US Politics Explained

Posted on: 2012-08-07 in Resources   |   Tagged: b2b pr us election usa

By @TopLineFounder

If you’re going to be doing any business with Americans then you need to be able to hold your own in a conversation about the biggest story of their year. In the 2012 presidential election, taking place in November, US voters will decide whether Barack Obama deserves the most powerful job on earth for another four years, or whether international gaffing champion Mitt Romney should be given the honour. This post provides a brief overview of the US political system:

The US Government plays a number of roles in the economy. It:

  • Regulates: while the private sector leads economic activity, the government makes sure that this sector operates within a set of pre-defined rules (enshrined in the constitution).
  • Protects: when there is a conflict between the common interest and the individual human being, the government steps in to protect the individual’s rights.
  • Sponsors R&D: the government takes the risk where other financiers won’t dare, putting money into small businesses to boost the economy. Once these businesses become viable investments, then the investment community takes over their financing.  

The role of associations and NGOs

Much of the country’s policy-making is driven by associations and NGOs, such as the US Chamber of Commerce, which lobbies on behalf of businesses. These organisations tend to be heavily involved in political parties, and:

  • Play a fundamental role in determining who the party nominees are, trying to find trusting candidates who support their agenda.
  • Provide a route to nomination: candidates need practical policy-making skills, and many gain these by working for associations and NGOs.
  • Providing candidates with volunteers for their campaigns: the vast majority of people who volunteer for campaigns do so because they have a vested interest in the candidate succeeding.

Layers of government

Unlike the UK, the US government is not centralised - i.e. Washington does not dictate policies that are then rolled out across the 50 states. It is simply the physical location of the government, which is broken down into three layers:

  • Federal government: develops some policy and federal laws – i.e. laws that apply across all 50 states, and is responsible for defence, foreign affairs and monetary policy (through the Federal Reserve). It has its own budget raised in federal taxes from the citizens. Each state takes federal taxes and passes them on to the federal government.   
  • State government: each of the 50 states has its own policies, including the power to make its own laws. The state is the basic unit of US government: each state has its own constitution, flag, senate, House of Representatives and a governor. The governor is the president of the people of the state. He has a full cabinet and a full administration. States set their own taxes and raise them from their citizen.
  • Local government: the states delegate the vast majority of the work to local government (counties and cities).  Each county has local courts, local laws and taxation and each city has further laws that apply specifically to its residents. Local government has full responsibility for a number of areas, including education (there is no singular curriculum – each district has a local board) and law enforcement (there is no national police – the FBI are not national police, they simply step in when federal law is violated, which is around 12% of violations).

The greatest separation is between the state and federal governments, with states delegating three powers fully to the federal government – defence, monetary and foreign policy. Everything else is done at state level (health education, policing) - each state manages its own regulations and domestic affairs.

The interaction between levels of government

The mechanism by which federal and state government work together to run the country is simple: at least one Congress is held in Washington in which two types of representatives come together:

  • Senators: Each state has two elected Senators who represent the interests of the state.  
  • Members of the House of Representatives: each state is allocated a number of seats on the House of Representatives, based on the size of its population (this is revised every ten years following the US Census).

No legislation can become law until the House of Representatives and the Senate have agreed it, and the president has ratified it. If states agree through Congress to implement a federal law, this law does not become centralised. Instead, it simply means that this law becomes the minimum standard for each state to implement – but many states might choose to raise the standard above the federal mandate.

In the absence of federal law, states can pass any law they like (within the boundaries of the constitution), and the federal government will only step in if the states don’t provide the freedom for citizens to exercise their rights.

The US President

The US President is the chief executive of the country. He is the commander-in-chief of the armed forces, he has to report to the Legislature every year (usually takes place in January or February) on the state of the union, and he has the powers of pardon and to appoint people to certain offices in the Federal Government (e.g. Attorney General and Secretaries of State and the Treasury). He can serve for a maximum of eight years, or two terms of four years (there have been some exceptional circumstances, such as world war, where a president has served longer than his two terms).

The US Election Process

Modern American politics is dominated by two political parties – the Republicans and the Democrats. There are other independent parties, but for the purposes of this explanation, I will focus on the core two.

Caucuses and primaries

Caucuses and primary elections are the nominating process by which parties choose which candidate they will put forward for the office of president. Usually, if the incumbent president has not served his maximum term of eight years, he is automatically that party’s candidate (e.g. Barack Obama is the Democratic candidate for the coming election). Where this is not the case, candidates battle it out to win the party’s nomination (e.g. in 2012 Mitt Romney beat Rick Santorum to win the Republican nomination).

The within-party nominations take place well ahead of the national election, to allow the winning candidate enough time to lead their party’s campaign to win the national elections. The party nomination process starts with the caucus, where party members gather together to discuss and agree on which candidate to support at the nominating convention. This is followed by the primary, an election across the state, in which party members (and some independents) are balloted for their preferred candidate.

Each party’s system of choosing candidates is different, but basically, the candidate with the most votes wins that party’s nomination. They don’t have much time to celebrate though, as they need to start campaigning for the national election.

The national election

The national election takes place every four years (next one in November). Each adult citizen in the US has the right to vote in the presidential elections. They are issued with state ID and they have to vote in their own state. Each party will already have chosen the candidate they want to put forward to be president and it is up to the citizens to choose between them.

There are 538 votes in the electoral college (body of people representing the states of the US, who formally cast votes for the election of the president and vice president). To win the presidential election, a candidate has to win 270 or more of these votes. Each state has a set number of electoral votes, equal to the number of seats they have in Congress (i.e. Members of the House of Representatives + 2 Senators). When citizens vote, they are telling their state who they want to be selected. However, the final votes are not allocated proportionately. Instead, the winning candidate in each state, gets ALL the votes for that state.

The system prevents the most populous states from dominating the elections, as a small margin of victory in a smaller state can have a major impact. It also means that it is possible for the candidate to win the most votes to not win the election – as in 2000, when George Bush won the election, but won fewer votes than Al Gore.  

So what to expect when you’re electing?

In the run up to the elections, each party will have its national convention. At the Republican Convention, taking place at the end of August, delegates will choose their nominee for the presidency (we know this will be Mitt Romney – he is currently the ‘presumptive nominee’, which means it’s not technically official).

At the Democratic Convention, at the start of September, they will also choose their candidate. This will be Barack Obama, who has already won enough votes in the primaries.

In October, there will be three presidential debates and a vice-presidential debate.

On 6th November, over 100 million people will vote across 50 states. They will tell their electors (note that the proportion of the electoral college has shifted since the last election following the 2010 census – in favour of the Republicans), who to vote for.

On 17 December 2012, those state representatives will actually elect the president and vice president.  The electoral votes will be formally counted on 6 January and the president will be inaugurated on 20 January 2013. We will officially have a winner!

Have any great US PR stories to share? Please comment below or get in touch!

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About this blog

The B2B PR Blog is a resource for both PR professionals and people working in B2B industries on how to devise and implement successful B2B PR campaigns. The blog was founded by B2B PR specialist Heather Baker, who runs video production and corporate animation agency TopLine Film and digital PR and SEO agency  TopLine Comms. The B2B PR Blog takes contributions from sensible industry folk with something interesting to say.


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