Explains the presidential election process from beginning to end.
Lots of people dream of becoming President of the United States. But to officially run for office, a person needs to meet three basic requirements established by the U.S. Constitution (Article 2, Section 1).
A Presidential candidate must be:
A natural born citizen (U.S. citizen from birth)
At least 35 years old and
A U.S. resident (permanently lives in the U.S.) for at least 14 years
Step 1: Primaries and Caucuses
People with similar ideas usually belong to the same political party. The two main parties in the U.S. are Republican and Democrat.
Many people want to be President. They campaign around the country and compete to try to win their party’s nomination.
In caucuses, party members meet, discuss, and vote for who they think would be the best party candidate.
In primaries, party members vote in a state election for the candidate they want to represent them in the general election.
Step 2: National Conventions and General Election
After the primaries and caucuses, each major party, Democrat and Republican, holds a national convention to select a Presidential nominee.
The party’s Presidential nominee announces his or her choice for Vice President.
The Presidential candidates campaign throughout the country to win the support of the general population.
On election day, people in every state cast their vote .
Step 3: The Electoral College
When people cast their vote, they are actually voting for a group of people called electors.
Each elector casts one vote following the general election. The candidate who gets 270 votes or more wins.
The newly elected President and Vice President are then inaugurated on January 20th.
Overview of the Presidential Election Process
An election for president of the United States happens every four years on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November. The next presidential election will be November 3, 2020.
Primaries, Caucuses, and Political Conventions
The election process begins with primary elections and caucuses. These are two methods that states use to select a potential presidential nominee. In general, primaries use secret ballots for voting. Caucuses are local gatherings of voters who vote at the end of the meeting for a particular candidate. Then it moves to nominating conventions, during which political parties each select a nominee to unite behind. During a political party convention, each presidential nominee also announces a vice presidential running mate. The candidates then campaign across the country to explain their views and plans to voters. They may also participate in debates with candidates from other parties.
What is the Role of the Electoral College?
During the general election, Americans go to their polling place to cast their vote for president. But the tally of those votes—the popular vote—does not determine the winner. Instead, presidential elections use the Electoral College. To win the election, a candidate must receive a majority of electoral votes. In the event no candidate receives a majority, the House of Representatives chooses the president and the Senate chooses the vice president.
What is a Typical Presidential Election Cycle?
The presidential election process follows a typical cycle:
Spring of the year before an election – Candidates announce their intentions to run.
Summer of the year before an election through spring of the election year – Primary and caucus debates take place.
January to June of election year – States and parties hold primaries and caucuses.
July to early September – Parties hold nominating conventions to choose their candidates.
September and October – Candidates participate in presidential debates.
Early November – Election Day
December – Electors cast their votes in the Electoral College.
Early January of the next calendar year – Congress counts the electoral votes.
The U.S. Constitution's Requirements for a Presidential Candidate:
At least 35 years old
A natural born citizen of the United States
A resident of the United States for 14 years
Step 1: Primaries and Caucuses
There are many people who want to be president. Each of these people have their own ideas about how our government should work. People with similar ideas belong to the same political party. This is where primaries and caucuses come in. Candidates from each political party campaign throughout the country to win the favor of their party members.
Caucus: In a caucus, party members select the best candidate through a series of discussions and votes.
Primary: In a primary, party members vote for the best candidate that will represent them in the general election.
Step 2: National Conventions
Each party holds a national convention to finalize the selection of one presidential nominee. At each convention, the presidential candidate chooses a running-mate (vice presidential candidate).
Step 3: General Election
The presidential candidates campaign throughout the country in an attempt to win the support of the general population.
People in every state across the country vote for one president and one vice president. When people cast their vote, they are actually voting for a group of people known as electors.
Step 4: Electoral College
In the Electoral College system, each state gets a certain number of electors based on its total number of representatives in Congress.
Each elector casts one electoral vote following the general election; there are a total of 538 electoral votes. The candidate that gets more than half (270) wins the election.
The president-elect and vice president-elect take the oath of office and are inaugurated in January.
Caucus: A meeting of the local members of a political party to select delegates to the national party convention. A caucus is a substitute for a primary election.
Delegate: A person authorized to represent others as an elected representative to a political party conference.
Elector: A member of the electoral college.
