Hampshire so important to the political process? It really depends on who you ask. If you talk to someone from New Hampshire, they’ll tell you that it’s a proud and historic tradition; a shining example of democracy to the rest of the nation, and the world.

When you’re done listening to that b.s you can ask anyone else and they’ll give you the real reason: money. By going first, New Hampshire gets a lot of media coverage… a LOT of media coverage. The New Hampshire Primary can pump over a quarter of a billion dollars into the state’s economy, and that is big money by any standard.

On A Personal Note: Since I’ve spent such a great deal of time working in politics, I tend to try and stay neutral on most issues; like “The Godfather” taught us: “It’s not personal, it’s business”. However, the fact that Iowa and New Hampshire think that they have some sort of entitlement to the first primary/caucus slot is delusional, and the fact that both major parties cater to these people, is ridiculous to the point of absurdity. Why am I so against having New Hampshire as the first primary? I’m glad you asked.

New Hampshire is:

  • 42nd in Population
  • 42nd in GDP
  • 46th in size
  • It has roughly half the population of Orlando
  • It’s 93% white
  • And it has an African American population of 1%.

And they think they’re an “accurate representation” of the rest of the country? Give me a break.

That’s all for another article, for now let’s get back to John…

Now that “Davis for America” has done all of its filing, and John will actually be on the ballot in all 50 states, John heads up to New Hampshire and sets up his campaign office. Initially, most campaign offices are little hole-in-the-wall places that are usually vacant stores in strip malls, or any other cheap, short term, commercial rental property.

Since John is relatively unknown nationally, his Congressional Staff will serve as his Campaign Staff to start with. As he campaigns, he’ll pick up more and more volunteers, some of which will be given staff positions and travel with the campaign. His initial Campaign Staff will have three main jobs: fundraising, fundraising, and fundraising. Once New Hampshire is up and running, John will head to Iowa and start campaigning for real.

As a general rule, you need to win either the Iowa Caucuses or the New Hampshire primary in order to have any chance of getting your party’s nomination. While this doesn’t necessarily mean that everyone will drop out if they don’t win one of those two, it should be noted that no one in the last sixty plus years has gotten the nomination without winning either Iowa or New Hampshire.

So why do candidates stay in the race even if they don’t win one of those two contests? Some stay in to try and “campaign” for the VP spot, some stay in for the recognition and publicity, and some stay in because they want to get more attention for a particular issue.

Luckily, our friend John had a great staff, and after placing 2nd in the Iowa Caucuses, he went on to win the New Hampshire Primary. Now it’s time to pack up and head south.

Sweet Carolina

After Iowa and New Hampshire comes South Carolina, and this is where things get interesting. Being from Florida, John polls well in the south, but voters still don’t really know him. After his win in New Hampshire he has some momentum and he starts getting much more coverage by the National Media, which helps him establish himself as a national figure.

New polling data comes out and shows that he now has a five point lead on his closest opponent, for the first time, he has a solid lead (solid lead meaning that his lead is outside the 3% +/- margin of error). Capitalizing on this new polling data, John decides to dump a ton of money into the state, knowing that a win here will help thin the field of remaining candidates.

John campaigns hard, and spends a small fortune in South Carolina, and comes away with a win. Now, he’s won the first two primaries, and he’s established himself as the front runner. His plan for South Carolina worked, and most of the remaining candidates dropped out. John picked up a couple of endorsements, but most importantly, he picked up a ton of new donors, lots of money, and some more volunteers and staff, which is good, because he’s really going to need every bit of it now.

It’s A Bird… It’s A Plane… It’s Super Tuesday!

The next month and a half after South Carolina are a blur to John. He’s in a new state every day, sometimes two or three; campaigning hard and trying to get his message out. After winning seven of the next ten primaries, John knows that Super Tuesday could seal the deal. John decides to put all of his investments in a blind trust, and release his financial disclosures and physicals, in an attempt to further establish himself as the presumptive nominee.

What is Super Tuesday? Super Tuesday is the name that the media has given the day, usually in late February or early March, when the largest number of delegates are up for grabs. Looking back at this article so far, I realize now, that this answer will lead to your next question…

What In The Hell Are Delegates? During the primaries, what John is actually campaigning for are delegates. It sounds confusing, but actually, it’s pretty simple. When you vote in the primaries, you’re actually voting for delegates (chosen by the campaign), who will then go to the convention and select the nominee. Unless you’re interested in getting actively involved in the process, best to just stay in the dark on this one.

On Super Tuesday, John sweeps them all. Now the race is out of reach, and his opponent drops out and endorses John. Now with no one else running, John can take a minute to relax and regroup. It’s been a long road so far: constantly on the road, sleepless nights, cheap motels, giving the exact same stump speech hundreds of times, missing your family and friends, and now, John can actually take a breath and enjoy his victory for a minute.

