In The Media

The presidential vote: what you need to know

by Colin Robertson

November 5, 2012

On Tuesday, over 100 million Americans will go to the polls to elect a President, 33 members of their 100 member Senate and all 435 members of the House of Representatives. There are gubernatorial elections in 11 states. Voters will elect 6,015 of the country’s 7,383 state legislators as well as local sheriffs, judges, county and city councilors. They also will decide on state and civic initiatives, propositions and constitutional amendments. This primer is intended to give you what you need to know about the election process, tips on watching the returns and background on why this election matters to Canadians.


What are the current standings: president, Congress and governors?

A Democratic Administration

President Obama, a Democrat who served previously in the U.S. Senate and Illinois legislature, is running for a second term against former Massachusetts Governor and venture capitalist Mitt Romney.

Both men have a familiarity with Canada. President Obama has family living in Ontario and has made three official visits during the past four years. While growing up in Michigan, Governor Romney’s father, George Romney, an auto executive and then governor of Michigan, would take the family to their summer home on Lake Huron. Later, while at Bain Capital, he did business in Canada.

Notwithstanding unpopular wars and difficult economic times, with unemployment hovering at 8 per cent for most of his term, Obama and his vice president Joe Biden, a former senator from Delaware, were acclaimed in early September to head their party’s slate at the Democratic National Convention held in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Romney, who came second to John McCain when he contested the Republican nomination in 2008, won a hard-fought Republican nomination that included 20 debates stretching from May 2011 to February 2012. He carried 42 states in the GOP primaries that began with the Iowa caucus on January 3rd and concluded with Utah in late June. He chose Paul Ryan, a Wisconsin Congressman, as his running mate. They were formally nominated in late August at the abbreviated (because of Hurricane Isaac) Republican Convention in Tampa, Florida.

The presidency is our best entrée to the American political system. Brian Mulroney, who understands the mechanics of the American system better than anyone, gave this invaluable advice while in speaking at Reagan Centenary in Washington: “The relationships (between prime ministers and presidents) are absolutely indispensable. If you don’t have a friendly and constructive personal relationship with the president of the United States, nothing is going to happen.”

In the First Branch of Government, a Divided Congress

In the House of Representatives, the Republicans won 242 districts in the 2010 elections while the Democrats elected 193 members. The GOP then elected John Boehner of Ohio as speaker of the 112th Congress and Nancy Pelosi, the former speaker, was chosen as minority leader.

In the Senate the Democrats, led by Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, have 53 members (including two independents) in their caucus while the Republicans, led by Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Tennessee, have 47 members. The Democrats hold 23 of the 33 seats in play this election.

Notwithstanding the good work of the Canada-U.S. Inter-parliamentary Group and the informal ‘Northern Border’ caucus in the House of Representatives, Canadian legislators could do more to cultivate relationships with members of Congress. As former Ambassador Frank McKenna recently noted, “The president can love you to death, but that doesn’t mean you don’t have constant harassment from Congress … The tone at the top helps, but it’s not conclusive.”

Most of the irritants that afflict Canada-US relations start with legislation drafted in Congress. Most of the time we are collateral damage and we need to remember that very little that is proposed in Congress actually passes into law. But given the depth of Canadian interests, we can never spend enough time in getting to know the chairs of committees and the ranking members on the minority side.

The Governors

The current gubernatorial breakdown is 29 Republicans, 21 Democrats and 1 independent (Linc Chafee of Rhode Island). There are 11 gubernatorial races with new challengers (because of term limits or retirement) in Montana, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Washington and Indiana and incumbents facing re-election in Delaware, Missouri, Vermont, West Virginia, North Dakota, and Utah.

Governors matter and experience in the state house often leads, as with former governor Romney, to the top of the ticket. In the last century, governors who become president include Teddy Roosevelt and Franklin D. Roosevelt and more recently Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.

Current cabinet members with gubernatorial experience include Janet Napolitano (Homeland Security from Arizona), Kathleen Sebelius (Health and Human Services from Kansas), Tom Vilsack (Agriculture from Iowa) and former Commerce Secretary, now ambassador to China, Gary Locke.

Getting to know their governor counterparts at regional governors’ and premiers’ conferences is a smart investment of time for Canadian premiers. This also holds true for the various regional associations of state and provincial legislators. The Pacific Northwest Economic Region is the model for practical cross-border collaboration ranging from their championship of the ‘smart’ drivers’ license to recent innovative ‘helmets to hard hat’ job fairs for veterans.


What to watch for on Tuesday night?

The pundits use an expression from basketball — ‘jump ball’ — to illustrate the uncertainty of the race for the presidency, although aggregator polls suggest President Obama has a slight advantage in terms of electoral votes. Gallup, which had given Mitt Romney an advantage in the popular vote, halted its polling because of Hurricane Sandy. There are lots of public opinion surveys – one of the best aggregators is at the Real Clear Politics site and Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight column on the New York Times provides very good analysis on probabilities (even if he did back the Detroit Tigers in the World Series).

