How the President Is Elected

So you want to be president of the United States. You should know that making it to the White House is a daunting task, logistically speaking. Understanding how the president is elected should be your first priority.

There are volumes of campaign finance rules to navigate, thousands of signatures to gather across all 50 states, delegates of the pledged and unpledged varieties to glad-hand, and the Electoral College to deal with.

If you’re ready to jump into the fray, let’s walk through the 11 key milestones of how the president is elected in the United States.

Step 1: Meeting the Eligibility Requirements

Presidential candidates must be able to prove they are a “natural born citizen” of the U.S., have lived in the country for at least 14 years, and are at least 35 years old. Being “natural born” doesn’t mean you have to have been born on American soil, either. If one of your parents is an American citizen, that’s good enough. Children whose parents are American citizens are considered “natural-born citizens,” regardless of whether they’re born in Canada, Mexico or Russia.

If you meet those three basic requirements for being president, you can move on to the next step.

Step. 2: Declaring Your Candidacy and Forming a Political Action Committee

It’s time to get with the Federal Election Commission, which regulates elections in the United States. Presidential candidates must complete a “statement of candidacy” by listing their party affiliation, the office they’re seeking, and some personal information such as where they live. Dozens of candidates complete these forms in every presidential election—candidates most Americans never hear of and who are from obscure, lesser-known and unorganized political parties.

That statement of candidacy also requires presidential hopefuls to designate a political action committee, an entity that solicits money from supporters to spend on television ads and other methods of electioneering, as their “principal campaign committee.” All that means is that the candidate is authorizing one or more PACs to receive contributions and make expenditures on their behalf.

Whenever they are not working on their public image, presidential candidates spend much of their time trying to raise money to pay for their campaigns. Among the major 2020 presidential candidates, for example, incumbent Republican Donald Trump’s campaign committee and the Republican National Committee raised almost $1.33 billion as of September 20, 2020. The campaign committee of former Vice President Joe Biden, Trump's Democratic Party challenger, and the Democratic National Committee had raised $990 million as of the same date. By comparison, among all of the 2020 candidates, Democrat Michael Bloomberg led the field by raising more than $1 billion—largely from his own fortune—before dropping out of the race on March 3, 2020, proving that it’s not always about the money.

Step 3: Getting on the Primary Ballot in as Many States as Possible

This is one of the most little-known details of how the president is elected: To become a major party’s presidential nominee, candidates must go through the primary process in every state. Primaries are elections held by political parties in most states to narrow the field of candidates seeking the nomination to one. A few states hold more informal elections called caucuses.

Taking part in primaries is essential to winning delegates, which is necessary to earn the presidential nomination. And to take part in the primaries, you’ve got to get on the ballots in each state. This entails presidential candidates collecting a specific number of signatures in each state.

The point is that every legitimate presidential campaign must have a solid organization of supporters in each state that will work to meet these ballot-access requirements. If they come up short in even one state, they're leaving potential delegates on the table.

Step 4: Winning Delegates to the Convention

Delegates are the people who attend their parties’ presidential nomination conventions to cast votes on behalf of the candidates who won the primaries in their states. Thousands of delegates attend both the Republican and Democratic National Conventions to perform this arcane task.

Delegates are often political insiders, elected officials, or grassroots activists. Some delegates are “committed” or “pledged” to a particular candidate, meaning they must vote for the winner of the state primaries; others are uncommitted and can cast their ballots however they choose. There are also “superdelegates,” high-ranking elected officials who get to support the candidates of their choice.

Democrats seeking the presidential nomination in the 2020 primaries, for example, needed to secure 1,991 delegates. Joe Biden crossed the threshold after winning a series of primaries on June 2. Biden’s closest rival, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., accumulated 1,119 delegates by August 11, 2020. Republicans seeking the presidential nomination in 2020 needed 1,276 delegates. Largely unchallenged, Trump surpassed the goal after winning the Florida and Illinois primaries on March 17, 2020.

Step 5: Picking a Running Mate 

Before the nominating convention takes place, most presidential candidates have chosen a vice presidential candidate, the person who will appear on the November ballot with them. Only twice in modern history have the presidential nominees waited until the conventions to break the news to the public and their parties. The party’s presidential nominee has typically chosen their running mate in July or August of a presidential election year.