Heigh-Ho, Heigh-Ho, It’s Off To The Convention We Go

Next up for John is his party’s convention. The National Conventions are, to some people, an anachronism, a throwback to the days when the conventions actually selected the nominee, and the process still mattered. These days, the nominee is decided well before the first balloon is even blown up; turning the Conventions into little more than pep rallies.

Even with the race already decided, John is still excited about the Convention; he’s now going to officially be his party’s nominee for President of the United States. He makes his speech, introduces his running mate, and formally accepts his party’s nomination, which finally gives him access to funding directly from the party now, in addition to what his campaign raises. This can either be a much needed boost for a struggling campaign, or a way to deliver a knockout blow.

John should enjoy his moment of glory, because the General Election is about to start.

The General Election: Two Men Enter, One Man Leaves

Up until now, John has been campaigning against members of his own party. While primary politics can get nasty, to be sure, it’s like little league compared to the general. Now, John won’t be campaigning against people who share his values, and just disagree on the methodology; he’ll be campaigning against people who are fundamentally opposed to almost everything he stands for.

Regardless of how nasty a primary season it’s been, it usually gets exponentially worse come September. Now, you not only have the two campaigns hitting at each other, you have the two parties whacking away, and, the worst of them all, the Political Action Committees (PACs- see I didn’t forget, I told you we’d talk about them). John knew what he was getting into when he signed up (at least he thought he did), and besides, it’s too late to quit now, so it’s on to the general we go.

Enter The PACs…

After the conventions, the first polls show John with a sizable lead over his opponent, Oklahoma Governor David Johnson (see what I did there). Things are going great for John, he’s getting a great response from the crowds, people love him, and his running mate, and all is right with the world. John and his wife Jane even have a chance to take a night off and have a nice quiet dinner together.

It’s a lovely evening when all of a sudden, John’s pager starts beeping, his cellphone and his home phone start ringing off the hook, and his assistant starts banging on the door. John answers the first phone he can grab, and all he can here is the voice on the other line say: “turn on channel 5”.

John grabs the remote and flips on the T.V. where he sees the following commercial:

“Congressman Davis says he loves America; why then does he have The Beatles, a British band, on his iPod? Aren’t American singers good enough for Congressman Davis? His iTunes account says NO! Congressman Davis hates American musicians, and he hates America. Is this the kind of man you want in the White House?”

At the very end of the commercial a voiceover reads: “Americans for a More American America is responsible for the content of this ad”.

John just got hit by a PAC. The best way to explain PACs is to give you the following analogy: PACs are to Political Campaigns, as Hitmen are to the Mafia. While the ideology behind Political Action Committees is a noble one, they are (to quote one of my favorite movies): “the wrong execution of the right idea”.

John calls his campaign manager and sets up a meeting with the press where he condemns the ad and demands that his opponent do the same. Needless to say, his opponent says that he had nothing to do with the ad, and that people are free to say whatever they like. He even goes on to point out, correctly I might add, that there are laws prohibiting candidates from coordinating with PACs, so there is nothing he could do, even if he wanted to.

John Turns To The Darkside

Since getting hammered with that first attack ad, John’s numbers are starting to go down; Americans for a More American America have run four more ads, and John’s lead is back within the margin of error. So, having finally having enough, John gets together with his Campaign Manager, and his Communications Director and has an all-day strategy session.

The next day, John’s Communications Director, a man who has been his best friend for over 10 years, quits the Davis for America Campaign. He leaves the Campaign and goes home and starts his own PAC: the American Society for Solidarity, Hope, Optimism, Love and Equality PAC (when you see it, you’ll get it).

This new PAC puts out the following ad:

“When asked if he had ever had an abortion, Governor Johnson said: “No that would be impossible, I’m a man and not biologically able to have an abortion, nor would I ever have a need to”. Governor Johnson says that men are biologically superior to women, and that there must be something biologically wrong with any woman who would have an abortion. According to him, if a woman want’s an abortion, she must be a whore. Tell Governor Johnson you’re not a whore, and send him back to Oklahoma.

The American Society for Solidarity, Hope, Optimism, Love and Equality is responsible for the content of this ad.”

The PAC runs this ad all across the country. It’s so beyond the pale outrageous that the media picks up on the story, and now they’re showing the ad on the news dozens of times a day, in every major market in the country (all for free I might add) as they report on it.

The new PAC starts selling “I’m not a whore” T-Shirts on their website. Women show up at Governor Johnson’s campaign rallies holding signs and protesting, and “experts” from the PAC are on all the news shows hammering the “I’m not a whore” message home.

The Debates

By the time the debates roll around, both sides are accusing the other of running a sleazy, negative campaign, and instead of debating the issues in the open, in front of the American people, they simply regurgitate their stump speeches and throw verbal jabs at each other all night long. The only thing missing from the whole thing is “Mean Gene” Okerlund (kids, ask your parents).

John and his opponent get so negative, that it basically negates character as a factor, and distorts the issues to such an extent that no one really knows who actually stands for what. In fact, it’s unfortunately become one of the new fundamental laws of Presidential Campaigns: “either run clean, or drag the race so deep into the mud, that people simply tune out”.

