Using Current Events to Understand Elections

Current Events as History

The Election of 2008 has passed from current events into the pages of recent American history. Depending on your age and what you were doing, you may remember some of the key events of the election.  There are a variety of sources students of this election can use to bring back the events that helped shape the outcome on November 4, 2008. Students and teachers interested in politics will most likely use the Internet to locate information on the candidates, the electoral process, and on the platforms of the major political parties. Using the print media is also a good choice if you have access to an archive of recent news magazines and newspapers. Commemorative issues of the election of 2008 and the inauguration of Barack Obama in January of 2009 have appeared, and some of these are becoming more valuable as time goes on.

Primaries and Caucuses

Presidential elections in the United States consist of a two-phase process: primary elections and the general election, but  the process is much more complex than that. Each of the two major political parties in the United States must determine who of their candidates will be the party's nominee. This process is achieved through a series of preliminary elections called primary elections (also called direct primaries). Some states have preliminary elections called caucuses. These are meetings of the party membership in public places such as schools, town halls and private homes. Voters demonstrate who their first choice for president is. If that candidate gets at least 15% of the vote, then he or she is still "viable" and can be assigned a proportionate number of delegates to the party's convention. If the candidate failed to achieve "viability," his or her supporters are persuaded to join the camp of another candidate. The final tally is then taken. The caucus system can be confusing and has a tendency to eliminate candidates who come to the election with minimal support. In primaries, by contrast, a candidate can continue to run as long as he or she has the funds to sustain the campaign. The first state to reveal its choice is that of Iowa, which has a  caucus that is seen as a critical part in any candidate's campaign because it points to whom the party's voters see as their front runner. 

Primary elections can also be subject to rules assigned to them by state legislatures. In some states, voters can only vote for candidates of the party to which they belong. This type of primary is called a closed primary. Other states allow voters of different parties to vote for candidates outside of their own party. These types of elections are called open primaries. Open primaries are less of an accurate portrayal of how a given party feels about its potential nominee because it involves voters from other parties involved in cross-party voting, an action that could be used as a strategy for electing the less desirable candidate in the other party. 

The Campaign Begins

The primary election cycle of this presidential election started in early January, 2008, but some of the candidates declared their intention to run as early as 2006. Candidates often form exploratory committees to see what sort of funding it would take to launch a campaign and to gauge how much support there is for their candidacy. Primary elections take place on a state-by-state basis throughout what seems to be the first half of the election year. The New Hampshire primary is always seen as a critical event in the selection process because it gives further definition to the way that each party is leaning regarding its candidates. States that follow may be influenced by New Hampshire's voters in its primary.  A large number of states cast their primary votes on what is called "Super Tuesday." After Super Tuesday, a winner for each party's nomination tends to emerge, but the process is not quite over after that important day.

Making the Delegates Count

Once each state's party membership has determined its favorites, the candidates are given a number of delegates that will vote for their declared winner at their party's convention. Each party determines the number of delegates needed to win the nomination. The Democrats assigned delegates on a proportional basis, which led to a close contest between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. In the end, Obama had the 2,118 delegates needed to win with 2,201, while Hillary Clinton came in a close second with 1,891. The Republican Party assigned its delegates on a winner-take-all system much like the one that shapes the Electoral College in the general election. John McCain clinched his nomination in April because he had reached the magic number of 1,191 much sooner than did either of his Democratic rivals.

The Nation Decides

The second phase of the election process is centered around the general election in November. Once each party has made its nomination official at its national convention, the candidates must campaign nationally and they will engage in a number of televised debates. The candidate's acceptance speech at the convention is always closely watched, in part for its content and policy statements, but also because it reveals a candidate's speaking style and public persona. The Democratic National Convention of 2004 was not as important for nominee John Kerry as it was for the then-little known state Senator from Illinois, Barack Obama, who gave the keynote address. Many experts say that it was at that event that the nation came to discover Obama's intellect and oratorical skills. He still needed to be elected to the US Senate at that point, but it was the start of a meteoric career in American national politics.

