(Captain's log): Every presidential election is important. As the US has become larger, more powerful and more influential around the world, American presidential elections are watched more and more keenly. In nations where stability and continuity are considered to be valuable, and where the election system is designed in a way which reduces the ability of the voters to actually influence government policy (e.g. Belgium), the American quadrennial roller coaster induces a distinct feeling of fear, not dissimilar to motion sickness. That's because Americans don't vote for parties; they vote for offices, and they vote for people, and the basic system provides American voters more ability to actually influence the basic policy followed by the government. In the 2000 election, there was far more difference between Gore and Bush than there was in 2002 between Chirac and Jospin, who had been expected to face each other in the runoff election. French voters did manage to give Le Pen enough protest votes in the first round to displace Jospin from the runoff, but the only effect of that was to give Chirac an easy win. There was never any chance at all that the next president would be anyone besides Chirac or Jospin, and no indication that there would have been any drastic change in foreign or domestic policy if it had been Jospin.
But it would have mattered a lot more if Gore had won in 2000 instead of Bush. It would really have made a difference if Clinton had been defeated in 1996 by Bob Dole. Our system doesn't necessarily offer any given person the choices they really want, but they do get offered choices that actually make a difference. We have to take candidates as packages, and can't really pick and choose features to create a best-of-breed candidate (i.e. Clinton's charisma combined with Dole's erectile dysfunction). It's rare for anyone to fully agree with everything a given candidate stands for, so we each decide which issues are more important to us and which less so, and choose the candidate who most agrees with us on the issues we deem most important. That doesn't mean we agree with him on everything, or will blindly support everything he does during his term, or that we might not change our minds later. We may change our priorities and change which issues we think are most valuable. We may discover that the lying bastard didn't actually do what he said he'd do. Or we may discover that he tried but was incompetent.
There is always a tension in any democratic system between a core political elite who try to control it and a more general pull by the populace to break that control. When the American primary process mainly involved party caucuses (which is still the case in a few states, most notably Iowa), and when the party nominating conventions included delegates from various states but also included a large number of delegates who were party stalwarts, and when even the delegates from the states were not bound to vote for any particular candidate (and tended to be local party stalwarts from whatever state they represented) then it meant that the powers-that-be in the national parties had much more influence over who would be chosen and what they'd stand for. The conventions would not only pick a candidate but would write a platform, and there was a time when the platform actually made a difference.
But as more and more states switched to use of primary elections, and as the state parties mandated that the delegates who were selected vote for whichever candidate had won in the primary, the party conventions more and more have the same feel as the meeting of the Electoral College. Constitutionally speaking, we don't actually elect the president in November. What we really do is to pick people to represent our state in the Electoral College, and the true election of the President takes place when the Electoral College meets. However, in our system now that's a legal formality which usually doesn't even hit the news. And as a practical matter the party conventions have also become formalities. When I was a kid all three networks provided live coverage of both party conventions every four years, in part because there was sometimes real doubt as to who the nominee would be. These days they get little coverage in the news at all.
The "party bosses" have largely lost direct control over the last fifty years here in the US, though they still have indirect influence. The days when candidates played up to Mayor Daly because he could "deliver" Chicago (and thus Illinois) are long gone, and more and more American voters seem to have little loyalty to either party. They may formally be registered with one party or the other, but won't feel they are actually affiliated with it. (I, myself, am registered Republican, but as a practical matter I am an independent. When I turned 21 and registered the first time I registered Republican because my parents were Republicans. When I moved to Massachusetts and registered there, I registered Republican because registered Democrats outnumbered registered Republicans by something like 3:1, and I don't like one-party states. When I came to California, I registered Republican mostly out of habit. But I've never given a dime to the Republicans or participated in any party activities, and when I make my decisions in the ballot box, I select candidates and positions without regard to the Republican recommendations which they invariably mail me.)
Candidates can have different advantages. One may be particularly good at fundraisi