How the U.S. Elects Its Presidents

By | Updated Nov 28, 2016 8:47 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, as happened again this year. It’s a system that baffles non-Americans — and many Americans, too.

The Situation

Republican Donald Trump was elected Nov. 8 after winning key “swing states” like North Carolina, Ohio and Florida, even though Democrat Hillary Clinton won the most votes nationwide in the Nov. 8 election. That’s because the president is selected via a quirky mechanism called 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 their electoral votes to whichever candidate wins the most votes in that state on Election Day. (Maine and Nebraska are the only exceptions.) The electoral votes of many states — including reliably Democratic California or Republican Texas — can be taken for granted. So the vote normally comes down to whether swing states favor the Democrat or the Republican. 

The Background

The U.S. has had an elected president since the Constitution went into effect in 1789. The contest is held every four years on a Tuesday in November. 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 two candidates representing the main parties on Election Day survive a long series of state-level primaries (votes by ballot) and caucuses (votes by show of hands or head count) held from February through June. Then each state select 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. 

The Argument

The winner-take-all system previously 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 many states, especially small ones, are unwilling to switch, citing the loss of sway. Since the early state primary elections are the most decisive, critics say that the process favors voters in rural Iowa and New Hampshire, traditionally the first two states to vote. This means urban issues get short shrift. Defenders say that small states and farm areas would otherwise be overlooked. There’s broad agreement that money plays too big a role in campaigns. Each party spent more than $1 billion by Election Day, most of it on advertising. So the winners in this long process included local television stations that reaped these ad dollars and the political junkies who loved 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.
  • Pew Research Center report: “Contested presidential conventions, and why parties try to avoid them.”
  • The National Conference of State Legislatures provides each state’s rules for early voting. 
  • The Bloomberg QuickTake on campaign finance explains how the money is collected and spent.

Angela Greiling Keane contributed to the original version of this article. 

First published Dec. 9, 2015

To contact the writer of this QuickTake:
Gregory Giroux in Washington at ggiroux@bloomberg.net

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