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The American Presidential Election Explained

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Not a day passes without Donald Trump making a controversial statement, Ben Carson mispronouncing a name or Bernie Sanders berning his rivals and someone, somewhere, calling for Hillary Clinton to be indicted for the private email server she used when she was Secretary of State. The presidential election is still eleven months away and even the primaries won’t take place until early February, but the presidential campaigns on both sides are in full flow.
The scope of the American presidential elections is unrivalled in the world, topping the charts in campaign length, money spent, amount of candidates and sheer publicity, in the United States and around the world. Despite their size and importance though, a lot of people outside the USA (and indeed in the USA) don’t understand how the elections actually work.
In essence two parties contest the presidential elections, the right wing Republican Party and the centre-left Democratic Party. Whilst there are other parties, such as the Green Party and the Libertarian Party, neither play any notable role in the presidential elections and generally their presence is only felt on a local level. So the President is posed by one of the two major parties. Because of the political system in the USA, in which the legislative (Congress) and executive (President and his cabinet) branches function more independently of one another than in parliamentary systems like the UK or Germany, the candidates contesting the election aren’t actually the leaders of their parties, like David Cameron in Britain or Angela Merkel in Germany. Instead the candidates are chosen through primaries and caucuses, which are like mini elections in each state, in which only party members of that state can vote.
These primaries generally run from February to May, with the winning candidate announced at the respective party’s national convention at the end of primary season. While each caucus and primary has slightly different rules, two variations are generally applied. At the end of each primary, delegates are “awarded” to the candidates who took part. In the Democratic Party, delegates are assigned proportionally, so if a state has 50 delegates and 5 candidates and candidate 1 receives 50% of the vote and candidate 2 receives 10% of the vote, candidate 1 ends up getting 25 delegates and candidate 2 gets five votes. After all the primaries have been contested, the delegates’ votes won by each candidate are counted and the one with the most votes wins the Democratic Party’s nomination for President.
In the Republican Party, things are slightly more complicated. In this case, each state gets to decide whether its delegates are distributed proportionally, or whether the winner of the primary gets all the delegates. For example in one state, the same system as mentioned in the paragraph above would be employed but in another state, if candidate 1 won 45% of the vote, candidate 2 won 44% and candidate 3 won 11%, candidate 1 would still get all of that state’s delegates. As stated, at the parties’ national conventions all the delegates of each state formally cast their votes, and the candidate with the most votes becomes the presidential candidate for his/ her party. Usually though, candidates drop out gradually. If a candidate gains only 5% or less in the first couple of primaries, he or she might choose to drop out of the race and endorse another candidate, i.e. encourage his/ her voters to support another candidate. Thus, by the time the last few primaries are to take place, only a few candidates remain on either side.
In the USA you don’t just elect the President though, you also elect a Vice-President. Towards the end of the primaries, the strongest candidates on either side choose a running mate for their presidential ticket. Often, this is someone they were competing against earlier, for example when Barack Obama chose Joe Biden as his running mate in 2008, he chose someone who had been running against him in the early primaries. This decision is usually a strategic one by the presidential candidates. The Republican nominee in 2008, John McCain, for instance, chose Alaska governor Sarah Palin to be his running mate, partly because she appealed to the Republican Party’s most right wing voters, but more importantly because she was attractive to female voters, who generally vote for Democrats but can sometimes be swayed the other way when there is a strong female candidate on one of the tickets. Barack Obama’s choice of Biden also had a strategic feel to it. While Obama was the new kid on the block, Biden had been around for as long as anyone could remember (he ran for president in 1988) and gave Obama credibility with older voters and the party establishment, whilst also appealing more to moderate Republicans and undecided voters, as Biden is popular with voters and politicians of both parties.
In May, when both of the parties have held their national conventions and confirmed their presidential and vice presidential candidates, the real election process can finally get going. To help voters decide who they want to vote for, three presidential debates are held, as well as one vice-presidential debate. In the meantime, the opposing candidates and parties spend hundreds of millions of dollars on TV ads supporting their candidate and attacking the other one. In fact, the American presidential elections are without parallel in spending. In 2012 both Barack Obama and Mitt Romney spent over 1 billion US dollars on their campaigns. They get this money in two different ways. The first is through individual donations, which are limited to a maximum of $2500 per donation. Generally these are made by regular citizens and are in the region of $10-$100. This earns candidates’ campaign’s millions, but is nothing compared to the money accumulated by Super-PACS. These are organizations set up in support of a candidate, but officially have nothing to do with the candidates and are not allowed to communicate with them. The rules are very lax though and often Super-PACS and campaigns find plenty of legal ways to coordinate income and strategy. Super-PACS can accumulate hundreds of millions of dollars, because there is no upper limit on donations. As a result, American millionaires and billionaires play a huge role in election campaigns, because they donate absurd amounts of money to political campaigns. During the primaries, these wealthy individuals are heavily courted by the candidates, as the amount of money a campaign has mostly determines how long they can stay in the race and be competitive. Many candidates have to drop out because they soon run out of money and cannot finance their campaign staff or pay for TV adverts.
In November, usually after over a year and a half of campaigning, billions of dollars spent and endless party and presidential debates, election day arrives. Staying true to the trend, the election itself is also ridiculously complicated. One might think that the candidate with the most votes would win the election but, alas, this is not the case. Similarly to the primary elections, each state has a specific number of Electors who together form the Electoral College. It consists of 538 Electors, who meet to vote for President and Vice President. The Electors in turn are elected by their states’ voters. How many Electors a state has equals how many delegates they have in the United States Congress and Senate.
On election day, when voters vote for a presidential candidate, they actually vote for the candidate’s Elector in their state or district. In most states a “winner takes all” system is employed, so the winning candidate in a state takes all its electoral candidates, although two states use a proportional allocation of Electors. The Electors then cast their vote and the candidate with the most votes wins the election. Because of this mostly unproportional system, the candidate who the majority of the population votes for doesn’t always become President. Most recently this happened in 2000, when Democratic candidate Al Gore won 500 000 more votes than his Republican rival George W. Bush, but lost the election because Bush won more Electors. We all know how that turned out.


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