How Are Candidates For The US Presidency Chosen?

April 8, 2021 Presidential Election

Every four years, candidates for the US presidency emerge from various political parties, including the Republican Party and the Democratic Party. Typically, US presidential candidates must successfully compete in a series of state-level elections to gain their party’s nomination. It’s also worth noting that the United States presidential nominating process is lengthy, complex, and expensive

Declaring a Candidacy

Americans wishing to become president must first of all be natural-born citizens of the United States. In most cases, US presidential candidates announce their candidacy at least one or two years in advance of presidential election day. Some candidates even start running for president three or even more years before Election Day.

State Primaries

US presidential candidates tend to announce their candidacy well before the election because they have to assemble a campaign and be successful at state primaries or caucuses. These state contests take place in the winter and spring before presidential election day. The goal of presidential candidates is to win enough of these state contests and the delegates available to secure their party’s nomination for president. 

State Delegates

Each state presidential primary election or caucus features a certain number of delegates from each political party that the candidates running for their party’s nomination can win. These delegates are chosen from their respective parties to represent their states at their party’s national nominating conventions, usually in late summer. 

Primary States

State presidential primaries are direct elections, and presidential candidates who win the most votes cast by eligible voters win their respective state primaries and delegates. While most US states hold presidential primary elections, a handful of states prefer to have “caucuses,” which aren’t direct elections like primaries. 

Caucus States 

In a presidential caucus state such as Iowa, caucus participants are just like the voters in primary states. These caucus-goers assemble locally at designated sites within their counties that their parties have set up. Then they “caucus” or meet and discuss candidates. At these caucuses, participants choose delegates to represent them and vote for their preferred candidate at the designated congressional district and state-level conventions. All of this caucusing and voting takes place in a single day.  

Generally, a caucus state’s delegates for their national conventions come out of their states’ congressional district and state-level conventions. Those caucus delegates pledge to support the presidential candidates of their political party that entered the caucuses and sought, or “stumped for,” delegates. 

State presidential primaries tend to be “winner take all” when awarding delegates to a candidate. Caucus states, however, generally allot delegates to presidential candidates based on their success at the many caucuses held on that state’s caucus day. In a caucus state, it’s not unusual for several presidential candidates to come away with delegate votes at the end, rather than a single winner taking all such delegates. 

National Nominating Conventions

Both major political parties (Republican and Democratic) hold mostly-ceremonial national nominating conventions in late summer before November’s general election day. These days, Republican and Democratic presidential candidates usually secure their party’s nomination at some point during the primaries or caucuses after gaining the required majority of delegates. 

The “Old Days”  

In an older era, Republican and Democratic presidential candidates would often head into their conventions without the majority of delegates needed to win the nomination. Every political party has a mechanism for selecting its presidential nominees if none of the candidates has enough delegates after the first or initial round of delegate voting. In some cases, the nominating convention might need several or more rounds of voting by delegates before the party’s presidential nominee is chosen. A great deal of bargaining in so-called “smoke-filled rooms” might take place as well.

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