The presidential election process in the United States is a long and complex one, requiring candidates to begin campaign preparations years before the November election day. Potential candidates will often tease Americans before officially declaring their candidacy, making TV appearances, visiting important swing states, and gauging public opinion through a variety of polls. This step of the election process is sometimes called the invisible primary since potential candidates are essentially competing with other possible candidates from the same party.
What is a swing state? A swing state, also known as a battleground state, is a state that has historically fluctuated between Democratic and Republican Party control, making it a crucial target for both parties in presidential elections. These states often receive significant attention from candidates and political campaigns, as their outcome can play a pivotal role in determining the election outcome.
Most sitting presidents decide to run for a second term, which provides numerous advantages compared to other presidential hopefuls. Incumbents are better positioned than most challengers because they have strong name recognition—most Americans are well aware of who the president is due to daily news reporting, press conferences, social media posts, and other mass media exposure. Incumbents have four years of policymaking experience they can reference during the campaign, which can be both a blessing and a curse, depending on current public opinion of the president’s policies. Another important advantage is the president’s use of the “bully pulpit”—the ability to speak out on any issue in an effort to sway public opinion. Other advantages include the massive network of campaign donors and staff members already established to help raise money and spread the campaign message to potential voters. As of 2023, 10 presidents have lost reelection, whereas 21 have won a second-term election (including one who served the terms non-consecutively).
In order to compete for the presidency in the November election, candidates from both parties must first earn the nomination of their respective party through a series of primaries and caucuses. When voters participate in primaries and caucuses, they’re essentially voting for delegates to formally nominate their preferred candidate at the party’s national convention. Candidates compete fiercely in these contests in order to gain the required number of delegate votes to secure the party nomination.
Most states hold primaries (statewide elections using secret ballots) to award delegates for presidential nominees. In an open primary, any registered voter, regardless of political affiliation, can participate in the primary election and vote for the candidate of their choice, regardless of their political party affiliation.
In a closed primary, only registered voters who are affiliated with a particular political party are eligible to participate and vote in that party's primary election. This means that only registered Republicans, for example, can vote in a Republican primary, and only registered Democrats can vote in a Democratic primary.
In some states, party affiliation is required to vote in the primary, but it can be changed on the day of the primary, making such primaries open. Four states have embraced a top-two primary system (Alaska uses the top-four variant) in which all candidates, regardless of political party affiliation, run in a single primary election. The two candidates who receive the most votes in the primary, regardless of their party affiliation, advance to the general election. The purpose of the top-two primary is to encourage candidates to appeal to a broad cross-section of voters, rather than just to voters within their own political party. This can lead to a more moderate and centrist political climate, as candidates must appeal to a broader range of voters in order to be elected.
A few states continue using the caucus system to award their delegates. This process involves party members meeting in various locations in their local communities to discuss and argue over their preferred candidates, culminating in a vote at the end of the night. Caucuses' turnout is much lower than primaries because they require more time (2+ hours), and many voters are uncomfortable with the public nature of the discussion and voting procedures.
The first caucus and primary are held in January of the election year, in Iowa (caucus) and New Hampshire (primary). Although there are relatively few delegates up for grabs in these early contests, presidential hopefuls spend large amounts of time and money preparing for them. Experiencing success early in the nomination process allows candidates to declare themselves as “frontrunners,” and better positions them to receive essential endorsements and contributions from donors. Candidates that fare poorly early on usually lose support from donors—nobody wants to waste money on a likely electoral loser—and eventually, drop out of the race.
Once all the primaries and caucuses are completed, each state sends its slate of delegates to their party’s national convention late in the summer. Rules for delegates vary by state—some are “pledged delegates,” while others operate with more freedom at the convention. Some states award their delegates proportionally (multiple candidates can win a portion of the delegates), and others use a winner-take-all format. Since the parties control this process, rules for delegates change every four years. One significant change in the Democratic Party has been the creation of superdelegates—unelected delegates (usually influential party members/leaders) who can support any candidate, regardless of the outcome of the statewide primaries and caucuses.
The general election begins immediately after the national conventions, pitting the Democratic and Republican Party candidates against each other. From late summer to election day in early November, candidates participate in the following:
1. Campaigning: During the general election campaign, the presidential nominees travel around the country, giving speeches, participating in town hall meetings, and meeting with voters. They use these opportunities to share their message, vision for the country, and platform with the public, and to engage directly with voters. Campaign rallies and events are also used to energize and mobilize their supporters. The campaigns also target key voter groups, such as minority communities, young voters, and rural voters.
2. Advertising: Both political parties and outside groups run advertisements on television, radio, and online, promoting their candidates and attacking their opponents. These advertisements may highlight the candidate's accomplishments, positions on important issues, and vision for the future, or may criticize their opponent's record or statements. Political advertisements can be expensive, so campaigns carefully target them to reach specific groups of voters and maximize their impact.
3. Fundraising: Political parties and outside groups raise money to support their campaigns, both through traditional methods like fundraising events and through digital means like online donations. Campaigns also accept donations from individual supporters, as well as from political action committees (PACs) and other groups. The funds raised are used to pay for campaign expenses, including advertising, polling, and travel.
4. Voter outreach: Political parties and outside groups work to register voters and encourage them to vote for their candidate. This may involve door-to-door canvassing, phone banking, direct mail, and digital outreach. Voter outreach also involves efforts to mobilize voters, such as rallies and get-out-the-vote (GOTV) drives. The goal of voter outreach is to turn out as many of a campaign's supporters as possible on Election Day.
5. Debates: Presidential nominees participate in a series of debates, where they discuss their positions on important issues and respond to questions from moderators and voters. Debates provide a valuable opportunity for candidates to share their views with a large audience and can play a significant role in shaping public opinion and influencing the outcome of the election. Debates also provide voters with a chance to see the candidates side-by-side, allowing them to compare and contrast their positions and assess their fitness for office.
.The presidential election ends with electors in each state meeting to cast the formal vote for president and vice president several weeks after election day. Each state is allocated the same number of electoral votes as it has members of Congress. There are a total of 538 electoral votes among the 50 states and Washington, DC, and the winning candidate is required to win a majority of these votes (270) to become president. In the rare event that no candidate receives a majority, the election is determined in the House of Representatives, with each state casting one vote. All but two states (Maine and Nebraska) award their delegates using the winner-take-all system—candidates that receive a plurality (the most votes) are awarded all of that state’s electoral votes.
One of the biggest criticisms of the Electoral College is that a candidate can win the presidency (by earning 270 electoral votes) without securing a majority of the popular votes throughout the country—this has happened multiple times, including Donald Trump’s victory over Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election. Many Americans view the system as unfair and would prefer replacing it with a nationwide popular vote—this, however, would require a constitutional amendment since the Electoral College is mandated in the Constitution. Take a look at the chart below for a summary of other pro’s and con’s of the Electoral College:
|The Electoral College ensures that smaller states have a proportionate voice in the election of the President.
|Smaller states are overrepresented (per capita) since all states are allocated at least three electoral votes, regardless of population size.
|Forces candidates to campaign in both small and large states to obtain electoral votes—not just the large ones.
|Still, candidates may focus on swing states, rather than engaging with voters in other parts of the country.
|States determine the election if candidates fail to earn 270 electoral votes.
|States do not have to follow the results of the popular vote if the election is determined in the House and Senate.