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11.3 Presidential Elections

Learning Objectives

After reading this section, you should be able to answer the following questions:

  1. How are political party nominees for president selected?
  2. What is the purpose of presidential nominating conventions?
  3. What is the Electoral College, and how does it work?

The presidential election gets the most prominent American campaign. It lasts the longest and receives far more attention from the media than any other election. The Constitution requires the president to be a natural-born US citizen, at least thirty-five years old when taking office, and a resident of the United States for at least fourteen years. It imposed no limits on the number of presidential terms, but the first president, George Washington, established a precedent by leaving office after two terms. This stood until President Franklin D. Roosevelt won a third term in 1940 and a fourth in 1944. Congress then proposed, and the states ratified, the Twenty-Second Amendment to the Constitution, which limited the president’s term of office to two terms.

Caucuses and Primaries

Becoming a political party’s presidential nominee requires obtaining a majority of the delegates at the party’s national nominating convention. Delegates are party regulars, both average citizens who are active in party organizations and officeholders, who attend the national nominating conventions and choose the presidential nominee. The parties allocate convention delegatesParty regulars who attend the national nominating conventions and choose the presidential nominee. to the states, the District of Columbia, and to US foreign territories based mainly on their total populations and past records of electing the party’s candidates. The Republican and Democratic nominating conventions are the most important, as third-party candidates rarely are serious contenders in presidential elections.

Most candidates begin building a campaign organization, raising money, soliciting support, and courting the media months, even years, before the first vote is cast. Soon after the president is inaugurated, the press begins speculating about who might run in the next presidential election. Potential candidates test the waters to see if their campaign is viable and if they have a chance to make a serious bid for the presidency.

Delegates to the party nominating conventions are selected through caucusesMeetings of party members at which delegates to the nominating convention are selected; these delegates then decide on the party’s nominee, who will run in the general election. and primariesElections in which party members vote for delegates to the nominating convention; these delegates then choose the party’s nominee, who will enter the general election.. Some states hold caucuses, often lengthy meetings of the party faithful who choose delegates to the party’s nominating convention. The first delegates are selected in the Iowa caucuses in January. Most convention delegates are chosen in primary elections in states. Delegates are allocated proportionally to the candidates who receive the most votes in the state. New Hampshire holds the first primary in January, ten months before the general election. More and more states front-load primariesPrimaries that states hold early in the process in order to increase their influence over who secures the presidential nomination.—hold them early in the process—to increase their influence on the presidential nomination. Candidates and the media focus on the early primaries because winning them gives a campaign momentum.

The Democrats also have super delegatesDelegates to the Democratic National Convention who are party luminaries, members of the Democratic National Committee, governors, and members of Congress. These delegates do not have to run for delegate in caucuses or primaries. who attend their nominating convention. Super delegates are party luminaries, members of the National Committee, governors, and members of Congress. At the 2008 Democratic convention they made up approximately 18 percent of the delegates.

The National Party Conventions

The Democratic and Republican parties hold their national nominating conventionsMeetings held by political parties to formalize the selection of their candidates for president and vice president and to establish a party platform toward the end of the summer of every presidential election year to formally select the presidential and vice presidential candidates. The party of the incumbent president holds its convention last. Conventions are designed to inspire, unify, and mobilize the party faithful as well as to encourage people who are undecided, independent, or supporting the other party to vote for its candidates.Costas Panagopoulos, ed., Rewiring Politics: Presidential Nominating Conventions in the Media Age (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2007). Conventions also approve the party’s platform containing its policy positions, proposals, and promises.

Selecting the party’s nominees for president and vice president is potentially the most important and exciting function of national conventions. But today, conventions are coronations as the results are already determined by the caucuses and primaries. The last presidential candidate not victorious on the first ballot was Democrat Adlai Stevenson in 1952. The last nominee who almost lacked enough delegates to win on the first ballot was President Gerald Ford at the 1976 Republican National Convention.

Presidential candidates choose the vice presidential candidate, who is approved by the convention. The vice presidential candidate is selected based on a number of criteria. He or she might have experience that compliments that of the presidential nominee, such as being an expert on foreign affairs while the presidential nominee concentrates on domestic issues. The vice presidential nominee might balance the ticket ideologically or come from a battleground state with many electoral votes. The choice for a vice presidential candidate can sometimes be met with dissent from party members.

Figure 11.10 John McCain and Barack Obama Accepting Their Nominations

Republican John McCain and his running mate, former Alaska governor Sarah Palin, and Democrat Barack Obama and his running mate, former Delaware senator Joe Biden, accept their party’s nominations for president in 2008 to great fanfare.

Modern-day conventions are carefully orchestrated by the parties to display the candidates at their best and to demonstrate enthusiasm for the nominee. The media provide gavel-to-gavel coverage of conventions and replay highlights. As a result, candidates receive a postconvention “bounce”A temporary increase in opinion-poll standings experienced by presidential nominees immediately following the national nominating convention. as their standing in the polls goes up temporarily just as the general election begins.

The Electoral College

The president and vice president are chosen by the Electoral CollegeThe 538 electors who choose the president and vice president by majority vote. as specified in the Constitution. Voters do not directly elect the president but choose electors—representatives from their state who meet in December to select the president and vice president. To win the presidency, a candidate must obtain a majority of the electors, at least 270 out of the 538 total. The statewide winner-take-all by state system obliges them to put much of their time and money into swing states where the contest is close. Except for Maine and Nebraska, states operate under a winner-take-all system: the candidate with the most votes cast in the state, even if fewer than a majority, receives all its electoral votes.


Electoral College Information

The US National Archives and Records Administration has a resource for the Electoral College at

It is possible to win the election without winning the popular vote, as George W. Bush did in 2000 with about half a million fewer votes than Democrat Al Gore. The Electoral College decision depended on who won the popular vote in Florida, where voting was contested due to problems with ballots and voting machines. The voting in Florida was so close that the almost two hundred thousand ballots thrown out far exceeded Bush’s margin of victory of a few hundred votes.

Key Takeaways

Presidential elections involve caucuses, primaries, the national party convention, the general election, and the Electoral College. Presidential hopefuls vie to be their party’s nominee by collecting delegates through state caucuses and primaries. Delegates attend their party’s national nominating convention to select the presidential nominee. The presidential candidate selects his vice presidential running mate who is approved at the convention. Voters in the general election select electors to the Electoral College who select the president and vice president. It is possible for a candidate to win the popular vote and lose the general election.


  1. What is the difference between a caucus and a primary? Why might caucuses and primaries produce different results?
  2. What is the purpose of national party conventions, if presidential nominees are no longer really chosen at them?
  3. How does the Electoral College system differ from a system in which voters choose the president directly?