How elections work in the USA

John Elections 1.mp3

The main elections in the USA are:

Case Study US Election 2020 

America has fixed-term elections that occur every four years. The first presidential election was held in 1788. Since then, a presidential election has been held every four years, even during wartime. If the president dies in office, there is still no special election.

The election of a US president has  7 stages and takes two years

At the heart of the American political system is the fundamental fear of tyranny. There is considerable debate among political commentators about the extent to which the USA is a truly democratic state and how far the frequency, extent and nature of US elections act as a check on power. While many conservatives are quick to point out the relative openness of the system and the range of opportunities for scrutinising and holding politicians to account, more liberal commentators will point to the growth of what they see as a system dominated in particular by money. For these individuals the system is deeply , flawed since  the wealthy are able to dominate at the expense of the poor, creating a situation in which a growing number of Americans are apathetic, with many choosing not to participate in the political process or even vote.

'How could someone with no electoral or political experience, no long- standing ties with either of the two main political parties, who had never served in the military, and who was so reviled and disliked by a majority of Americans— even by many within his own adoptive Republican Party — be elected to the nation’s highest office? But then how could a peanut farmer from Georgia (Jimmy Carter), or someone who had starred in a Hollywood movie alongside a chimpanzee named Bonzo (Ronald Reagan), be elected to the same office? The answer in its shortest and simplest form has to be about the method by which presidential candidates are chosen, and the way in which presidential elections are conducted.' Anthony Bennett

The US electoral system was designed by men who feared too much democracy

While the Founding Fathers believed that only the people could create a legitimate government but they feared that the uneducated masses would not make the right decisions. So they limited the scope of democracy. For example in the original constitution only the House of Representatives was directly elected by the people, with Senators being appointed by the state government. They created a presidential election where the people would not directly chose the president, instead they inserted a safety mechanism: The Electoral College, where voters would choose a small group of people who would decide who the president is. This is the system that is still in existence today.

 In the 1960s, another election was added (primaries and caucuses) in which the public select which candidate will represent a party at elections. This system is not part of the constitution but has been created by internal party rules. This means that the presidential elections, which do so much to determine the fate of America and the world, are — compared to most modern democracies — long and controversial

The advantages and disadvantages of the nominating process

Primaries and caucuses

In the first stage of voting, candidates from the same party compete in a public vote. The whole process is often referred to as 'primaries, even though some states use primary voting and some use caucus voting. There are two primaries: one Democrat and one Republican. Rather than having a national contest, there are separate contests for each state. This is a public vote, but each voter can only vote in one party's primary.

Candidates compete in a state to win delegates. Each state is given a number of delegates that broadly reflects its population. Delegates are party activists who agree to go to a party convention to vote for a specific candidate, according to how the voters in that state have voted.

In 2016 in the Republican Party primaries, South Carolina had 50 delegates. Donald Trump received 33 per cent of the vote, beating Rubio (22 per cent), Cruz (22 per cent) and Bush (8 per cent). In doing so, Trump got 100 per cent of South Carolina's delegates. As a result, all 50 delegates then pledged to vote for Trump when they attended a national meeting of delegates from all states. This meeting is known as the 'national party convention'.

Different states and different parties have different rules regarding who can vote and how delegates are apportioned.

·      Republican primaries traditionally used a 'winner takes all' system (the candidate who came first got all of the state's delegates). Now some states use a proportional system (if a candidate gets 20 per cent of the vote, they get 20 per cent of the delegates).

·      Democrat primaries award delegates to candidates in proportion to their vote totals in that state.

Voters cast a secret ballot into a ballot box, making a single choice. For either party, the candidate with 50 per cent or more of all delegates becomes the official presidential candidate.