Step 6: Participating in Debates

The Commission on Presidential Debates holds three presidential debates and one vice presidential debate after the primaries and before the November election. While the debates typically don’t influence the outcome of elections or cause major shifts in voter preferences, they are critical to understanding where candidates stand on important issues and evaluating their ability to perform under pressure.

A bad performance can sink a candidacy, though it rarely happens anymore because politicians are coached on their answers and have become skilled at skirting controversy. The exception was the first-ever televised presidential debate, between Vice President Richard M. Nixon, a Republican, and U.S. Sen. John F. Kennedy, a Democrat, during the 1960 campaign.

Nixon's appearance was described as being "green, sallow" and he appeared to need a clean shave. Nixon believed the first televised presidential debate to be "just another campaign appearance" and did not take it seriously; he was ​pale, sickly looking, and sweaty, an appearance that helped seal his demise. Kennedy knew the event was momentous and rested beforehand. He won the election.

Step 7: Understanding Election Day

What happens on that Tuesday after the first Monday of November in a presidential election year is one of the most misunderstood facets of how the president is elected. The bottom line is this: voters do not directly elect the president of the United States. They instead chose electors, who meet later to vote for a president.

Electors are people chosen by the political parties in each state. There are 538 of them, and a candidate needs a simple majority to win. States are allotted electors based on their population. The larger a state's population is, the more electors are allocated. For example, California is the most populous state with about 38 million residents. It also holds the most electors at 55. Wyoming, on the other hand, is the least populous state with fewer than 600,000 residents; it gets only three electors.

According to the National Archives and Records Administration:

“Political parties often choose electors for the slate to recognize their service and dedication to that political party. They may be state elected officials, state party leaders, or people in the state who have a personal or political affiliation with their party's presidential candidate.”

Step 8: Picking Up Electors and Electoral Votes

When a presidential candidate wins the popular vote in a state, they win electoral votes from that state. In 48 out of 50 states, the successful candidates collect all electoral votes from that state. This method of awarding electoral votes is commonly known as "winner-take-all." In two states, Nebraska and Maine, the electoral votes are distributed proportionally; they allocate their electoral votes to the presidential candidates based on who did better in each congressional district.

While those electors are not legally bound to vote for the candidate who won the popular vote in their state, it is rare for them to go rogue and disregard the will of voters. “Electors generally hold a leadership position in their party or were chosen to recognize years of loyal service to the party,” according to the National Archives and Records Administration. “Throughout our history as a nation, more than 99% of electors have voted as pledged.”

Step 9: Understanding the Role of the Electoral College

Presidential candidates who win 270 or more electoral votes are called the president-elect. They don’t actually take office that day, and they can’t take office until the 538 members of the Electoral College get together to cast votes. The meeting of the Electoral College takes place in December, after the election, and after state governors receive the “certified” election results and prepare Certificates of Ascertainment for the federal government.

The electors meet in their own states and then deliver the tallies to the vice president; the secretary of the Department of State in each state; the national archivist; and the presiding judge in the districts where the electors held their meetings.

Then, in late December or early January after the presidential election, the federal archivist and representatives from the Office of the Federal Register meet with the Secretary of the Senate and the Clerk of the House to verify the results. Congress meets in a joint session to announce the results.

Step 10: Getting Through Inauguration Day

January 20 is the day every aspiring president looks forward to. It is the day prescribed in the U.S. Constitution for the peaceful transition of power from one administration to another. It is a tradition for the outgoing president and his family to attend the swearing-in of the incoming president, even if they are from different parties.

There are other traditions, too. The president leaving office often write a note to the incoming president to offer encouraging words and well wishes. "Congratulations on a remarkable run," former President Barack Obama wrote in a letter to Trump. "Millions have placed their hopes in you, and all of us, regardless of party, should hope for expanded prosperity and security during your tenure."

11. Taking Office

This, of course, is the final step. And then the hard part begins.

Updated by Robert Longley

View Article Sources
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Murse, Tom. "How the President Is Elected." ThoughtCo, Oct. 14, 2020, Murse, Tom. (2020, October 14). How the President Is Elected. Retrieved from Murse, Tom. "How the President Is Elected." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 4, 2023).