Members' Research Service By / April 19, 2016

Understanding US Presidential elections

Written by Carmen-Cristina Cirlig and Micaela Del Monte Graphics by Giulio Sabbati In July 2016, the two major US parties…

© Callahan /

Written by Carmen-Cristina Cirlig and Micaela Del Monte

Graphics by Giulio Sabbati

Understanding US Presidential elections
© Callahan /

In July 2016, the two major US parties will nominate their respective official candidate for the 58th US presidential election which takes place in November. With less than three months before the national conventions, and a large number of delegates already allocated, on the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton is running ahead of Bernie Sanders towards the nomination. On the Republican side there is still much uncertainty about who will finally be named official candidate.

The President is head of state, head of government, and Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces. Thus, presidential elections are an important part of American political life. Although millions of American citizens vote in presidential elections every four years, the President is not, in fact, directly elected by the people. Citizens elect the members of the Electoral College, who then cast their votes for the President and Vice President.

While key elements of the presidential election are spelled out in the US Constitution, other aspects have been shaped by state laws, national party rules and state party rules. This explains why presidential campaigns have evolved over time, from the days when presidential candidates were nominated in the House of Representatives by the ‘King caucus’, to an almost exclusively political party-dominated convention system, and finally to the modern system of nominations based on primaries, introduced progressively to increase democratic participation. A number of additional developments have also played an important role in shaping today’s presidential elections, notably political party efforts to limit ‘frontloading’; the organisation of the Electoral College system and the changes to the campaign financing system.

Read the complete briefing on ‘Understanding US Presidential elections‘ in PDF.

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