Different parties elect different totals over the whole campaign. To win in 2016, a Democrat required 2383 and a Republican 1237 delegates. In theory the delegates make the decision at the  party convention at the end of the process. In practice, one person usually has more than 50 per cent, so therefore the winner is known before the convention. Different states hold their primaries on different dates. In 2016 primaries began on 1 February, with 12 states holding votes on 1 March, six states on 7 June, and finishing on 14 June. Some states hold their primaries on the same day, with the largest collection of states all holding votes on what is known as Super Tuesday.

Individual states decide the nature of primaries or caucuses; although there are differences between them, they can roughly be divided into three types. These are compared in more detail in Table 3.

·    Open primaries: Any registered voter can participate in either the Republican or the Democratic primary, but not both, regardless of the voter's party affiliation. The open primary system is adopted for either party in 17 states, including Georgia.

·    Closed primaries: Only voters who have declared an affiliation to a party can participate in that party's primary. The closed primary system is adopted for either party by 27 states, including Delaware and Kentucky.

·    Caucuses: These are a state-based series of meetings between key party members and supporters, in order to select a party's candidate for the presidency, the most notable of which is the Iowa caucus.

Case study The Republican Invisible Primary 2015

Case study The Iowa Caucus 2020

Invisible primaries

Invisible primaries happen before primary voting when candidates campaign to establish themselves as viable candidates to win the primary race. Potential primary candidates try to gather support, gain recognition, raise funds and establish a core staff. This usually starts well before they announce their candidacy.

The invisible primary season increases in intensity as the first primary vote, which takes place in Iowa, gets closer. Candidates with high levels of funding and strong public support are likely to be viewed as potential winners, thus attracting more funding and support. This season usually leads to some candidates dropping out because they lack funding or public support. While no actual voting takes place, contestants try to establish themselves as the lead candidate in a specific faction, gaining loyalty from a key set of voters.

Announcing a presidential bid early can enable the candidate to 'capture' the support of a party faction before another candidate has even declared. For the 2016 elections Senator Ted Cruz was the first Republican candidate to declare, nine months before the first primary voting and a year and a half before the presidential election. Cruz gave a speech appealing to social conservative voters at an evangelical college and was subsequently able to maintain this support, leaving previously popular evangelical Republicans (such as Santorum) with limited backing.

Invisible primaries can have a major effect on a candidate's chances of success. As well as being a key period of fundraising, invisible primaries are when candidates can spend a great deal of money, mainly on publicity campaigns, adding to the financial burden of running for the presidency. The process is also significant because it provides an opportunity for lesser-known candidates to establish themselves as realistic challengers to perceived frontrunners. This was the case with Barack Obama in 2007, who used solid performances in pre-voting debates to establish himself as the main rival to Hillary Clinton. Clinton `won' the invisible primaries, thanks to higher fundraising and greater popularity, but Obama's ability to get close to her put him in a position to win the nomination. Sanders's invisible primary performance in 2015 helped him to gain funding and support, allowing him to run a fairly close primary race against Clinton.

During this time the aims of candidates are threefold — to gain media coverage, to gather endorsements and to secure funding.

Media coverage

Candidates will look to achieve widespread name recognition, attempting to gather  media airtime and coverage in the printed press. In particular, they will endeavour to present themselves to potential voters as credible presidential candidates and

cover any potential weaknesses in their political CV. Thus, following his withdrawal from the 2008 Republican field, Mitt Romney began positioning himself to run as a conservative candidate in 2012, with speeches at the Lincoln Day dinners, the whether states allocate their delegates on a proportional or first-past-the-post basis. Thus in Florida in 2008 McCain picked up all 57 of the Republican pledged establishment of his 'Free and Strong America PAC' and fundraising activities for SBA-List (a pressure group committed to electing anti-abortion women to political posts).


Candidates try to gather support from key individuals within the party. These  include leading politicians who are not running, those who drop out and the Super Delegates. In the race for the Republican nomination in 2012 Romney had secured the support of 41 of the 153 unbound superdelegates by March 2012, something the National Journal referred to as his 'path to victory'.

