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International Relations, PUBLICATIONS

Understanding US Presidential elections

Written by Matthew Parry and Carmen-Cristina Cîrlig  –  Graphics: Giulio Sabbati,

Closeup shot of one presidential election button in focus in between many other buttons in a box. Selective focus with shallow depth of field.

© Carsten Reisinger / Adobe Stock

In August 2020, the two major political parties in the United States (US), the Democrats and the Republicans, formally nominated their respective candidates for the 59th US presidential election, which takes place on Tuesday, 3 November 2020. An initially crowded field of contenders in the Democratic primaries developed into a two-horse race between former US Vice-President Joe Biden and Senator Bernie Sanders, with Biden declared the Democratic nominee on 18 August. He will now contest the presidential election against the Republican candidate, who faced no significant primary challenge, the incumbent US President, Donald Trump.

The US President is simultaneously head of state, head of government and Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces. Presidential elections are therefore a hugely important part of American political life. Although millions of Americans 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 party-dominated ‘convention’ system, and finally to the modern system of nominations based very largely on primary elections, introduced progressively to increase the participation of party supporters in the selection process. A number of additional developments have also played an important role in shaping today’s presidential elections, notably political party efforts to limit ‘front-loading’ of primaries; the organisation of the Electoral College system and the changes to the campaign financing system.

A previous version of this Briefing, written by Carmen-Cristina Cîrlig and Micaela Del Monte, was published in 2016.


Read the complete briefing on ‘Understanding US Presidential elections‘ in the Think Tank pages of the European Parliament.

Who can vote in primaries and caucuses?

Who can vote in primaries
and caucuses?

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