Polls are important but they only capture a moment in time. Polls indicate trends and probability rather than predictability. Until we mark our ballots we are capable of changing our minds for all sorts of reasons.

About 25 million people are estimated to have already voted in the 34 states and the District of Columbia that permit early voting. It is reckoned that almost a third of those who will cast ballots will vote in the advance polls.

Historical voting patterns and polling put most of the states into the category of ‘safely’ Democratic or Republican in terms of their electoral votes. Looking at electoral maps of the US and you will see that the Pacific coastal states and the North East are safely ‘blue’ states while the Old Confederacy and south west are mostly ‘red’ states.

As for demographics: Obama draws on young people, minorities – African Americans, Latinos and Asians, and white-collar whites, especially women. Romney draws from blue-collar and older whites, especially men.

Intense presidential campaigning is taking place in the ‘battleground’ states: Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada, Ohio, Iowa, Wisconsin, Michigan, Virginia, North Carolina, New Hampshire, Florida and now Pennsylvania.

In this race for the presidency the burden lies with the challenger. Writing in the Wall Street Journal (May 23) Republican strategist Karl Rove set out a 3-2-1 strategy for Governor Romney to win the 270 electoral votes necessary for victory. It is as good a guide as any to watching the results on election night. It assumes Romney wins all the states captured by John McCain in 2008 (as well as Nebraska’s second district) and states he also must:

  1. Recapture the traditionally Republican states of Indiana, North Carolina, and Virginia,
  2. Regain Florida and Ohio, both of which went Democratic in 2008,
  3. Win one of the following: New Hampshire, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Colorado, Nevada, or New Mexico.

 These elections will be the most expensive yet. The non-partisan Center for Responsive Politics reckon the cost at $5.8 billion (the 2008 elections cost $5.4 billion) with about half of that spent on the presidential race. SuperPac spending by outside groups, permitted under the Citizens United Supreme Court ruling, will likely account for about a billion dollars.


Electing a President: More complicated than you would think

The Founding Fathers established the process of the Electoral College to select the U.S. Chief Executive as a compromise between popular direct election and election by the Congress.

It flowed from a compromise, that balanced population with state rights, by giving each state two senators and then apportioning by population their members in the House of Representatives. The 23rd amendment gave the District of Columbia three electors which makes for a 538 member Electoral College. Winner-take-all prevails in most states although Nebraska and Maine have a form of proportional representation.

The electors meet in their individual states on the first Monday after the second Wednesday in December to cast their ballots for president and vice president. If the Electoral College can’t reach a decision, the selection of the President goes to the House of Representatives where the victor must win 26 state delegations (and this happened In 1801 with the election of Thomas Jefferson).

Usually, the Electoral College chooses a president who also received the plurality of the nationwide popular vote. There have been four exceptions: 1824 with John Quincy Adams chosen over Andrew Jackson, 1876 when Republican Rutherford Hayes was chosen over Democrat Samuel Tilden, 1888 with Republican Benjamin Harrison selected over Democrat Grover Cleveland, and 2000 when Republican George W. Bush was elected over Democrat Al Gore.

The new Congress begins its deliberations at noon on January 3rd, in time to meet on January 6th for the counting of the Electoral College during a joint session of Congress, presided over by the vice president (as president of the Senate). On January 20, the president-elect takes the oath of office from the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court and is duly sworn in as president of the United States.


The Canadian stake in the US election: a pipeline & a bridge as well as the perennials of trade, defence and security, energy and the environment

We watch the U.S. election with neighbourly voyeurism but what happens in the U.S. always matters to Canada. Start with the obvious: our shared geography and the long stretch of border along the 49th parallel and the northern line dividing Alaska from the Yukon and British Columbia.

The Pipeline

The ‘pipeline from Canada’ is a key piece in Governor Romney’s ‘energy independence’ strategy and he has declared that he would approve it on ‘day one’. President Obama’s rejection of the Keystone XL pipeline waiver reflected a combination of factors — notably the local opposition in Nebraska, including that of Republican Governor Dave Heineman and the legislature, as well as opposition from the national environmental movement. They also see the pipeline as surrogate for their opposition to development of the oil or ‘tar’ sands. The daily ‘ring around the White House’ was not a desirable visual for the Obama re-election campaign.

The Republicans in Congress saw it as a ‘wedge’ issue and tried to push approval through legislation. The Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality released on October 30 a 600 page draft report stating that the pipeline successfully avoids the Sandhills region of Nebraska, a step agreed to during a special session of the legislature last year. Local hearings will begin in December.

The Bridge

Watch the outcome of a ballot initiative in Michigan on the proposed New International Trade Crossing between Detroit and Windsor. If passed it would oblige a popular referendum before Michigan could spend public funds on the new bridge.

