POLS 300, American Presidential Elections

Spring 2010

Professor Mikel Wyckoff

Office:  Zulauf 403,

Hours:  Tues. & Thurs. 11-12:15 & by appointment

753-7056  mwyckoff@niu.edu


(Note:  If you are enrolled in POLS 300 please consult the official course syllabus that is available on Blackboard.  From time to time, minor adjustments must be made to the syllabus and I have no access to this document once it is placed online.)





The first American political parties were organized by our founding fathers even though many of those men were quite ambivalent about the desirability of parties and, indeed, about the very idea of allowing the masses to vote in presidential elections.  Despite their doubts, founders like Jefferson, Madison and Hamilton soon came to the conclusion that mass electorates were a fact of life and that parties were needed to help organize and bring coherence to the electoral process. Since then, a two-party system (with occasional input from smaller, third parties) has almost always been present to help structure American presidential elections.  Although our party system may appear to be static, in fact the parties have reorganized and renewed themselves many times through a process of “realignment.”


Just as political parties have reinvented themselves over time, political campaign styles and strategies have changed greatly over the years. Originally, presidential candidates were not expected to campaign at all, and most of them didn’t, at least not in person.  But shortly after the turn of the 20th Century, candidates learned the value of traveling around the country making public speeches during campaigns, and eventually they learned to take advantage of new electronic media to get their messages out to the people.  More recently, it has become obvious that the Internet is now having profound effects on how campaigns are organized, funded, and executed.       


Voters, too, have changed over the years.  Voters in the early years were drawn from a nation of small farmers, and initially only white males who owned property were thought to be properly qualified to vote.  Later electorates have been shaped by processes of industrialization and modernization, and over the years exclusions based on race and gender were grudgingly abandoned.  Furthermore, major blocs of voters have been known to change their party loyalties.  White southerners, for example, used to be steadfast Democrats.  Today, the bulk of them are loyal Republicans.       


POLS 300 will examine these changing aspects of American presidential elections and we will study in some detail the candidates, issues and partisan trends that have appeared in American presidential elections during the post-World War II era.





The books shown below are required for the course and are available for purchase at our campus book-stores (and elsewhere): 


John Kenneth White and David M. Shea, New Party Politics: From Jefferson and Hamilton

   to the Information Age (2nd ed., Bedford/St. Martins, 2004).


Kathleen Hall Jamieson, Packaging the Presidency (3rd ed., Oxford,1996).


Michael Nelson (ed.), The Elections of 2008 (CQ Press, 2010)


Also, please note that a few additional required readings must be located online.  Consult the outline below for specific assignments. 





Exams.  Two midterms and a final exam will be given contributing 30%, 35% and 35%, respectively, to your final grade.  All exams will have a significant long essay component plus some multiple choice questions.  A significant portion of the final exam will be cumulative in nature, requiring you to deal with themes encountered throughout the course.   


Attendance is not formally computed into your grade but naturally I expect you to come regularly, to be on time when at all possible, and to do the assigned readings on schedule.  To encourage this I reserve the right to increase a final course grade by up to one-third of a letter as a reward for good class participation.  To help me learn names I will set up a seating chart and will keep a daily record of attendance.


Makeup exams and grades of Incomplete will be provided cheerfully when needed but only for reasons of significant illness, personal tragedy, or other similarly extraordinary circumstances, and documentary evidence of the extraordinary circumstances normally must be provided by the student.


Cell Phones & Class Decorum.  Please silence and refrain from using your cell phone and other electronic devices during class.  Also please be civil, use common sense, and respect the needs of your fellow students, not to mention the needs of the grouchy old professor (“get off my lawn!”) who is trying to offer you a decent lecture each day.  


Extra Credit.  Sorry, but none is available.  No exceptions.


Students with Disabilities. NIU abides by theRehabilitation Act of 1973 which mandates reasonable accommodations for qualified students with disabilities. If you have a diagnosed disability and require some type of instructional accommodation, please contact the Center for Access-Ability Resources (CAAR), located in the University Health Services building (753-1303).





I will try to adhere to this schedule as closely as possible, but I reserve the right to make adjustments if necessary.  I may, for example, add a reading to the schedule now and then. It is your responsibility to be in class regularly and to check the syllabus on Blackboard regularly so that you will be aware of these occasional modifications.





A.  Introduction to the course  (Week of January 11)

      -- nature and functions of political parties

      -- some fundamental characteristics of the American party system and electoral process


            Read:    White/Shea, Ch. 1, pp. 16-29; Ch. 10, pp. 308-322 (why a two-party system?)

                       Jack Rakove, “The Accidental Electors,” NY Times (12/19/00).  (Blackboard)


Martin Luther King Day:  January 18, No Class


 B.  Evolution of the Electoral Processes: Nominations and Campaigns  (January 20, 25 & 27)


            Read:    White/Shea, Ch.5, pp. 134-159, Ch.7, pp. 214-219.

            Burden, Ch. 2, “The Nominations: Rules, Strategies and Uncertainty,” in Elections of 2008.

            Currinder, pp. 163- 173 in Ch. 8, “Campaign Finance,” in Elections of 2008.

            Jamieson, Ch. 1, “Broadsides to Broadcasts,” in Packaging the Presidency.


C.  History and Evolution of Political Parties and Partisanism in America  (Week of February 1) 


            Read:    White/Shea, Ch. 2-3 and Ch. 10, pp. 325-339.


D.  Party Realignment  (February 8)


            Read:    White/Shea, pp. 175-185 in Ch. 6.

                        V.O. Key, “A Theory of Critical Elections,” (Blackboard).

                        V.O. Key, “Secular Realignment and the Party System,” (Blackboard).


EXAM I:  Wednesday, February 10





A.  Presidential Elections, 1952-1956  (Week of February 15)


            Read:    White/Shea, pp. 165-175 in Ch. 6 (a theory of voter decision making).

                       Jamieson, Ch. 2-3.


B.  Presidential Elections, 1960-1964  (Week of February 22)


            Read:    Jamieson, Ch. 4-5.


C.  Presidential Elections, 1968  (Week of March 1)


            Read:    Jamieson, Ch. 6.


Spring Break:  Week of March 8


D.  Presidential Elections, 1972-1976  (March 15, 17 and 22)


            Read:    Jamieson, Ch. 7-8.


EXAM II:  Wednesday, March 24





A.  Presidential Elections, 1980  (Week of March  29)


            Read:    Jamieson, Ch. 9.


B.  Presidential Elections, 1984-1988  (Week of April 5)


            Read:    Jamieson, Ch. 10-11.


C.  Presidential Elections, 1992-1996  (Week of April 12)


            Read:    Jamieson, Ch.12.

                        Sabato, "The November Vote: A Status Quo Election," (e-reserves; access from Blackboard)


D.  Presidential Elections, 2000-2004  (Week of April 19)


            Read:    Nelson,“The Setting: George W. Bush, Majority President,” (e-reserves; access from Blackboard).

            Pomper, “The Presidential Election: The Ills of American Politics After 9/11,” (e-reserves).


 F.  Presidential Elections, 2008  (Week of April 26)


            Read:   Currinder, pp. 173-184 in Ch. 8, “Campaign Finance,” in Elections of 2008.

                        Pomper, Ch. 3, “The Presidential Election: Change Comes to America,” in Elections of 2008.

                        Mellow, Ch. 7, “Voting Behavior: A Blue Nation?” in Elections of 2008.


 FINAL EXAM – May 5, 4:00-6:00