American Government Lecture One

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American Government Lectures - [1 - 2 - 3 - 4 - 5 - 6 - 7 - 8 - 9 - 10 - 11 - 12]

Welcome to this course in American Government & Politics! The full title is "Government" and "Politics" because it is impossible to understand one without the other. Government policies are dictated by elected officials, and they care most about being reelected. To understand why government acts in certain ways, it is necessary to understand elections first.

Tonight, September 6, 2012, President Barack Obama will accept the nomination by the Democratic Party for his candidacy to be reelected as president of the United States. As is customary, he will deliver an acceptance speech that tries to persuade millions of Americans to reelect him. A week earlier, on August 30, Mitt Romney accepted the nomination by the Republican Party to be elected to this same position. In every year divisible by four, including this 2012, the United States elects (or reelects) a president. At the same time, officially the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November ("Election Day"), American voters also elect the entire House of Representatives (435 officers) and one-third of the U.S. Senate. (One third of the U.S. Senate is elected every two years, such that by every six years the entire Senate has been elected.) Many state and local offices are also on the ballot on Election Day.

Unlike most nations, American government is run by persons who stand for election or reelection on fixed days determined by law, and every political leader focuses on that election the way that sports stars and fans focus on the Super Bowl, the World Series, or the Olympics. Billions of dollars are spent in political advertisements on television, radio and the internet, and in mailings sent to households in attempts by political campaigns to win. This is more exciting than sports contests, and the outcomes of political struggles make an enormous difference in which direction our Nation goes in the future.

There are three branches of government, and at the national ("federal") level only the first two stand for election:

  • Executive branch (president, the military, and nearly all federal government agencies)
  • Legislative branch (Congress and its staff)
  • Judicial branch (federal courts, including hundreds of federal judges and their staff and the U.S. Supreme Court)

In addition, there is state government, which is completely independent of the federal government in our unique system of dual sovereigns. There is also free enterprise (the free market), which is regulated by government but has an independent influence on elections; when the economy is good, politicians in office ("incumbents") tend to be reelected, and when the economy is failing, incumbents lost reelection more often.

Difference Between Politics and History

History is about the past; politics is about the future. Unlike history, politics is constantly changing. In some ways, politics is similar to a game in sports: what happened on the last football play or baseball pitch is not likely to be copied for the next play or pitch. Instead, the way the game is played is constantly changing. How an election was won two or four years ago is probably not how it will be won next time.

But history can be a guide in predicting the future, and the presidential election between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama is being compared to two prior presidential elections:

  • the 1980 presidential election between Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter
  • the 1948 presidential election between Tom Dewey and Harry Truman

In both 1980 and 1948, the economy was doing terribly, as it is now. In both 1980 and 1948, an unpopular incumbent president was running for reelection, just as Barack Obama has low approval ratings today. In 1980, the Republican challenger Ronald Reagan won by a landslide, when many undecided voters shifted to support Reagan shortly before Election Day. But in 1948, the Republican challenger Tom Dewey lost to the incumbent Harry Truman, even though the economy was worsening, Truman had a low approval rating, and many expected Dewey to win. The weakness of Dewey, a wealthy New Yorker, was that many average Americans did not "connect with" or like him. Will this year's election be more like 1980, or more like 1948? What do you think?

Major components of an election

The five major components of a modern election are:

  • candidates' background, positions, speeches, and debates
  • the position of the media (television and newspapers) about the candidates
  • endorsements by interest groups, such as pro-life groups or unions, of candidates
  • the amount of money spent in favor or against candidates (more than $5.2 billion is being spent on this election in 2012)
  • influence exerted by polling organizations in telling the public who is likely to win

In the contest between Romney and Obama, polling suggests a close race, with the public nearly equally divided in choosing between the candidates. For example, polling done by Scott Rasmussen (a New Jersey resident) says that Romney is supported by 48% compared with only 44% who support Obama.[1]

Rasmussen polling indicated that Romney received a "bounce" (improved results in the polling) due to the Republican National Convention last week, including Romney's acceptance speech.