The 83-year old privately-owned Ambassador Bridge carries ¼ of Canada-US trade and it is especially critical to our recovering auto trade. Canada and Ontario agreed in June to provide a half billion dollars in financing against future tolls. This past week Ambassador Gary Doer wrote an open letter pointing out that the project has the support of Indiana, Ohio and Kentucky, the chambers of commerce of Michigan, Indiana and Ohio, the Big 3 auto-makers, the building trades and steel workers unions and farm organizations. The “only real opposition”, wrote Doer, “comes from one company trying to protect its current monopoly on the Ambassador Bridge.” The bridge saga is a cautionary tale in obstruction, obfuscation and money politics.


Successive Canadian governments, dating back before Confederation, have consistently sought rules-based commercial agreements. The resulting deep economic integration gives us privileged, but not always secure, access to the biggest market in the world. It requires a constant campaign by all levels of Government in tandem with business and labour to fend off the forces of protectionism.

The most important piece of outstanding business is the framework agreement that Prime Minister Stephen Harper and President Obama announced last December.

Designed to push customs and security inspections ‘beyond the border’, it includes a series of pilot projects designed around the principle of ‘once cleared, twice accepted’. A Regulatory Cooperation Council will address the ‘tyranny of small differences’ frustrating business transactions. It requires our regulators to talk. It should go some distance to achieving the goal of common standards when they draft new rules. Keeping this initiative intact will be important. If there is a change in administration then it may need to be rebranded and relaunched without losing sight of the objectives.

Canada and Mexico will formally join the Trans Pacific Partnership negotiations at its December meeting in Auckland. The TPP promises to significantly raise the bar on trade and investment and, in continental terms, move us beyond NAFTA. It should also oblige us to look more closely at cooperation within the Americas, something Governor Romney has promised.

In addition to our embassy in Washington we have fifteen offices throughout the U.S. Given the depth and importance of our trade and investment, we should have a Canadian presence in every state to act as our eyes, ears and voice. Austerity has obliged us to close six offices: Buffalo, Phoenix, Philadelphia, Raleigh, Anchorage, and Princeton. With our star-spangled Canadians living and working in the U.S., we need to rethink how we do business, including making greater use of honorary consuls.

Defence & Security

Our military, law enforcement and security agencies have daily dealings across the border. The U.S. is our principal ally through a series of agreements (PJBD, NORAD) that formally cover air and maritime defence. We are jointly committed to collective security through NATO and this has resulted in our recent campaigns in Afghanistan and Libya. In the foreign policy debate, President Obama described the U.S. as the ‘indispensible’ power.

The U.S. certainly bears the burden of global primacy. There is always a keen interest in Washington about what we see and hear in the rest of the world and in what we can bring to the table. It underlines the requirement for a global Canadian foreign policy and a diplomatic service to back it up.


The energy relationship is vital to both countries – Canadian power literally lights up Broadway. Most of the flow – oil (24 per cent of U.S. imports), gas (13 per cent of U.S. consumption), hydro-electricity and 20 per cent of the uranium used in nuclear power generation — comes from Canada to the U.S. There is a reciprocal flow into eastern Canada of oil and electricity. The Canada and U.S. electricity grid is deeply integrated with more than 30 major transmission links connecting all contiguous Canadian provinces to neighbouring U.S. states.


We share joint stewardship for our environment and we led the world in innovative cross-border practices, including the century-old Boundary Waters Agreement establishing the International Joint Commission that tends to our cross-border waters. The Great Lakes have been an obvious focus and in September new commitments to protect aquatic habitats, curb invasive species and help coastal communities adapt to climate change were added to the 1972 Water Quality Agreement.

The rigorous negotiations around the Canada-U.S. Acid Rain Treaty (1991) and the multilateral Montreal Protocol on the Ozone layer (1987) should serve as a model for how we deal with climate change. In January, we take on the chair of the Arctic Council for a two-year term. We both have interests in continuing to apply principles of good stewardship and the Americans, who take the chair after us, have suggested that we collude on common priorities. It seems a sensible suggestion.


And if Canadians could vote?

Ipsos-Reid conducted a survey of Canadians (October 30-November 1) that says nine-in-ten (86 per cent) Canadians would back Barack Obama if they could vote. It echoed a BBC sponsored survey of 21 countries in July and September that said two-thirds (66 per cent) of the Canadians surveyed preferred Obama, with just 9 per cent favouring Governor Romney (in the Ipsos Reid survey 14 per cent would vote GOP). Support among Canadians for President Obama was at the same level as in 2008, significantly above the global average of 50 per cent. A clever recent study by Montreal University scholar Pierre Martin argues that, notwithstanding conventional wisdom, “Republican administrations in Washington are not better for Canada than Democratic ones, even from a strictly economic perspective.”

During the Bush years I would meet Republicans with aspirations of ‘manifest destiny’. They were quickly disillusioned when I pointed out that if Canada were to accept the long-standing invitation to join the Union, our electoral votes – at least as many as Pennsylvania and New York combined — likely would ensure a permanent Democratic majority.

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