The general election pits each party’s nominees against each other. Candidates can usually rely on the support of voters from their own party, so the campaign is frequently a competition for independent voters. The candidates travel to battleground states to hold rallies, aimed at both turning out their own base and persuading undecided voters to support them. The candidates usually debate each other on television. Following a blitz of last-minute campaigning, the voters go to the polls on election day.
The Constitution only states that the candidate who receives a majority of votes in the Electoral College becomes president. It says nothing about the popular vote. The intent of the framers was to filter public opinion through a body composed of wiser, more experienced people; the framers did not want the president to be chosen directly by the people.
Each state gets a number of electors equal to its total number of members of Congress (all states get at least three). State governments determine how electors are chosen. No federal officeholders can serve as electors.
Voters think that when they cast their vote, they are voting for a presidential candidate. But in all but two states (Nevada and Maine are the exceptions), voters actually vote for electors, who have pledged to vote for their party’s candidate during the Electoral College. Some states have laws that require every elector to vote for the candidate who received the most popular votes in the state, a winner-take-all system. Many of the states with a winner-take-all system have laws to punish faithless electors, those who vote for someone other than the winner of the state’s popular vote.
Sometimes a candidate loses the popular vote but still becomes the president. In fact, this has happened four times in American history: John Quincy Adams in 1824, Rutherford B. Hayes in 1876, Benjamin Harrison in 1888, and George W. Bush in 2000. These men all became president despite having lost the popular vote. In races with a significant third-party candidate, the winner frequently gets less than 50 percent of the popular vote, such as when Woodrow Wilson defeated opponents Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft in 1912 or when Bill Clinton defeated George H. W. Bush and Ross Perot in 1992.
Originally, the presidential candidate who received the second-greatest number of electoral votes became the vice president, but this created problems between presidents and vice presidents who were from different political parties. The Twelfth Amendment, ratified in 1804, made it so that the Electoral College chooses the president and the vice president separately.
George Washington set a key precedent when he stepped down from office after serving only two terms. For more than 100 years after Washington, presidents refused to run for office more than twice, until Franklin Roosevelt was elected to four consecutive terms during the Great Depression and World War II. The Twenty-second Amendment was ratified in 1951, making it illegal for presidents to be elected more than twice.
According to the Constitution, the vice president’s main job is to assume the office of the president if the president dies, leaves office, or can no longer perform presidential duties. Congress has the power to determine succession if both the president and vice president die, leave office, or cannot perform their jobs. The chart on the next page shows how the Succession Act of 1947 sets the order of presidential succession.
|2||Speaker of the House|
|3||President Pro Tempore of the Senate|
|4||Secretary of State|
|5||Secretary of the Treasury|
|6||Secretary of Defense|
|8||Secretary of the Interior|
|9||Secretary of Agriculture|
|10||Secretary of Commerce|
|11||Secretary of Labor|
|12||Secretary of Health and Human Services|
|13||Secretary of Housing and Urban Development|
|14||Secretary of Transportation|
|15||Secretary of Energy|
|16||Secretary of Education|
|17||Secretary of Veterans’ Affairs|
|18||Secretary of Homeland Security|
Until the Twenty-fifth Amendment was ratified in 1967, there was no law about what to do when the office of the vice president was vacant. When a vice president succeeded a president who had died, for example, he had no vice president. The Twenty-fifth Amendment specified that a new vice president would be nominated by the president and approved by both houses of Congress.