Electoral College: The voters of each state, and the District of Columbia, vote for electors to be the authorized constitutional members in a presidential election.
Natural Born Citizen: Someone born with U.S. citizenship includes any child born "in" the United States, the children of United States citizens born abroad, and those born abroad of one citizen parent.
Primary: An election where voters select candidates for an upcoming general election. Winning candidates will have delegates sent to the national party convention as their party’s U.S. presidential nominee.
U.S. Constitutional Requirements for Presidential Candidates
The president must:
Be a natural-born citizen of the United States
Be at least 35 years old
Have been a resident of the United States for 14 years
Anyone who meets these requirements can declare their candidacy for president. Once a candidate raises or spends more than $5,000 for their campaign, they must register with the Federal Election Commission. That includes naming a principal campaign committee to raise and spend campaign funds.
Presidential Primaries and Caucuses
Before the general election, most candidates for president go through a series of state primaries and caucuses. Though primaries and caucuses are run differently, they both serve the same purpose. They let the states choose the major political parties’ nominees for the general election.
State Primaries and Caucuses for the Presidential Elections
State primaries are run by state and local governments. Voting happens through secret ballot.
Caucuses are private meetings run by political parties. They’re held at the county, district, or precinct level. In most, participants divide themselves into groups according to the candidate they support. Undecided voters form their own group. Each group gives speeches supporting its candidate and tries to get others to join its group. At the end, the number of voters in each group determines how many delegates each candidate has won.
Both primaries and caucuses can be “open,” “closed,” or some hybrid of the two.
During an open primary or caucus, people can vote for a candidate of any political party.
During a closed primary or caucus, only voters registered with that party can take part and vote.
“Semi-open” and “semi-closed” primaries and caucuses are variations of the two main types.
Awarding Delegates from the Primaries and Caucuses
Conventions finalize a party’s choice for presidential and vice presidential nominees.
To become the presidential nominee, a candidate typically has to win a majority of delegates. This happens through the party’s primaries and caucuses. If no candidate gets the majority of a party’s delegates, the nominee is chosen at the convention.
Pledged, or bound delegates are required to support the candidate they were awarded to through the primary or caucus process.
Unpledged, or unbound delegates or superdelegates, can support any presidential candidate they choose.
Contested and Brokered Conventions
In rare cases, none of the party’s candidates may have a majority of delegates going into the convention. Delegates will then pick their presidential nominee through voting in a contested or brokered convention.
In the first round of voting, pledged delegates usually have to vote for the candidate they were awarded to at the start of the convention. Unpledged delegates don't.
If no nominee wins in the first round, the pledged delegates may choose any candidate in later rounds of voting.
Balloting continues until one candidate receives the required majority to win the nomination.
At the convention, the presidential nominee will officially announce his or her selection of a vice presidential running mate.
General Election Campaigning
General election campaigning begins after each political party chooses a single presidential nominee. Those candidates travel the country, holding rallies and town halls. They explain their views and plans to the public and try to win potential voters' support. Debates and advertising also play huge roles in the campaign.
In other U.S. elections, candidates are elected directly by popular vote. But the president and vice president are not elected directly by citizens. Instead, they’re chosen by “electors” through a process called the Electoral College.
The process of using electors comes from the Constitution. It was a compromise between a popular vote by citizens and a vote in Congress.
Each state gets as many electors as it has members of Congress (House and Senate). Including Washington, D.C.’s three electors, there are currently 538 electors in all. See the distribution of electors by state.
After you cast your ballot for president, your vote goes to a statewide tally. In 48 states and Washington, D.C., the winner gets all the electoral votes for that state. Maine and Nebraska assign their electors using a proportional system.
A candidate needs the vote of at least 270 electors—more than half of all electors—to win the presidential election.
In most cases, a projected winner is announced on election night in November after you vote. But the actual Electoral College vote takes place in mid-December when the electors meet in their states.
Inauguration Day occurs every four years on January 20 (or January 21 if January 20 falls on a Sunday) at the U.S. Capitol building in Washington, DC. On this federal holiday, the president-elect and vice-president-elect are sworn in and take office.
The vice-president-elect is sworn in first, and repeats the same oath of office, in use since 1884, as Senators, Representatives, and other federal employees:
"I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter: So help me God."
"I 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."