Once the debates are over, it’s all downhill until November. Election Day is right around the corner.

The Election

By this point, you should all be well aware of what happens next. We all vote, we wait up all night to find out who will win, and then we either brag about being on the winning side, or curse the process because our guy lost. In this case (and since I didn’t write these last 3000 words just to have him lose), John wins the election and becomes the President Elect of the United States.

Now the transition phase begins, and the real fun starts.


First, let me say this before we continue. Breaking out of the “story” for a moment, the 2012 election has been one of, if not the most negative, most repulsive campaigns in our nation’s history. That being said, if President Obama happens to lose the election, come January 20th, 2013 you will get to see, in my opinion, the greatest demonstration of patriotism and respect for the rule of law anywhere in the world.

President Obama and President Elect Romney will travel together to the Capitol Building, and there, in a ceremony in front of the world, the most powerful man in the world will step down and hand over control to his political rival. There won’t be any tanks, or revolutions, or uprisings; there will only be the peaceful transition from one administration to the next, just as it has been the previous 43 times.

Now back to our story…

John has won the election and now has to assemble his staff and get them ready to take over. His first step is to fill the “Big Four”, they are: Secretary of State, Secretary of Defense, Secretary of the Treasury, and the Attorney General. He’ll then fill out the rest of his Cabinet and appoint any Sub-Cabinet positions that he promised during the campaign (oh don’t act so shocked, they all do it).

After the confirmation process is complete, next comes the task of writing the Inaugural Address, and crafting his message for his first 100 days in office. Realistically, he’ll only have about 12 – 18 months in which to govern before he has to get back into “campaign mode” for the midterms. After that, he gets about another six months, and then it’s time to get ready for the reelect to gear up.

For now, we’ll just let John enjoy the nine or so Inaugural Balls he gets to go to, and let him worry about running the county tomorrow.


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    • Billy Hicks profile image

      Billy Hicks 4 years ago

      billd01603, Thanks for taking the time to read and comment. Always nice to know that people enjoy reading my work. =)

    • billd01603 profile image

      billd01603 4 years ago from Worcester

      Great informative, and fun ny Hub. I really enjoyed reading it! Thanks

    • Billy Hicks profile image

      Billy Hicks 4 years ago

      Casimiro , Thanks for stopping by, I enjoyed your article on Self Discovery very much (I promise, no "anterior motives" in that statement).

      I'm actually working on a couple new articles, one of which does go in depth on PACs. The other is concerning the vast fortunes that people spend when running for office.

      "You always have to wonder about people who spend hundreds of millions of dollars to get a job that only pays $400K".

    • Billy Hicks profile image

      Billy Hicks 4 years ago

      @lone77star, The only reason I approved your comment, is I forgot to put in my usual admonition about limiting the discussion to the process, and saving the partisan talking points for the forums. This was an oversight on my part; one that shall be corrected immediately.

    • profile image

      Casimiro 4 years ago

      Billy, this is a great overview of the process. I'd always wondered about the exact mechanics, such as whether the formation of an exploratory committee was codified in some way and not just convention.

      I hope you'll write some more hubs regarding the effect of all this private money (esp. wrt Citizens United) on our democratic process and/or the (obvious) advantages of going to regional primaries only. Apologies if you already did...

      Another pet peeve of mine is how "front-runner" status accrues to someone who only gets a plurality (often way way under 50%) of the vote in the primaries. I think there's a good mathematically-inclined hub lurking there!

      Thanks for a great hub! Good luck with staying non-partisan. :)

    • lone77star profile image

      Rod Martin Jr 4 years ago from Cebu, Philippines

      Interesting fairytale.

      Too bad it's darker than you portray. Both parties have effectively eliminated voting as a primary and convention process.

      RNC Scripted:

      DNC Scripted:

      The GOP in the run up to the convention was just about as Stalinistic and Nazi-istic as you could imagine. Violence by Romney supporters, arrests of chairpersons by the police or off-duty officers working as security. In the case of St. Charles, MO, the chairperson was the only one out of a crowd of more than a hundred arrested for "Trespassing!" Wow! What a crock!.

      And the GOP changed votes, ignored votes and deleted votes all in favor of Romney. They may as well have skipped right to the coronation.

      But the Corporate Party (the one running the show) wants to keep up the pretense of a choice long enough to finish stealing the republic.

      Obama has,

      * trashed the Constitution repeatedly

      * ratcheted up the military and belligerence worldwide

      * racked up more overspending than any other president in history

      And Romney promises more of the same.

      Can we simply burn the Constitution on national TV and get it over with?

      Don't be fooled like the Germans 80 years ago. This time, though, we don't have one figurehead... we get to choose amongst several Corporate Party stooges.

      Help restore the Constitution before it's too late.

      And help shine a light on the reason for most of the unconstitutional and fiscally insane actions -- 9/11. That event has more lies attached to it than you can shake a stick at. Plus, the government committed a felony by destroying crime scene evidence!