Candidates will also look to gather endorsements from influential groups outside the party who will provide important grassroots support in mobilising a candidate's campaign. For example, 7 months before the first 2012 primary, Michele Bachmann joined almost every other major Republican presidential candidate in speaking at the Faith and Freedom Conference in Washington.

Following most  of the other candidates in what is  something of a campaign rite of passage for presidential hopefuls vying for support from the powerful Jewish-American community and pro-Israel lobby, Trump used his  address to AIPAC to boost his candidacy with this key constituency by attacking the Obama administration.

“With President Obama in his final year — yeah!” Trump cheered, to laughter and applause from the audience. “He may be the worst thing to ever happen to Israel, believe me, believe me. And you know it, and you know it better than anybody.”

March 2016


One of the most important functions of the invisible primary is to build up a big enough 'war chest' to fight the long presidential campaign. The ability to attract donations in seen as an early test of the candidate's viability. For example the early withdrawal of former Louisiana governor Buddy Roemer who, after establishing an exploratory committee to run for the Republican nomination in March 2011, was forced to pull out of the 2012 race in February 2012, having raised only $340,000. In particular, candidates will look to court key pressure groups and political action committees (PACs) which will provide them with valuable funding. Although candidates can self-finance their campaigns (as Michael Bloomberg did in 2020) it is enormously costly, and very few candidates have the personal assets to do this.

Alternative nominating systems

The adoption of primaries was a reform and seen as better than the old days of 'smoke filled rooms' However there are ongoing criticisms which have led to calls for further reform.

The advantages and disadvantages of the nominating process

The pressure group FairVote has established a bipartisan 'Fix the primaries' campaign, which aims to examine a range of reform options. These include the following:

Ranked Choice Voting Videos from Fairvote

Regional primaries

As early as 1999 the National Association of Secretaries of State proposed a plan, similar to a number of other regional plans, which would divide the country up into four regions, each of which would hold primaries on the same day, with the sequence being rotated for which region went first. Despite this, some critics claim it would not solve the problem of the cost of elections, due to the fact that a quarter of the country would vote in the first regional set of primaries.

National primaries

A 2008 research paper by the South Illinois University outlined alternative plans for nominating presidential candidates which included a National Primary Plan, in which all states would hold a primary on the same day.

Changed scheduling

Other plans have been proposed which would adjust the scheduling of primaries to overcome the problems of frontloading. These include:

The case for a National Popular Vote

 The American plan: Small states would begin the primary season, working towards larger states in ten steps, with states chosen at random.

The Delaware plan: 'backloading' primaries, with states placed in four groups according to population size. The smallest states would go first and the largest last.

Party Conventions

National party conventions take place for each party in a presidential election year, usually lasting over three or four days. Modern conventions are attended by the delegates selected through the primary process. As such, they mark the end of the primary process and kickstart the presidential election campaign.

With the creation of national primaries in 1968, the role of conventions has changed. Their role

in determining who wins the nomination and the party platform has now been lost mainly to the primary process itself

The Functions of National Party Conventions 

 Formal funtions

 Informal    functions        

1. Select the presidential and vice presidential candidates for the party Delegates vote to decide who is the presidential nominee. The rules of each party require that a candidate gains over 50 per cent of delegates. If no candidate achieves this, a brokered convention takes place requiring more rounds of voting. It would be more accurate to say that the convention confirms — rather  than chooses — the party’s presidential candidate. Not since the Republican convention of 1976 has the choice of the presidential candidate really been in any doubt at the opening of either party’s convention. In that year, President Gerald Ford defeated the former Governor of California, Ronald Reagan, by 1,187 votes to 1,070 votes. Had 60 delegates switched from Ford to Reagan, Reagan would have won.

2. Decide the policy platform

Delegates debate and vote to determine the policy of the party (and therefore the candidate) for the presidential election. The convention takes place over several days, allowing for detailed policy debate. In 2016, the most contentious platform debate at the Republican convention was on issues regarding sexuality. The Platform Committee proposed a platform with a ‘staunchly conservative’ view on homosexuality, same-sex marriage and transgender issues, calling for the Supreme Court ruling in Obergefell v Hodges (2015), which declared the rights of same-sex couples to be married a constitutional right, to be overturned. When the platform came to the convention floor, it was approved merely on a voice vote with only a few ‘nays’ audible.