Does that mean that Romney will win the election? Not necessarily. It's customary for presidential candidates to receive a "bounce" in the polls after their political party's national convention. Indeed, national conventions by political parties are staged events designed to boost the popularity of the candidate receiving the nomination. Nearly everything at the convention is scripted to make the party and the candidate look as good as possible.

Also, Rasmussen polling typically reports more public support for the Republican candidate than polls by other groups show. Polls by some other groups show Obama to have a slight lead over Romney.

A side comment about the Republican National Convention: in addition to making the nomination of Mitt Romney official (Romney had already defeated other Republican contenders in the "primaries" which occurred from January through June in many states across America), the Republican National Convention also approved the "Republican Party Platform," which established the official position of the Party on numerous controversial issues. This "Platform", which will next be adopted by nearly every Republican Party state organization and cited by many Republican candidates over the next four years, is available online.[2] Two Republicans from each state, a man and a woman, served on the platform committee to write this document.[3]

Romney's Acceptance Speech

Romney's speech accepting his nomination for president, like any speech by a political candidate, was designed to improve his standing in the polls. Polls are surveys of a representative sample of voters,[4] which not only tell who is ahead but also provide details about which groups support a candidate and which ones do not. In most elections, there is a "gender gap" between men and women, such that men tend to prefer one candidate while women tend to prefer the other. In Romney versus Obama, Romney has a lead among male voters, while Obama has a lead among women voters.

Polling also reveals that while most disapprove of the job performance by Obama, he is more "likable" than Romney is. In fact, Romney has a particularly low "likability" rating: only 26% of likely voters considered Romney to be likable prior to the Republican National Convention held in August 2012.

In light of the polling information, Romney's acceptance speech attempted to make himself more "likable" and to try to increase his popularity by women voters. Here are some examples from his speech:[5]

I knew that her [Mitt Romney's wife Ann's] job as a mom was harder than mine. And I knew without question, that her job as a mom was a lot more important than mine.
[A friend and I] started a new business called Bain Capital. The only problem was, while WE believed in ourselves, nobody else did. We were young and had never done this before and we almost didn’t get off the ground. In those days, sometimes I wondered if I had made a really big mistake.

The text of Obama's acceptance speech will be posted on the internet Thursday night, September 7. Can you find statements in Obama's speech that were probably intended to boost his poll numbers with a particular group?

Politics as an Iceberg

The average person does not realize that politics is like an iceberg: 90% of it is hidden from view. Far more goes on behind the scenes, outside of public awareness, then most people realize.

Statements by candidates are the product of much planning by a "team" that includes speechwriters, pollsters, consultants and others. Politics is team sport that is never fair to individuals. You might be the greatest wide receiver to play the game of football, but if the running back on your team repeatedly fumbles the ball, then you will lose. If you play in a game where the referees are against you on every play, then you will also lose no matter how good your team is. If a massive snowstorm occurs in the middle of the game just as your team is about to win, then you may lose through no fault of your own.

In American politics, the two biggest "teams" are the Republicans and the Democrats. Problems with one member of the team affect the ability of other members of the team to win. The "referees" are the media, and they have a big impact also. So do "weather" conditions like the state of the economy, or foreign relations.

This model for politics as a team sport goes far beyond Republicans versus Democrats. Within each political party there are also alliances and teams that form to help candidates win nominations by the party.

Attempts to win elections are called "campaigns" because there are many contributing forces that determine the outcome. Much of the activity is fun. There are campaign contributions to the candidate for his use in printing materials, paying workers, and buying ads. There are volunteer efforts such as "phone-banking" (calling voters on lists), "door-to-door" (walking up to houses and knocking on doors in support of a candidate), "literature drops" (such as handing out campaign literature at a subway station or bus stop), passing out bumper stickers, and attending public meetings to discuss issues relating to the election. There are also "independent expenditures," in which other groups buy advertisements without any approval or coordination with the candidate.

Due to an important decision known as Citizens United by the U.S. Supreme Court in January 2010, corporations can now spend money directly to elect or defeat a candidate. Corporations may not donate money to a candidate's campaign, but they spend millions of dollars on campaign ads urging voters to elect or defeat someone. As a result, "Super PACs" have developed for the first time in 2012, which can raise hundreds of millions of dollars from big corporations and then spend the money to elect or defeat a candidate and influence the outcome of an election.

