This guide from USAGov can help you understand how political conventions and the nomination process work, as each party meets to choose its candidates.
Overview of the Presidential Election Process
An election for President of the United States occurs every four years on Election Day, held the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November. The 2016 Presidential election will be held on November 8, 2016.
During the general election, Americans head to the polls 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 the majority, the House of Representatives chooses the President and the Senate chooses the Vice President.
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.
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
Any person who meets these requirements can declare his or her candidacy for President at any time. Candidates must register with the Federal Election Commission (FEC) once they receive contributions or make expenditures in excess of $5,000. Within 15 days of reaching that $5,000 threshold, candidates must file a Statement of Candidacy with the FEC authorizing a principal campaign committee to raise and spend funds on their behalf.
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—to allow the states to help choose the political parties’ nominees for the general election.
State primaries are run by state and local governments. Voting occurs through secret ballot.
Caucuses are private meetings run by political parties. In most, participants divide themselves into groups according to the candidate they support, with undecided voters forming into a group of their own. Each group then gives speeches supporting its candidate and tries to persuade others to join its group. At the end of the caucus, party organizers count the voters in each candidate's group and calculate how many delegates each candidate has won.
The parties have different numbers of total delegates due to the complex rules involved in awarding them. The requirements combine national and state political party rules and practices with aspects of federal and state election laws.
The Constitution Party Convention will be held in Salt Lake City, Utah, beginning April 13.
The Libertarian National Convention will be held in Orlando, Florida, beginning May 26.
The Republican National Convention will be held in Cleveland starting on July 18.
The Democratic National Convention will be held in Philadelphia beginning July 25.
The Green Party Convention will be held in Houston, Texas beginning August 6.
The national conventions typically confirm the candidate who has already won the required number of delegates through the primaries and caucuses. However, if no candidate has received the majority of a party’s delegates, the convention becomes the stage for choosing that party’s Presidential nominee.
Delegates: Types and Numbers Required
Some parties require a specific number of delegates a candidate needs to win his or her party’s nomination in 2016. These include:
If no nominee has a party’s majority of delegates going into its convention, then the delegates pick their Presidential candidate in a brokered or contested convention. Pledged delegates usually have to vote for the candidate they were awarded to in the first round of voting, while unpledged delegates don't. Pledged delegates may be allowed to choose any candidate in subsequent rounds of voting. Balloting continues until one nominee receives the required majority to win.
General election campaigning begins after a single nominee is chosen from each political party, via primaries, caucuses, and national conventions. These candidates travel the country, explaining their views and plans to the general population and trying to win the support of potential voters. Rallies, debates, and advertising are a big part of general election campaigning.
When you cast your vote for President, you are actually voting for a group of people known as electors. They are part of the Electoral College, the process used to elect the U.S. President and Vice President.
The Electoral College serves as a compromise between election of the President by a vote in Congress and election of the President by a popular vote of qualified citizens.
For example: Nebraska has five electoral votes (one for each of the three congressional districts plus two for the state’s senate seats). The winner of each district is awarded one electoral vote, and the winner of the statewide vote is then awarded the state’s remaining two electoral votes.
U.S. territories are not represented in the Electoral College.
It is possible for a candidate to receive the majority of the popular vote, but not of the electoral vote, and lose the Presidential election.
For example: If the United States had only three states each with a population of 100, each state would have three electoral votes (2 Senators plus one House of Representatives member) so a candidate would need 5 electoral votes to win the election.
Candidate 1 wins the first two states by receiving 51 votes per state and loses the third state by receiving just one vote. This gives them a total of 103 popular votes from all three states (51 + 51 + 1). And this translates into a total of six electoral votes--three each from the states the candidate won and none from the state the candidate lost.
Candidate 2 loses the first two states by receiving 49 votes per state and wins the third state by receiving 99 votes. This gives them a total of 197 popular votes from all three states (49 + 49 + 99). And this translates into a total of three electoral votes--none from the two states the candidate lost and three from the state the candidate won. Because electoral votes are what count in the end, even though Candidate 2 won the popular vote, they lost the electoral vote and therefore lose the election.
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.