How the presidential elections work Part 1: Getting started

Ever wondered how the presidential elections in the USA work? For a casual observer, especially abroad, the election might seem complicated. Want to find out how it works? Let me take you on a journey from Iowa to the White House.

In contrast to a lot of parliamentary elections in the world, the American system uses Primaries. During the primaries the parties in the USA elect their candidates for the actual presidential election on the 3th of November. If more than 1 candidate wants to run for president, then the primary process kicks in. And the more candidates, the more interesting (and long-winded) the process.

It might at first be very amicable and be a spirited discussion about views and policy. But there are enough examples of something that more resembles a bar fight.

An example of a nasty bar fight is the 2015 primary in the Republican party. The arrival of Donald Trump on the political scene was, at first, not taken seriously. But The Donald wouldn’t be The Donald if he didn’t make an impact. That impact was felt in a more literal sense by his opponents. Trump wasn’t exactly ‘soft’ on them as Texas senator Ted Cruz found out the hard way.

The process of the primaries is a lot easier for Trump in 2020. There are primaries within the Republican party, but it would be exceptional if any serious opposition would appear against a sitting president from his own party.

It’s different for the Democrats. Because Hillary Clinton lost in 2016 and the Democratic election victory in 2018, the amount of candidates is now huge. At the time of writing (early 2020), 12 candidates applied for the Democratic Party’s candidacy. Which means it’s very difficult for the more unknown candidates to get noticed by the voters.

Suppose you want to become a candidate …

In principle, anyone can be a candidate. You can fill in a form and that’s it. But that doesn’t mean it enrols you in the actual primaries. For that you need to get your application confirmed at a local chapter of the party. To get that confirmation, you need signatures of residents of the state that you are trying to be a candidate in. That is often the only way to get on the actual ballot papers.

Candidates want to get on the ballot in all states, but you don’t have to. Comedian Stephen Colbert tried to run for the Republican and Democratic nomination of only his home state, South Carolina. (He ended up not running at all, but had a good laugh about it by endorsing Herman Cain.)

America still is a federation of states when it comes to their elections. The local party organizes the elections and therefore you can only win the votes of that state. This means that you need to garner support in enough states to get to be the nominee. Rather than votes or any other metric, this is counted in delegates to the national conference of the party. Every state gets a certain number of delegates. If you win a majority of those delegates from all the states, you are the nominee.

So it’s a two-stage rocket: first arrange your candidacy and then register per state to get on the ballot. You have to do that in as many states as possible because you can only win a fixed number of delegates per state. The delegates are awarded based on the primaries in every state. The candidate with a majority of the delegates wins the nomination and gets to try and defeat Donald Trump in november.

The funny thing is that those delegates are real people. They are party members who commit themselves to the result of the election in their state. There are almost 4000 of them, divided between the different states according to their population size. 

Great, I am on the ballot papers. Now what?

Now it becomes really complicated. There are different variants of primaries, all with their own dynamics. In addition, you have to take into account when the different primaries take place because not all of them happen on 1 day.

Fortunately, the biggest difference is in the beginning of the process. So let’s start in the first and second state where primaries are being held: Iowa and New Hampshire. All primaries after these two follow roughly the same pattern.

Check part 2, Iowa and New Hampshire here.

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