So when a candidate wins or loses, it is really his side that wins or loses. His opponent may have put together a stronger team, or had a better strategy, or the "referee" (media) may have been biased, or events outside of the control of the candidate (such as the economy) may have determined the outcome. Often, but not always, the side that raises and spends the most money wins, because many voters are influenced by ads and mailings they receive.

Why Participate?

Many Americans fail to participate in the political process; they do not help any "team". They are too lazy, or fail to understand the process, or fail to see the benefits in participating. They are making a mistake.

There is no "free lunch." Participation in the political process is necessary just as exercise, a good diet, or going to church is needed. Participating in politics is beneficial both to the individual and to the nation.

One of the greatest "statesman" (a politician whose speeches have a lasting influence) in all of history, Irishman Edmund Burke (who served in the British Parliament and defended the American colonies in the 1700s), observed:

All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.

One side cannot win a game by not showing up. And the other side does show up in politics. How would a Yankees fan feel if the New York Yankees failed even to show up for the games?

Also, many political groups (including the conservative movement) are growing rapidly. This means there are new job opportunities. Paul Ryan, the Vice Presidential candidate for the Republican Party in 2012, obtained a good job on the staff of a Congressman, and was later elected to Congress himself, earning a very good salary with an enormous pension, and then was selected by Mitt Romney to be his running mate as Vice President. His career was far better by participating in politics then it would likely have been outside of politics.

The Swing States

Swing states in a presidential election are states in which neither the Republican nor Democratic candidate has a clear majority of the voters' support prior to a Presidential election, and a victory by either candidate in these states could swing the overall result in his favor. They are also known as "battleground states" because they are where the majority of the campaigning takes place for both parties.

States that consistently express a preference for the Democratic presidential nominee are known as "blue states"; states that consistently vote for the Republican presidential candidate are referred to as red states. Swing states are sometimes called "purple states" because either side might win in a given year. Super PACs will likely spend millions of dollars in negative ads in these swing states. (A "negative ad" is a television advertisement that criticizes your opponent rather than praising yourself; negative ads are usually more effective than positive ones.)

Here are the key swing states for the Presidential Election 2012: Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio and Virginia. Romney and Obama have very close poll numbers in these states.

In a presidential election, each state has "electoral college votes" in proportion to how many congressmen that particular state has, which is based on each state's population. The winner of a presidential election is not decided by which candidate receives the most overall votes nationwide, but by who receives the most electoral college votes. Each state is winner-take-all of the state's electoral college votes, such that the candidate who wins the most votes by the people of that state will win all of that state's electoral college votes.

In 2000, Al Gore won more overall votes than George W. Bush, but Bush won the election because he won more electoral college votes. Bush defeated Gore by only a few hundred votes of the people in the state of Florida, but that gave Bush all of Florida's large number of electoral college votes.

Article II of the U.S. Constitution establishes the office of president and this process for electing a president. The swing states have a total of 100 electoral votes. A total of 270 electoral college votes are needed for a presidential candidate to win the election.

U.S. Constitution and the Executive Branch

Our federal (national) government, based in D.C., is a government of limited powers. These powers are set forth in the United States Constitution.[6]

Article II of the U.S. Constitution establishes the office of the president, and the entire Executive branch under his authority.[7] Article II is not very long and should be read by students in its entirety. It is Article II that establishes the authority of federal employees, 99% of whom work in the Executive branch, including all the armed forces (the president is the "Commander-in-Chief" of the military), all the agencies headquartered in D.C. (such as the Department of Labor, Department of Education, Environmental Protection Agency, Department of Justice, Department of Health and Human Services, etc.).

The president is elected in years divisible by four (e.g., 1980, 1984, 1988, 1992, 1996, 2000, 2004, 2008, 2012, 2016). By virtue of the 22nd Amendment to the Constitution, which was passed by a Republican-controlled Congress shortly after World War II and ratified by at least 3/4th of the states to become part of the Constitution, the office of president has a "term limit" that prevents election by the same person to more than two elected terms. The presidency is the only office in all of the federal government that has "term limits."