The Democratic platform 2016  was the focus of an intense struggle between supporters of Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. The 15-member Platform Committee was made up of six Clinton appointees and five Sanders appointees, with the remaining four appointed by the chair of the Democratic National Committee, Debbie Wasserman Schultz. Bernie Sanders’ supporters announced that they were largely satisfied with the resulting document which, for example, expressed support for raising the federal minimum wage to $15 per hour and index-linking it to inflation — a top Sanders priority — as well as support for Wall Street reform, another top Sanders issue.

(In the formal sense it is arguable that the traditional roles of the party convention are insignificant, and serve no real purpose.)

Conventions are nothing more than a 'rubber stamp', especially given that the party candidate is known in advance. In 2012 Romney's nearest competitor withdrew his nomination by April.

·   Genuine policy debate, to create a party platform, has been replaced by the need for unity. Conventions rarely discuss controversial or divisive policy issues as this can lead to party splits, as with the Republicans in the 1996 convention over abortion. Similarly, the platform is not binding on the president or party members.

·    Vice-presidential candidates are now chosen and announced by the presidential candidate in advance of the convention, as with Romney's choice of Paul Ryan more than 2 weeks before the Republican convention in 2012. However, though often apparent well beforehand, conventions remain an opportunity to present a balanced ticket to the electorate.

 The speeches by Hillary Clinton in 2008 and Rick Santorum in 2012 were designed to heal the party wounds, which had arisen during the primaries.

1. To act as publicity for the candidate

Conventions mark the start of the campaign and are a key part of the process. The winning candidate can sell their message to the public, often through attacks on the other party, stage-managed speeches by other politicians and endorsement by celebrities. The choice of state is also important: party conventions are often held in swing states.

2. To reunite the party

Conventions can be very important for parties after the divisive primary process. The battle between candidates from the same party can be put aside. Losing candidates often give speeches endorsing the winner. This can create positive publicity and help win the election.This may be the most important function of all. The primaries can turn into bitter personal battles, and it is vital that internal party wounds are healed before the general election campaign begins. Divided parties are rarely winning parties. The convention gives a golden opportunity to heal the wounds.

At the 2008 Democratic convention, it was important that the party portrayed a united front following the bitter personal rivalry during the primaries between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. By the time the primaries ended in early June, Hillary Clinton and her husband, the former president — felt aggrieved that she had not triumphed in a nomination race that was widely thought to be hers for the taking. Both had seemed to suggest that Obama did not have the experience or leadership qualities to be president. But at the convention, both Clintons endorsed Barack Obama wholeheartedly in their respective speeches. Speaking on the second night of the convention, Hillary Clinton declared herself to be 'a proud supporter of Barack Obama' and went on to state: 'Barack Obama is my candidate, and he must be our president.' Picking up his wife's theme the following night in his speech, former President Bill Clinton declared to rapturous applause from the delegates: 'Last night, Hillary told us in no uncertain terms that she is going to do everything she can to elect Barack Obama. That makes two of us!' In 2016 Bernie Sanders urged his supporters to support Hilary Clinton. 

There are, however, examples of conventions at which party unity was not rebuilt: the 1992 Republican convention, where President George H. W. Bush remained at loggerheads with his primary election rival, Pat Buchanan; and the 1980 Democrat convention, where President Carter and Senator Edward Kennedy continued their unfriendly rivalry. It is no coincidence that Bush and Carter were both defeated later in the year. In 2008, Republican Congressman Ron Paul, who had won some significant support in the Republican primaries and caucuses, refused to endorse John McCain at the Republican convention and held a rival event across town. In 2016 Ted Cruz did not endorse Trump and leading Republicans such as George Bush did not attend the Convention.

