If you're seeing this message, it means we're having trouble loading external resources on our website.

If you're behind a web filter, please make sure that the domains *.kastatic.org and *.kasandbox.org are unblocked.

Main content

Electing a president: lesson overview

A high-level overview of the presidential election process.  
US presidential elections are held every four years, but the process is long and consists of several stages. It can take candidates more than a year of campaigning even to win the nomination of their party, let alone the presidency itself.

Key terms

caucusA meeting in a voting precinct at which party members choose nominees for political office after hours of speeches and debates. Caucuses tend to promote the views of dedicated party members since participating requires a large time commitment.
closed primaryA primary election limited to registered members of a political party. For example, in a state with closed primaries, only registered Democrats can vote in the Democratic primary to choose candidates for local, state, and national office.
Electoral CollegeThe group of electors chosen by each state to formally vote for the next US president based on the result of voting in the state.
general electionAn election that decides which candidate will fill an elective office. General elections usually pit candidates from opposing parties against one another.
incumbency advantageThe tendency of incumbents (officials already holding a political office) to win reelection. Incumbents have advantages in media exposure, fundraising, and staffing.
open primaryA primary election that is not limited to registered party members. For example, in a state with open primaries, independent voters or Republicans can vote in the Democratic primary to choose candidates for local, state, and national office.
party conventionA meeting of delegates from one political party to vote on policy and select party candidates for public office.
popular voteThe total or percentage of votes won by each candidate.
primary electionAn election that decides which candidate a party will send on to a general election. Primary elections pit candidates from the same party against one another.
winner-takes-allAn electoral system in which the candidate with the most votes is elected, or, in the case of the US Electoral College, gains all the votes of a state or district’s electors.

Presidential election timeline for modern elections

Time periodWhat happens?
Spring-summer before election yearMost serious candidates declare their intention to run for president.
January-June, election yearStates hold primaries and caucuses to vote for party nominees.
Summer, election yearParties hold national conventions to formally nominate their presidential and vice-presidential candidates, typically choosing the candidate with the most votes from state primaries and caucuses.
November, election yearThe presidential election takes place on the Tuesday following the first Monday in November.
December, election yearThe Electoral College casts votes, at which the president and vice president are formally elected.

The Electoral College

The president and vice president are formally elected at the Electoral College in December following the general election. Electors from each state plus the District of Columbia cast votes; most states require all their electors to vote for the statewide popular vote winner. This “winner-takes-all” approach to distributing electors raises questions over the extent to which the Electoral College facilitates or impedes democracy.
Critics of the Electoral College highlight the potential for a candidate to lose the nationwide popular vote but win the presidency, as in the elections of 2000 and 2016. The “winner-takes-all” allocation of most electors in the Electoral College also means that voters in “safe states” (those that have consistently voted for the same party in recent presidential elections, such as California and Texas) are often less engaged and less motivated to vote in a presidential election, compared to voters in more competitive “swing states” where both Democratic and Republican candidates have won recently, such as Florida and Ohio.
On the other hand, defenders of the Electoral College argue that it incentivizes candidates to campaign in states of different sizes, rather than just the largest states and cities, and that it keeps a prominent role for the states in a federal election.

Review questions

What are the stages of a presidential election?
What are the arguments for the Electoral College facilitating democracy?
What are the arguments for the Electoral College impeding democracy?

Want to join the conversation?