Although presidential elections occur every 4 years, many people feel that they do not have a true understanding of how presidential campaigns operate.
The winner in the November general election is almost certain to be either the Republican or the Democratic nominee. A minor-party or independent candidate, such as George Wallace in 1968, John Anderson in 1980, or Ross Perot in 1992 and 1996, can draw votes away from the major-party nominees but stands almost no chance of defeating them.
A major-party nominee has the critical advantage of support from the party faithful. Earlier in the twentieth century, this support was so firm and steady that the victory of the stronger party's candidate was almost a certainty. Warren G. Harding accepted the 1920 Republican nomination at his Ohio home, stayed there throughout most of the campaign, and won a full victory simply because most of the voters of his time were Republicans. Party loyalty has declined in recent decades, but more than two-thirds of the nation's voters still identify themselves as Democrats or Republicans, and most of them support their party's presidential candidate. Even Democrat George McGovern, who had the lowest level of party support among recent nominees, was backed in 1972 by nearly 60 percent of his party'svoters.
Presidential candidates act strategically. In deciding whether to pursue a course of action, they try to estimate its likely impact on the voters. During the 1992 campaign, a sign on the wall of Clinton's headquarters in Little Rock read, "The economy, Stupid." The slogan was the idea of James Carville, Clinton's chief strategist, and was meant as a reminder to the candidate and the staff to keep the campaign focused on the nation's slow-moving economy, which ultimately was the issue that defeated Bush. As in 1980, when Jimmy Carter lostto Ronald Reagan during tough economic times, the voters were motivated largely by a desire for change.
Candidates try to project a strong leadership image. Whether voters accept this image, however, depends more on external factors than on a candidate's personal characteristics. In 1991, after the
Gulf War, bush's approval rating reached 91 percent, the highest level recorded since polling began in the 1930s. A year later, with the nation's economy in trouble, Bush's approval rating dropped below 40 percent. Bush tried to stir images of his strong leadership of the war, but voters remained concerned about the economy.
The candidates' strategies are shaped by many considerations, including the constitutional provision that each state shall have electoral votes equal in number to its representation in Congress.
Each state thus gets two electoral votes for its Senate representation and a varying number of electoral votes depending on its House representation. Altogether, there are 538 electoral votes (including three for the District of Columbia, even though it has no voting representatives in Congress). To win the presidency, a candidate must receive at least 270 votes, an electoral majority.
Candidates are particularly concerned with winning the states which have the largest population, such as California (with 54 electoral votes), New York (33), Texas (32), Florida (25), Pensylvania (23), lllinois (22), and Ohio (21). Victory in the eleven largest states alone would provide an electoral majority, and presidential candidates therefore spend most of their time campaigning in those states. Clinton recived only 43 percent of the popular vote in 1992, compared with Bush's 38 percent and Perot's 19 percent; but Clinton won in states that gave him an overwhelming 370 electoral votes, compared with 168 for Bush and none for Perot.