The Electoral College

After each party's convention is complete, the candidates will travel the nation and broadcast advertisements that will hopefully educate the voters as to their positions on the issues. Candidates must study the electoral map carefully to see where their efforts will garner the greatest amount of support in states that carry the highest number of electoral votes. The results of the electoral vote are influenced by the number of people who vote for a candidate. that number is called the popular vote. The candidate who wins the popular vote in a state receives all of the electoral votes of that state. Election-watchers say that the winning candidate has "carried" a given state," and all of the party's electors will then cast their vote for the winner of the election in that state. Each state's electoral number is determined by the number of people that state sends to Congress, which in turn, is a combination is based on the number of people who live in that state (resulting in representation in the House of Representatives) and the two senators for that state. Larger states with big cities have more members in the House of Representatives, so those states have a greater number of electoral votes. Rural states such as Montana and Alaska have the minimum number of electoral votes, which is three (two senators and one "at-large" House member). The District of Columbia was given three electoral votes in 1961 by the 23rd Amendment to the Constitution. The total number of available electoral votes is 538. A majority of those votes, the ones that decide who will be president, is 270. That number is the number a candidate must win in order to be declared the winner by the President of the Senate (the vice-president) in January following the election. 

The Public Agenda

The American public makes a political choice during presidential elections in part by what the electronic and print media place into the public arena. The public agenda is made up of the issues that the electorate wants to the government to face in its decision making process, something called public policy. The direction of the government in respect to the goals that it has set helps determine public policy. We see how public policy becomes put into reality through the images, headlines, and current events found in the newspapers, magazines, websites, and news broadcasts. The process of choosing a leader and elected legislature on all levels of government has undergone a considerable evolution as technology has improved and the electorate has become more educated. These elements work together to make up American modern democratic system.

Lesson Plan: US Government and Civics

Topic:  Using Current Events to Understand How Elections Work in the United States

Objectives: The students will:

1.  define the terms primary (open and closed), caucus, public agenda, public policy, print and electronic media.

2. describe the major phases of the electoral process for president.

3. compare and contrast the delegate system of nomination and electoral college through events in the campaign.

4. determine the influence of the print and electronic media when educating the voting public about the issues facing the nation and the candidates running their campaigns.

Opening Activity (Warm-Up): Creating a  Concept Web

A.  Place the following term on the board, overhead, or interactive whiteboard: "US Presidential Elections"

B.  Have students brainstorm terms related to elections. Place those words around the main idea on the board.

C.  Have students create a concept web that uses the terms they generated. Then have students add any terms they may have missed by displaying the concept web below. Have students use their textbook glossary, a dictionary, or the reading for this lesson, or the Internet to define the terms in a vocabulary list.

D. Have students locate a headline from a print or electric media outlet that uses the terms in the web. Have students write or paste the headline near the term on the concept web and discuss its meaning and relationship to the election.

US Elections: A Concept Web

Concept Web: US Presidential Elections
Click here
to enlarge. The image will open on its own in a new window. 
Place your mouse over the concept web to see some suggested responses.


Main Activity:  

A.  Have students examine the following flow chart on the "Path to the White House."

Path to the White House

B. Working in cooperative groups of three or four, have students use the resources of the library and the Internet to locate and describe one of the events listed in the flow chart. The dates in the chart refer to the 2004 election.

C.  Direct students to develop a news report in print, radio, or video that describes  their assigned event for the election of 2008. Some students should be assigned events for the Democratic Party, others should be assigned events for the Republican Party. Students should be encouraged to act out the events such as the debate or a section of a speech and record it to video for later playback.

D.  Display student work in the classroom or on the Internet if such resources are available.

E. During the discussion of each event, point out that the delegates to the party's national convention are similar to the Electoral College when the party is deciding on its nominee. This similarity is more true for the Republican primary process than for the Democrats. Refer to the reading above.

Wrap-up Activity:  Using What You Have Learned

A. Place the images below on the right along side their correct headline on the left.

Matching Events and The Headline

____1) Lincoln defeats McClellan in the Electoral College without the Southern states.

Image A
____2) Harry Truman conducts whistlestop tour during the 1948 campaign.
Image B
____3) Bill Clinton is inaugurated for the second time as the nation's 42nd president (1997)

Image C
____4) Democratic candidate Barack Obama accepts his party's nomination at the national convention.

Image D

The wrap up is available as a separate sheet.

B. Answers are available. Review answers orally with students.

Photo Credit:

Assessment: The lesson will be assessed by

1. The quality of student responses in writing and discussion activities.

2. Scores on future tests and quizzes.

Lesson Resources:

Election Central 2008 from
National Archives: Charters of Freedom
Scholastic News Online: Teaching Election 2008
C-SPAN: The Politics Page
Time for Kids: Election Connection 2008


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