How does a US presidential election actually work?

We are currently watching both parties choose a nominee. There are three main phases in a U.S. presidential election

Faisal Al-Shammeri

Published: Updated:

Not all US presidential elections are the same, in that sometimes a sitting president is up for reelection, so the governing party simply puts up the president as its nominee and waits for the other party to nominate a candidate. Even if a president is in a weakened political position, rarely do candidates inside the governing party mount a movement to remove him.

The most recent example of this is Democrat Lyndon Johnson in 1968. Amid Americans’ deep reservations about the Vietnam war, Senators Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy tried to seek the party’s nomination to run in the presidential election that year.

Three phases

We are currently watching both parties choose a nominee. There are three main phases in a US presidential election: the primaries, which are held in each state; the parties’ conventions, where the selected nominee is officially given the nomination; and the general election. What is currently unfolding are the opening stages, or “primary season,” in which the 50 US states have their individual elections based on the list of candidates on the ballot.

All states this year will participate in putting up a candidate for the general election, meaning that neither party currently has a sitting president to nominate. Not all 50 states have the same rules. Some have “open primaries,” meaning that a registered Republican can vote in a Democratic primary and vice versa.

When a primary is done in a state and a winner is declared, the party delegates pledge their votes to whomever wins that state’s primary. So if an individual wins the Iowa primary as a Republican, the party’s delegates in that state pledge their votes to that person as their official nominee when the party convention is held later in the election cycle. Other states allocate delegates in proportion to the vote obtained by the respected candidates on that state’s ballot.

Almost always, by the time a party convention is held, it is a forgone conclusion who is going to officially win the party nomination. Party conventions take place toward the end of summer, and serve as a coronation in all but name. All states would have already held their primaries, state party delegates officially pledge their votes, and the prospective nominee officially accepts their party’s nomination for the general election, which takes place in the autumn.

The convention then turns to the intended message that the candidate will carry to garner votes for election day, which is in November. The United States uses an “electoral college system,” where individual states have different electoral college votes to pledge. Texas, for example, is considerably larger population-wise than Wisconsin, so the former has more electoral votes than the latter.

The number of electoral college votes needed to win a presidential election is 270, so it is important to win states such as California, Texas, Florida and others with large populations. “Swing states” are those where neither party has a decisive advantage, and both candidates will have to spend a lot of time and money to win there. There is a long way to go, the process has ups and downs, and the tone gets more heated as the general election season begins.

Faisal Al-Shammeri is a political analyst based in Washington DC. He tweets @mr_alshammeri