The importance of modern-day conventions

A Washington Post-ABC News poll published towards the end of August 2008 asked the following question: 'As you may know, the Democrat and Republican parties will be holding their national conventions in the next few weeks. How important will these conventions be in helping you decide how to vote for president in November?' A mere 29% of respondents said the conventions would be 'important' while 71% said they would be 'less important'. Only 12% described the conventions as 'extremely important'. So as far as the voters go, modern-day conventions are seemingly of little importance In comparison to the conventions of years ago, modern-day conventions are of little importance. The conventions are highly orchestrated and  designed to creates a slick image of party unity. Modern-day convention has its eye on entertainment and a TV audience. There will be celebrities as 'ordinary citizens' who have a heartwarming  story to tell. The party conventions of 2012 featured an ageing film star in Clint Eastwood, an Iraq war veteran and a worker from General Motors.  Most of the politica stuff happens outside prime time, such as the 'roll call' — once one of the highlights of the convention.

However even with the new entertainment focus television coverage of the conventions has declined significantly in recent years. In 1968, the three terrestrial television companies— ABC, CBS and NBC—putout 46 hours of coverage of that year's Republican convention. Forty-four years later, in 2012, the same three companies managed just 9 hours of coverage of the Republican convention — 1 hour on each evening on each channel. The only comprehensive television coverage was to be found on the cable news channels — CNN, MSNBC, Fox News, PBS and C-SPAN. This decline in convention coverage by the three terrestrial television stations is a result not only of the hugely increased choice that Americans now have with regard to TV channels but also of the decline in the formal significance of conventions. 

However, conventions still have significant informal functions. They a time for celebrating the glorious history of the party- Republicans like to remember Ronald Reagan, but they can also be important in identifying the rising stars of the future. In 2004, Barack Obama, gave a stunning speech and 4 years later he returned to the convention as its presidential nominee.

National Party Conventions can still be of importance because millions of Americans who take little interest in the campaign will  tune in for the key moments of the conventions. As election scholar Stephen Wayne (2001) put it, the conventions 'may have become less newsworthy, but they are still important'. 

2016 Conventions

Republican Convention- Cleveland Ohio.

Democratic Convention Philadephia

2020 Conventions

Republican August 24 to 27, 2020 

The convention was seen as more professional then 2016- but the lack of huge crowds prevented Trump form projecting his usual - persona

Tended to highlight his relaxed attitude to the pandemic.

The Democrat Convention 2020 

August 17 to 20, 2020, at the Wisconsin Center in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and virtually across the United States. 

Speakers included:

Seen a s successfully delivering a safe message of good feelings and unity. Nothing too left wing or aggressive. The message was clear- Biden is not Trump. While his electoral poll numbers may not have received a bounce, some polling showed Biden to have received a boost in favorability ratings 

The Democrat Convention 2020- Aimed to do no harm, heal the party  and project Biden as a nice if dull guy-It succeeded.

One of the films shown at the Democatic Convention

The Republican Convention 2020 - Aimed to energise Trump supporters and it succeeded-but it also energised his opponents.

The electoral college

Article II of the Constitution outlines the need for the president to be elected every four years using an electoral college, with the electorate in all states voting on the same day. The Founding Fathers feared popular sovereignty, so they created the electoral college to act as a filter or check on public opinion.

How does it work?

Click here for : The Electoral College Explained

·    Each state has a value of electoral college votes (ECV) based on the number of congresspersons plus the number of Senators (in other words, +2) for that state. In addition, the 23rd amendment gives Washington DC three ECV.

·    Candidates compete on a state-by-state basis, with the winner receiving all the electoral college votes in that state.

·    All states use a 'winner takes all' system (even though the Constitution lets states decide how to allocate ECV).

·    To win the presidency a candidate requires more than 50 per cent of ECV: 270 of the 538 votes available.

·    The ECV is not simply a points-based system. In each state, the ECV number represents the number of delegates (or electors) who are selected.

