Presidential Election Process

Learn about the Presidential election process, including the electoral college, caucuses and primaries, and the national conventions.

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.

The election process begins with the primary elections and caucuses and moves to nominating conventions, during which political parties each select a nominee to unite behind. The nominee also announces a Vice Presidential running mate at this time. The candidates then campaign across the country to explain their views and plans to voters and participate in debates with candidates from other parties.

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.
  • January 20 – Inauguration Day

For an in-depth look at the federal election process in the U.S., check out USA In Brief: ELECTIONS.

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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.

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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—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.
  • Both primaries and caucuses can be conducted as “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, participants must be registered with a political party to vote for one of its candidates.
    • “Semi-open” and “semi-closed” primaries and caucuses are variations of the two main types.

Awarding Delegates

At stake in each primary or caucus is a certain number of delegates, or individuals who represent their states at national party conventions. The candidate who receives a majority of his or her party’s delegates wins the nomination.

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.

Each party also has some unpledged delegates, or superdelegates. These delegates are not bound to a specific candidate heading into the national convention.

When the primaries and caucuses are over, most political parties hold a national convention during which the winning candidate receives a nomination.

For information about your state's Presidential primary or caucuses, contact your state election office or the political party of your choice.

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National Conventions

After the primaries and caucuses, most political parties hold national conventions to finalize their choice for their Presidential and Vice Presidential nominees. 

2016 National Convention Dates and Locations

  • 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:

There are two main types of delegates:

Brokered and Contested Conventions

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.

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General Election Campaigning

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.

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Electoral College

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.

The process begins when political parties select the people who will serve as electors, The electors meet to vote for President and Vice President, and then Congress counts the electoral votes.              

Number of Electors

There are a total of 538 electors. A candidate needs the vote of more than half (270) to win the Presidential election.

  • Each state’s number of electors is equal to the number of its U.S. Senators plus the number of its U.S. Representatives. Washington D.C. is given a number of electors equal to the number held by the smallest state. View the division of electors on a map of the U.S.
  • In 48 states, when a candidate receives the majority of votes, he or she receives all of the state’s electoral votes.
  • Maine and Nebraska are the only two states that use the congressional district method.
    • 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.

What Happens if No Candidate Gets 270 Electoral Votes?

If no candidate receives the required majority of votes, the House of Representatives elects the President from the three candidates who received the most electoral votes, and the Senate elects the Vice President from the two vice presidential candidates who received the most electoral votes. 

How to Change the Electoral College

Because the Electoral College process is part of the U.S. Constitution, it would be necessary to pass a Constitutional amendment to change this system. For more information, contact your U.S. Senator or your U.S. Representative.

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Get the Free Poster That Shows the Steps to Become President

This colorful poster helps kids understand the Presidential election process. Download or order a free copy.

How to become President of the United States infographic. See description below.

View a larger version of the infographic.

How to Become President of the United States

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.

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