How the President of the United States is Elected

On November 8, 2016, Americans will vote who will be the next President of the United States. But the candidate who receives the most votes doesn’t mean he or she will win. We have an expert explaining how the presidential election works!

What better way to learn how the election works than from an expert!

robert alexander2About the author: 

Robert Alexander is a Professor and Chair of the Department of History, Politics, and Justice at Ohio Northern University. He has been recognized for his teaching through numerous teaching awards and has published three books, including his most recent book titled Presidential Electors and the Electoral College. He has appeared on C-SPAN, MSNBC, and NPR and contributed to, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Cleveland Plain Dealer, the Toledo Blade, and the Huffington Post. 

The United States has a presidential system with two main political parties—Democrats and Republicans.  The current president, Barack Obama is a Democrat.  He is finishing his second term and succeeded George W. Bush, who was a Republican.  Generally, Democrats are more liberal while Republicans are more conservative.

The term of a president is four years and they are limited to two terms of office.  Presidential contests attract a great deal of media attention and large sums of money are spent campaigning during the course of the election.  In 2012, approximately $7 billion was spent on the election.

The Republican Party is represented with the elephant logo.
The Democratic Party is represented with the donkey logo.

The campaign for the presidency consists of several stages:

The nomination process

Each party has candidates who compete to be their party’s nominee in the general election.  All states do not vote at the same time.  Instead, states hold their elections at different times throughout the year.  The earliest contest is in the state of Iowa.  This year, it took place February 1st.  The final contest was held in June.  This year, Republicans had 17 individuals who sought to be the nominee, while Democrats only had 3 individuals seek the nomination.

trump 4Donald Trump won the Republican nomination and was formally chosen as their candidate at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Ohio in July.  Hillary Clinton won the Democratic nomination and was formally chosen as their nominee in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania at the end of July.

Donald Trump is an American businessman, who gained a great deal of popularity because he is not a typical politician.  Many Americans are frustrated with politics and are looking for something different.  The fact that Mr. Trump has no political experience is seen as a benefit to many of his supporters.clinton 2

Hillary Clinton is the wife of former President, Bill Clinton and was also a United States Senator from New York, and served as the Secretary of State for the United States from 2009 to 2013.  She is the first female candidate to be nominated by a major political party in the United States.

The General Election

To win the presidency, presidential candidates most receive a majority of votes in the Electoral College.  To understand the Electoral College, you must understand a bit about representation in the United States.

The U.S. is a federal system with shared powers between the national government and 50 state governments.  This is reflected in the national legislature, which is divided into two chambers.  The House of Representatives has 435 members and is determined by population.  States with more citizens, receive greater representation.  In the United States Senate, all states receive two representatives (equaling 100 total Senators).  This gives greater representation to lesser populated states.

The Electoral College combines the representation of the House of Representatives (435) with that of the Senate (100) for 535 electoral votes.  The District of Columbia also receives 3 votes, bringing the total number of electoral votes to 538.  These electoral votes correspond to the amount of representation each state has in the House of Representatives and the Senate.  For instance, California has 53 Representatives and 2 Senators, so they are given 55 electoral votes.  Wyoming has one Representative and 2 Senators, so it has 3 electoral votes.

It takes 270 electoral votes (a majority of the Electoral College) to win the presidency.  Candidates collect electoral votes on a state-by-state basis.  So, on November 8, 51 separate contests will be held across the country.  In most states, as long one candidate receives more votes than their opponent, they are awarded all of the state’s electoral votes.  For example, if Hillary Clinton receives 7 million votes in California to Donald Trump’s 6.99 million, she would receive all of California’s 55 electoral votes.

Here is a map showing how many electoral college votes each state has. It’s showing an example of a very close election.

Click the map below to make your own!

Click the map to create your own at

Throughout the campaign, Clinton and Trump will focus their attention on several states where the contest is very close.  These include states like Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, North Carolina, and Colorado.  The number of Democrats and Republicans in these states is very similar.  The presidential election will largely be decided by these “battleground” states. Many other states will receive little attention because they are not competitive.  Citizens in battleground states receive a lot of attention from the candidates—from campaign commercials, to phone calls, to visits from politicians.

After citizens vote on November 8, Congress will meet to certify the outcome on January 6, 2017.  The new president will take office on January 20, 2017.  This is known as the Presidential Inauguration and it takes place with a great deal of fanfare in Washington, DC.  At this time, the new president will take an oath to “preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States.”

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