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How Does the U.S. Presidential Nomination Process Work?

megaphone calling out nominations

Have you ever wondered how the Presidential Candidate is selected? With the 2024 General Elections in the U.S. approaching this November 5th, it’s a very relevant question, and we have the answers for you.

According to the U.S. Constitution, the president is elected every four years. The next three Presidential Elections will occur in 2024, 2028, and 2032. To qualify, the candidate must be a natural-born U.S. citizen, at least 35 years old, and have lived in the U.S. for a minimum of 14 years.

The presidential nomination process in the U.S. starts in the winter of the year before the General Election and lasts about a year. For 2024 elections, the race began in winter 2023. According to the Council on Foreign Relations, the U.S. Presidential Election is "one of the most complex, lengthy, and expensive in the world."

The Notorious Electors

While the U.S. Constitution defines the process of electing the U.S. President, it gives each state the right to legislate the selection process. Article 2, Section 1 of the U.S. Constitution states,

“Each State shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a Number of Electors, equal to the whole Number of Senators and Representatives to which the State may be entitled in the Congress: but no Senator or Representative, or Person holding an Office of Trust or Profit under the United States, shall be appointed an Elector.”

In other words, the U.S. President is elected by the Electors (or representatives) appointed by each state. Each state's number of electors is identical to the number of its Senators and Representatives of the House.

Before the Electors can vote, a presidential candidate has to be nominated by a party. This complex process involves “separate contests for each party with as many as eight serious candidates; and differing election modes - primaries, caucuses and conventions - held on many dates; and varying rules as to who can participate and how votes are counted.”   This narrowing search for the presidential candidate - called 'winnowing' - is lengthy and varies from state to state and party to party.

Next - The Nomination

According to Alan Grant, author of The American Political Process:

“Presidential primaries serve a major purpose apart from the selection of delegates; they demonstrate something which the parties are clearly concerned to discover before entrusting the nomination to a candidate: who can and who cannot win votes. Victory in a primary can remove fears about a candidate among the party ‘professionals’ and activists.

John Kennedy’s win in the mainly Protestant state of West Virginia in 1960 showed that his Catholic religion was not as much a handicap as his opponents had forecast. Jimmy Carter’s victory in Pennsylvania, a Northern industrial state, alloyed suspicions that he was merely a Southern regional candidate regional candidate, while Clinton’s victories outside his own region, in Illinois and Michigan, a week after Super Tuesday consolidated his position as the Democratic frontrunner in 1992.”  

During this nomination process, each political party nominates a presidential and vice-presidential candidate who can win the General Election. The Presidency, and associated Vice-Presidency, represents the only nationally elected office and is a ‘big prize’ for each political party. Having a candidate win the presidential election means the party can influence domestic and international priorities and shape the future through judicial appointments. Conducting the inter-party ‘winnowing’ process is a litmus test for the candidate’s ability to win the General Election.

The Superdelegate!

The superdelegates are high-ranking officials who have yet to pledge their support to any candidate before they attend the national convention. In the Republican Party, for instance, superdelegates include the three members of each state's national committee and have represented less than 5 percent of the party's total delegates in 2020. In the Democratic Party, superdelegates represent 15% of overall delegates. They are "members of the national committee, all members of Congress and governors, former presidents and vice presidents, former leaders of the Senate and the House, and former chairs of the Democratic National Committee."  

According to Kenny J. Whitby, Distinguished Professor Emeritus at the University of South Carolina, in his book, Strategic Decision-Making in Presidential Nominations: When and Why Party Elites Decide to Support a Candidate, State University of New York Press, 2014, the reforms of the 1970s and 1980s gave individual voters participating in the primaries more weight as the influence of the party’s elite diminished,

“Rule changes during the 1970s and 1980s brought an increase in the number of presidential primaries, which severely diminished the role of party leaders and elected officials in the nomination process. As a result, in the early 1980s the Democratic Party attempted to restore a modicum of party leadership control in presidential nominations by creating a special category of unpledged delegates generally known as superdelegates. In essence, they are party elites who have special seat at the presidential nomination table.”

How the Parties Differ in their Nomination Processes

Iowa and New Hampshire Caucuses start the nomination process of the Republican and Democratic Party, and each party has its own set of rules guiding the nomination process.

The U.S. Presidential Nomination Process is one of the most complex and longest in the world. Understanding this process as a U.S. voter is essential. The U.S. President is one of the most powerful positions in world politics, and you can decide who it will be this time.

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