Infographic: How Do US Presidential Elections Work?

Petr Novák

The American presidential election is a lengthy process. Spanning almost two years, it often culminates in a spectacle filled with televised debates, grandiose statements, and reciprocal accusations. Despite the array of candidates, there can only be one winner. Interestingly, even Kim Jong-un and Megatron the D-23 were among the candidates for the USA presidency.

USA Presidential Election: How Does One Choose a USA President? | © DVIDSHUB / Flickr.com, Pixabay.com

Table of Contents
  1. How the USA President Is Elected
  2. Act I: The Primaries
  3. Act II: The Conventions
  4. Act III: The Campaign
  5. Act IV: Presidential Elections
  6. Act V: The Presidential Oath
  7. Facts About the USA Presidential Election

How the USA President Is Elected

Presidential elections in the USA are held every four years, with no individual being allowed to run or be elected for more than two terms. This condition wasn’t introduced until 1951, which explains why Franklin Delano Roosevelt was elected a total of four times between 1932 and 1944.

Elections are always held in leap years on the Tuesday following the first Monday in November. The President is sworn in on January 20 of the following year. If that day happens to fall on a Sunday, the inauguration ceremony is postponed until January 21.

A person can become President of the United States of America if they were born in the USA and have been a resident for at least 14 years by the date of the oath of office. They can run under the banner of the Democratic Party, the Republican Party, another minor party, or as an independent candidate. In the last 100+ years, no candidate outside of the Democrats or Republicans has won:

  • Democratic Party
    Established in 1828, the Democratic Party (D) is the oldest political party in the world that has continuously operated. Traditionally associated with the color blue, the party’s mascot is a donkey. On the political spectrum, it aligns between the center and the left of center. Notable Democratic presidents include Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, John F. Kennedy, and Franklin D. Roosevelt.
  • Republican Party
    The Republican Party (R) was founded in 1854. Identified by the color red, the party’s mascot is an elephant. On the political spectrum, the Republicans are considered a center-right party. Republican presidents have included George Bush, Ronald Reagan, Dwight D. Eisenhower, and Abraham Lincoln.

The electoral competition, often symbolized by a donkey and elephant, begins about two years before the inauguration. Candidates for the USA presidency announce their candidacies, assemble campaign teams, and tour the country to attract future voters.

To qualify, a candidate must have collected at least $5,000 in donations from supporters or have spent the same amount on campaigning.

Often, people apply merely to raise their profile or to impress their neighbors. In 2012, 417 people filed, and four years later, this figure rose to 1,576. This increase is mostly attributed to eccentric candidates, with Jesus Christ, Megatron the D-23, Banana for President, and Kim Jong-un also on the ballot.

USA Presidential Election

Act I: The Primaries

One crucial aspect to note is that the USA presidential election is an indirect election. Voters across the USA cast their votes in November, but both the Republican and Democratic nominees are typically chosen only by registered voters of their respective parties.

At the start of an election year, both Democrats and Republicans have multiple candidates for president. These lists need to be narrowed down to a single name from each party for the final showdown in November. The primary elections (primaries), held continuously from January to June, serve this purpose. Voters do not vote directly for the presidential candidate, but rather for the delegate who represents them.

Each party organizes their own primaries, the format of which can vary from state to state:

Democratic Party Primary

The party uses a proportional system; delegates are allocated among the presidential candidates according to the number of votes received. The primaries are not only about the number of delegates, but also the so-called superdelegates. These are party officials who can endorse any of the candidates at the national convention.

For example, in the state of New Hampshire, 24 delegates were at stake in 2016. Bernie Sanders received 60.4% of the vote and Hillary Clinton secured 38.0%. This meant Sanders could claim 15 delegates and Clinton 9. Additionally, there were six superdelegates in the state, all of whom expressed support for the former president’s wife, resulting in a final primary tally in New Hampshire of 15-15.

Republican Party Primary

The Republican Party employs a winner-take-all system in some states and a proportional system in others. There are no superdelegates.

For instance, during the 2016 primary in South Carolina, Donald Trump received 32.5% of the vote, Marco Rubio 22.5%, and Ted Cruz 22.3%. Donald Trump won all 50 delegates.

How the Primaries Work

During the primaries, the parties in each state decide whether all voters, only party members, or all voters who are not members of the other party can vote.

To simplify, some states (like Iowa, Minnesota, or Wyoming) conduct primaries in the form of caucuses. Citizens, party members, and candidate staffs gather in churches, sports halls, and other public places to debate and lobby for their candidate. Voting takes place in the form of caucuses, with each delegate having a dedicated corner of the room, between which voters move according to how persuasive the arguments are.

The smallest group eventually disbands, and its members can either join another group or go home. This continues until only two candidates remain.

The first primary is traditionally held in Iowa in January or February, followed by New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada. The decisive stage is often on Super Tuesday in March, when primaries are held simultaneously in numerous states.

By this time, several unsuccessful candidates usually concede their dreams of the White House.

Donald Trump on the campaign trail in Des Moines, Iowa | © Alex Hanson/Flickr.com

Act II: The Conventions

During the summer following the primaries, both parties host national conventions. These are often referred to simply as conventions, with the opposition party traditionally holding theirs first.

