Presidential Election Process

Learn about the Presidential election process, including the Electoral College, caucuses and primaries, and the national conventions.

Video: How to Become President of the USA

Explains the presidential election process from beginning to end.

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.

  • January 20 – Inauguration Day

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

Infographic Poster: How to Become President of the United States

Explains the election process. Download a free copy. Use this lesson plan.

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

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.

    Definitions:

    • 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.

    You can download the President Poster.

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.

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.

National Conventions

After the primaries and caucuses, most political parties hold national conventions.

What Happens at a National Political Convention?

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.

Delegates: Types and Numbers Required

Read an overview of the delegate process for becoming the Republicatn or Democratic party nominee.

There are two main types of delegates:

  • 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.

Electoral College

Unlike in other U.S. elections, the president and vice president are not elected directly by the people. Instead, they’re chosen by “electors” through a process called the Electoral College.

The idea of using electors comes from the Constitution. The nation’s founders saw it as a compromise between electing the president by a popular vote among citizens and electing the president in Congress.            

The Electors

The number of electors each state gets is determined by how many members of Congress (House and Senate) the state has. Including Washington, D.C.’s three electors, there are a total of 538 electors in all. U.S. territory residents don’t vote in the presidential election and are not represented in the Electoral College. View the distribution of electors by state.

Each state’s political parties choose their own slate of potential electors. Who is chosen to be an elector, how, and when varies 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 of the electoral votes for that state. This means his or her party’s electors in that state will vote in the Electoral College. Maine and Nebraska assign their electors using a proportional system called the Congressional District Method.

A candidate needs the vote of at least 270 electors—more than half—to win the presidential election.

Although the actual vote of the Electoral College takes place in each state on December 19, in most cases, a projected winner can be announced on election night.

The Constitution doesn’t require electors to vote according to the popular vote of the people they represent. But it’s rare for an elector not to follow the people’s—and their party’s—choice.

Special Situations

Winning the Popular Vote but Losing the Election

Though uncommon, it is possible to win the Electoral College, but lose the popular vote. That means that a candidate can win a combination of states and reach the 270 electors mark without winning the majority of votes across the country. This has happened five times in American elections, most recently in 2016.

What Happens if No Candidate Gets 270 Electoral Votes?

In the rare event that no candidate gets the needed 270 electoral votes, the decision would go to the House of Representatives, who would vote to elect the new president from among the top three candidates. A similar process would take place in the Senate to elect the vice president from among the top two candidates. The only time this has happened was during the 1824 election when John Quincy Adams received the most votes in the House of Representatives after no candidate won a majority of the Electoral College.

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.

Inauguration Day

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."

Around noon, the president-elect recites the following oath, in accordance with Article II, Section I of the U.S. Constitution:

"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."

The inauguration is planned by the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies.   Nine activities typically occur:

For more information on the history of presidential inaugurations, explore the inaugural materials from the collections of the Library of Congress.

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Last Updated: May 16, 2019