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A Guide to Presidential Elections

by Scott Grabel

The process of electing a president in the United States is virtually continuous. From the moment a new president secures this top position, the election process begins again for the next ballot, four years in the future. This is the time when contenders begin to test the waters to see whether they feel confident enough to begin working earnestly on a campaign. Although the process is complex, it's also a fascinating example of democracy in action. Presidential candidates in the political parties move through the process of caucuses, primaries, debates, polling, advertising, nominations, and strategizing in the effort to run a successful campaign to become the next president of the United States.

Party Systems

Two main parties dominate the United States political system and the elections. These are the Democratic Party and the Republican Party. The members of each party range in their individual political opinions, but people belonging to each party generally share ideological views. People belonging to the Democratic Party tend toward the belief that a more involved government will help protect citizens and improve the country. Members of the Republican Party advocate for a less involved federal government with fewer social programs and lower taxes. A candidate could also run for president in another, smaller party or as an independent, with no affiliation with any party.

Securing the Nomination

With the official announcement of their candidacy, the hopefuls begin working in earnest to secure the nomination of their party. The time between candidacy announcements and party nominations is a period of winnowing. During this time, a number of contenders will end up dropping out of the race as they realize that they don't stand a chance of winning. At the end of this period, the political parties will each hold a national convention, at which they officially choose their nominee to move forward in the election process. At some point in the weeks immediately preceding the national conventions, each presidential candidate will announce a running mate for the office of vice president.

Caucuses and Primaries

Caucuses and primaries are the two methods by which the candidates advance toward nomination. A caucus is a local political meeting of registered members of a political party. The members come together to vote for a party candidate. A primary might be open, semi-closed, or closed, depending on state rules governing them. A closed primary allows only registered voters in that party to cast votes. A semi-closed primary allows unaffiliated voters to choose a specific party for casting a vote. An open primary does not limit the voters, so anyone can cast a vote regardless of their affiliation. Iowa and New Hampshire hold their election events before any other states. Afterward, most states participate in Super Tuesday in March of the election year, which is the day when these states have their primaries. At the end of the caucus and primary process, delegates from every state will have made a commitment to represent a specific candidate at their party's national convention.

Campaign Strategies

Campaign strategy is a crucial part of any hopeful's candidacy. Early in a campaign, candidates choose a few key issues on which to focus their campaign. These issues can help connect the candidate with voters to build support. A candidate might choose to focus on a single high-profile issue that sets this runner apart from the others. This differentiation is crucial for early success when the field is full of contenders. A successful candidate will find a way to gain mainstream support to demonstrate the ability to capture a majority of the votes from U.S. citizens. Media usage is another component of successful campaign strategy. Traditional media, such as television and newspapers, is one way to reach a large sector of the American public. However, technology has made it possible for candidates to use the Internet for media exposure also. Viral marketing and social media outreach are just two ways in which candidates can get a message out using the Internet.


Debates occur throughout the entire election process, from prior to the caucuses and primaries to after the national conventions, as the remaining candidates move closer to the general election. Debates are scheduled events that involve the candidates facing each other to answer questions. Sometimes a moderator will pose the questions, and other times, members of the audience will question the candidates. As voters watch debates, they can learn about the candidates and their views, positions, plans, and even personalities. After viewing a debate, voters often have a better idea about how candidates will approach the issues, which can help with voting decisions.

Electoral College

The Electoral College is the system in place whereby America elects a president. As Americans go to the polling places on Election Day to cast their votes, they are actually voting for electors. These electors then move forward to vote directly for the president. The number of electors for each state depends on the state's number of representatives in both the House of Representatives and the Senate. The total number of electors in the Electoral College is 538 for all states and the District of Columbia. The candidate who receives 270 electoral votes has the majority of the votes, and this person wins the election.

The General Election

Whatever Tuesday of the election year occurs between Nov. 2 and Nov. 8 will be Election Day. This is the day when American voters visit polling places throughout the country to choose their candidate. Electronic and computerized balloting have expedited the voting process significantly. Media outlets follow the vote tabulation closely throughout the day. At some point late in the day, the media may project a winner based on information collected as the results coming. By the next morning, one candidate has typically emerged as the winner. The new president-elect will take the office of president of the United States at noon on Jan. 20 of the next calendar year.

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