How the U.S. Elects Its Presidents

By | Updated July 25, 2016 12:26 PM UTC

The U.S. Constitution lays out just three requirements to be eligible to become president: You must be at least 35 years old, have lived in the U.S. for at least 14 years and be a natural-born citizen. Not much else about becoming president is simple. Americans have the longest, most expensive and arguably most complex system of electing a head of state in the world. And after all the debates, caucuses, primaries and conventions, the person who gets the most votes can still lose. It’s a system that baffles non-Americans — and many Americans, too.

The Situation

Every four years, Americans select a president on a Tuesday in November. The two candidates representing the Republican and Democratic parties on Election Day will have survived a long series of state-level primaries (votes by ballot) and caucuses (votes by a show of hands or by clustering all the candidate’s supporters in one place in the room) held from February through June. Then each state selects delegates to send to the Democratic and Republican conventions, where they normally translate the popular votes into formal nods for their party’s November candidate. Democrats also have “superdelegates,” lawmakers, governors, past presidents and national party officials who have the freedom to back any candidate, regardless of how their states voted. In recent decades, conventions have served as made-for-TV spectacles to laud the de facto nominee and that person’s pick to be the vice-presidential running mate. But if no candidate wins a majority of the delegates beforehand, there is a contested convention, with rounds of votes until a majority agrees on a nominee. While most states’ delegates pledge to vote the way their state did on the first convention ballot, on subsequent rounds these delegates would be able to vote any way they’d like.

The Background

The U.S. has had an elected president since the Constitution went into effect in 1789. Since Abraham Lincoln won the job in 1860, all presidents have been members of the Republican or Democratic parties. Third-party candidates have a hard time getting on state ballots for the November general election and have never done better than the 27.4 percent garnered in 1912 by former Republican President Theodore Roosevelt, then running on the Bull Moose Party ticket. The quirkiest part of the contest is the Electoral College, created by the nation’s founders as a compromise between those who favored a direct popular vote and those who wanted lawmakers to pick the president. Every state is assigned as many Electoral College votes as it has members of Congress, a formula that amplifies the importance of small states. In the early 19th century, states seeking to maximize their impact adopted a winner-take-all approach that awards all Electoral College votes to whichever candidate wins the most votes in that state on Election Day. Maine and Nebraska are the only exceptions; they award one electoral vote to the winner of each Congressional district and two electoral votes to the winner statewide.

The Argument

The winner-take-all system caused the Electoral College to choose presidents who did not win the overall vote in 1876, 1888 and 2000, when Republican George W. Bush beat Democrat Al Gore after a weeks-long recount. After each such election, there’s a renewed push to make the total tally of ballots decisive, but states, especially small ones, are unwilling to switch, citing the loss of sway. The Electoral College also forces candidates to focus on a few “swing states” where polls show a close contest, since the electoral votes of reliably Democratic California or Republican Texas can usually be taken for granted. Critics of the system argue that just a handful of states actually decide the election, and that urban issues get short shrift. Defenders say that small states and rural areas would otherwise be overlooked. There’s broad agreement that money plays too big a role in campaigns. It’s estimated that each party’s 2016 nominee could spend $1 billion by Election Day, most of it on advertising. So the winners in this long process include local television stations that reap these ad dollars and the political junkies who love to watch the saga unfold.

The Reference Shelf

  • The Broadway musical “Hamilton” explores the life of Alexander Hamilton, who explained in a 1788 letter that the Electoral College would make sure candidates with “talents for low intrigue, and the little arts of popularity” could be rejected in favor of “characters preeminent for ability and virtue.”
  • The Center for Voting and Democracy lays out a list of problems with the Electoral College.
  • Arrow’s Theorem, which won Kenneth Arrow a Nobel Prize in Economics in 1972, says in part that there’s no such thing as a perfect voting system.
  • Bloomberg step-by-step on “How the Iowa Caucuses Work.”
  • The Bloomberg QuickTake on U.S. Campaign Finance explains how the money is collected and spent.

(This QuickTake reflects a corrected reference to how Maine and Nebraska apportion electoral votes.)

First published Dec. 9, 2015

To contact the writer of this QuickTake:
Angela Greiling Keane in Washington at agreilingkea@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this QuickTake:
Anne Cronin at acronin14@bloomberg.net