Delegates selected in the primaries and caucuses vote at the convention to finalize the party’s nominees for President and Vice President of the USA. The result is typically predictable, as delegates are expected to represent a specific candidate. An exception is the Democratic Party’s superdelegates, who are free to decide as they wish.

  • In 2020, the total number of Democratic electors was 4,749, meaning a majority of 2,375 votes was needed for a successful candidacy.
  • The number of Republican delegates was 2,550, requiring 1,276 votes to win.

Act III: The Campaign

With the national party conventions concluded, the names of two individuals are known, one of whom will become the next President of the USA.

A new round of presidential campaigning is set to begin. Though shorter, it is far more intense. The candidates are now not just seeking support from party members, but attempting to win over voters. The fiercest battles occur in undecided states, where the Democratic and Republican candidates are separated by a small percentage of the preferential vote.

Between three and seven highly scrutinized presidential debates are held in September and October. In 2012, these debates were watched by 67 million viewers. They take place across the USA, often at high school or university campuses.

In addition to the two main contenders from the Republican and Democratic parties, candidates from other parties, such as the Libertarian Party USA, the Green Party USA, the State Party USA, or the Alternative Justice Party, can participate. A less-watched debate also takes place between the vice-presidential candidates.

Electoral Votes in each USA state | © Petr Novák

Act IV: Presidential Elections

The election for the President of the USA reaches its climax on the Tuesday following the first Monday in November. In Delaware, Kentucky, New York, Hawaii, and a few other states, this day is a state holiday.

Additionally, most states allow early voting by mail.

The objective of presidential candidates is to receive as many votes as possible in as many states as they can, ideally in California, Texas and Florida, which have more voters. This is because the winner-take-all rule applies in presidential elections.

For example, in 2012, Florida had 29 electoral votes. Republican candidate Matt Romney came in second with 49.13% of the vote, while Barack Obama secured first place with 50.01%. Despite the slim margin, Obama won all 29 electoral votes.

The states of Maine and Nebraska are exceptions to this rule. They are divided into two and three smaller electoral districts, respectively. In each of these districts, votes are counted separately, so theoretically, three different electors could be elected for a state, each supporting a different candidate.

The number of electors per state changes slightly every four years. This ratio is roughly determined by the state’s population. Thus, in principle, a victory in the most populous state, California, yields approximately the same number of electors as would simultaneous victories in the 15 smallest states.

After all the votes and electors have been counted, the identity of the next President is typically already known, though unofficially. Formally, an election must take place in December, but only the elected participate. Any surprises are highly unlikely; why would Republican voters cast their ballots for a Democrat?

USA Presidential Inauguration | © Fabrice Florin/Flickr.com

Act V: The Presidential Oath

The inauguration of the President-elect takes place on January 20 in Washington D.C. in front of the Capitol. If this day happens to be a Sunday, the inauguration is postponed to the twenty-first.

Around noon, the incoming President will take the oath of office and deliver the inaugural address. Similar responsibilities also await the Vice President, who would assume the Presidency if the President were to die in office.

The oath is sworn on the Bible, and the text of the USA presidential oath has remained unchanged since 1884:

“I (name) do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States.”

Facts About the USA Presidential Election

  • The first USA presidential election was held from December 15, 1788, to January 10, 1789. Of the 13 member colonies, three did not participate in the election – New York failed to select an elector, and North Carolina and Rhode Island failed to ratify the Constitution. The winner was George Washington, who remains the only person in history to have received 100% of the electoral vote.
  • Until 1804, the Vice President was the candidate who came second in the final election. It was only after the adoption of the 12th Amendment to the Constitution that voting for Vice President began to be held separately.
  • The oldest winner of the 2017 presidential election was Donald Trump, who was 70 years old. The youngest USA President since 1901 was Theodore Roosevelt, who was just 42 years old.
  • The system’s anomalies are evidenced by the elections of 1824, 1876, 1888, and 2000. In these cases, the candidate with the most votes from the electorate ended up coming second.
  • November was chosen as the election month because farmers had typically finished their harvest and were free to participate in the election. Also, the weather was generally still good enough to allow travel to remote polling stations.
    For similar reasons, elections were held on Tuesdays. Traditionally, there was no work on Sunday, resulting in poorer transport links.
    The second week was chosen to avoid the election falling on the first day of the month. On that day, traders would be submitting their accounts for the previous month, and an election could have complicated this activity.
  • Voter turnout in the USA presidential elections has been on a long-term decline. It peaked in 1876, when 81.8% of eligible voters cast their ballots. The lowest turnout of 48.9% was recorded in 1924. 55.7% of voters participated in the 2004 election, 57.1% four years later, and 54.9% cast a ballot in 2012.
  • In 2008, for the first time since 1928, neither the incumbent President nor Vice President sought re-election.
  • Only two candidates for President of the United States were not born in the continental USA. Both of them ran in 2008. Barack Obama was born in Honolulu, Hawaii, and John McCain was born on the USA military base Coco Solo in Panama.

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