·    Larger states have a larger number of delegates, although this is not proportional to population. The constitution says that the value of each state is equal to the number of congresspersons plus the number of Senators.

·    The 538 delegates who make up the electoral college vote to decide who the president will be.

·    Most states require their delegates to vote according to state opinion, but 21 states make no such requirement.

·    Maine and Nebraska use a winner-takes-all system, but two of their ECV are allocated to the winner of the whole state, and further ECV are awarded to the winner in each district within the state.

'Rogue' or 'faithless' electors

The party system

A party system refers to the number of parties that have a realistic chance of forming a government within a political system. It is easy to argue that the United States is a two-party system, but there has been much debate about the extent to which each party works as a collective unit. 

The two-party system can easily be seen in the dominance of the Democrat and Republican parties at all levels. All modern presidents have been Democrats or Republicans, and third parties typically have no seats in Congress. The 2016 elections were entirely dominated by two parties — there are only two parties in Congress; there are no third-party governors. Despite declaring himself to be an Independent, Sanders stood as a Democrat in the 2016 presidential primaries, caucused with Democrats in Congress, attended Democrat meetings and worked with Democrat leaders.

Third parties have had limited success through indirect influence:

·    the spoiler effect — when a third-party candidate helps to prevent one of the Democrat or Republican Party from winning. In 2000 the Green Party candidate, Ralph Nader,may have prevented Al Gore from winning Florida and therefore becoming president.

·    influencing the policy of Democrat or Republican parties. In 19192 Ross Perot took %19 of the vote (no Electoral College votes) but his policy of tackling America's debt was adopted by the other parties.

·    infiltrating the two main parties, using primaries to gain prominence within a party. Trump may be an example.

Presidential Incumbency Is it an advantage?

In the past ten presidential elections where the incumbent is in the race, only four presidents have lost. Carter, Bush and Trump are recent incumbent losers. Presidents Reagan, Clinton, George W. Bush and Obama each secured two election victories. In the last 57 US presidential elections, 32 have involved incumbents and 22 of those candidates have won — a win rate of 68.7 per cent. So there is some advantage in being the incumbent, but it is not the same as the advantage enjoyed by incumbents in congress. Presidents can and do exploit the powers of their office to increase their prospects for re-election and many use the status of the office to enhance their campaign- Trump did this more overtly than most by using the White House for TV set pieces (filmed returning to the White House by helicopter-  as a conquering hero- from hospital) and during the party convention. , but a number of other factors influence the result, such as the personality, character and personal history of candidates, their ideologies and policies. Many presidents find they must defend their record. As when Reagan asked Americans to judge whether they felt 'better off' after 4 years of Carter. Unexpected events can also tip the election in favour of one candidate over another. such as the Covid- pandemic- Trump would most likely have been re-elected if this had not happened.  Most of the time the incumbent president is not challeged in by his own party however inthe elections of 1976, 1980 and 1992, the incumbent president faced significant opposition from within his own party and therefore the primaries and caucuses were hard fought, even in the president’s party. In 1976, Republican president Gerald Ford faced a strong challenge from the former governor of California Ronald Reagan. Four years later, President Jimmy Carter faced an equally stiff challenge from Senator Edward Kennedy in the Democratic primaries. Senator Kennedy won 12 state contests including the primaries in

New York and California. And in 1992, President George H.W. Bush had to fight off a challenge from the conservative commentator Pat Buchanan in the Republican primaries. Although Buchanan did not win any of the primaries and caucuses, his 37% in the New Hampshire primary was a great embarrassment for President Bush, and Buchanan went on to win more than a quarter of the vote in a dozen states.

It is not good news for an incumbent to face opposition from their own party all these three presidents saw off their primary challengers, they all went on to lose in the general election. A  damaging primary challenge for the president undermines the aura of presidential respect which president wants to carry with them into the campaign. They are an early sign that there may be serious problems in the general election and these early weaknesses will be exploited by their eventual opponent.