State Government

The federal government, based in Washington, D.C., is only one part of government in the United States. There is also state and local government, which can be more important in many cases.

For example, the police are part of state and local government, not the federal government. There are state police officers who give tickets on the highways, and local police officers in each town. Public schools, which spend more than $500 billion (that's billion, not million) each year, are part of local government.

An important part of this course is to know which government is responsible for which issue. If you saw that a bridge collapsed during a rainstorm, then whom would you call to tell them to fix it, or at least close off the road?

The Legislative Branch

Most of our discussion above has concerned the presidential election. The office of president (and the Executive branch) is established by Article II of the U.S. Constitution, which is the document that defines how our national (federal) government works. Our Founders who wrote the U.S. Constitution in 1787 and ratified it in 1788 felt that the Legislative branch, which consists of the bicameral Congress (comprised of the House of Representatives and Senate), would be more important than the presidency. The Founders defined the Legislative branch in the first Article of the U.S. Constitution:

  • Article I: establishes Congress and the Legislative branch
  • Article II: establishes the Presidency and the Executive branch
  • Article III: establishes the Judiciary and the U.S. Supreme Court

On Election Day, all 435 House seats are up for election, and at least 33 out of 100 (U.S.) Senate seats are likewise on the ballot. (Sometimes more Senate seats are on the ballot due to special elections to fill vacancies; without vacancies the number would be 33 one year, 33 two years later, and 34 two years after that.)

But due to "gerrymandering", fewer than 100 out of the 435 House seats are "in play," such that either party might win the seat. Gerrymandering is one many new terms you will learn as part of this course. Its name comes from a political cartoon making fun of Governor Eldridge Gerry of Massachusetts in 1812, who signed into law a redistricting for the state that used odd shapes in order to help his political party be elected. This is possible because voting patterns become predictable over time: many neighborhoods are known to vote heavily Democratic or heavily Republican based on prior elections.

For example, San Francisco is a heavily Democratic area, and the leader of Democrats in Congress is Nancy Pelosi, who represents a "safe seat" there. More than 335 out of the 435 House seats represent districts that are safely Republican or safely Democratic. In those districts, the only way to defeat an incumbent (the person in office running for reelection) is to defeat him in his own political party's primary, in order to win the nomination of the party likely to win the general election.

With the advent of the internet, there is up-to-the-minute analysis of the likely outcomes in every election. One site, "", is a good source of the latest daily polling information in many political contests.


Complete questions 1 through 3, and then any 2 out of the remaining 3 questions:

1. Why is it important to participate in politics?

2. Briefly describe (in only a few words) the first three Articles of the U.S. Constitution, and explain which of these establishes the authority for the Executive branch. How many sections does this Article have?

3. Which part of the U.S. Constitution establishes that only a natural born citizen may become president of the United States?
(a) Article I, Section 3, clause 1
(b) Article II, Section 1, clause 3
(c) Article II, Section 1, clause 5
(d) Article II, Section 4
(e) Article IV, Section 1

4. Please identify a portion of the acceptance speeches of Mitt Romney or Barack Obama that was designed to improve their poll numbers with a particular demographic group (e.g., women, Hispanics, the elderly, independent voters, etc.)?

5. If a police officer pulls over a car on the New Jersey Turnpike, which part of government does that police office likely work for? Explain your answer, and include one or two other examples of government workers and which government they work for.

6. Do you think the presidential election this year is more like 1980, or more like 1948, and why?

Extra credit (complete any 2 out of 4):

7. Explain what gerrymandering is.

8. Can you think of specific reasons why poll numbers for the same candidates vary depending on who conducted the poll?

9. How does the study of politics differ from history? Explain your answer, with an example.

10. Which part of the Republican Party Platform of 2012 do you like best?

You can post your answers at American Government Homework One.


  1. (Rasmussen poll as of Sept. 3, 2012).
  4. A surprisingly small sample size can give an accurate measure of the views of a large group of people: a survey of only 600 persons can estimate what 300 million Americans think.