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The Essential Guide to Presidential Elections

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Table of Contents:

  1. Timeline of Presidential Elections
  2. Primaries & Caucuses
  3. Awarding Delegates & Conventions
  4. The General Election
  5. The Electoral College


election process

constitutional requirements for president


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In order to select a candidate to represent their party in the general election, the Republican and Democratic parties each hold state by state primaries and caucuses. Each state has different voting laws and procedures, but there are two main types of elections.


A primary functions most like a typical election — voters from each party go to a polling place and vote for their preferred candidate. 

united states primary process, primary process, primary election


A caucus is when a group of regular citizens come together to discuss and vote on candidates. Once the discussion is over, head count votes are taken and delegates are assigned to the candidates who receive the most votes.

caucus, what is the caucus process, caucus process
2020 caucuses
super tuesday, super tuesday 2020

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: a person sent or authorized to represent others - in particular, an elected representative sent to conference. 


There are two methods for awarding delegate votes: 

1. "Winner Takes All"

The candidate who receives the most votes from a state's caucus/primary gets all of the state's delegate votes at the convention. 


2. Proportional

The number of delegates awarded to each candidate is proportional based on the number of primary/caucus votes a candidate receives in that state.  

Here's an example of the proportional method: A state has 20 delegates and 4 primary candidates: 

proportional method, delegates

DEMOCRATS use the proportional method by state. 

REPUBLICANS allow each state to decide whether to use the winner takes all method or proportional method. 



Conventions are where each party’s nominee for president is selected and the party platform and rules are established. 

During the day, party activists hold meetings and rallies to work on the party’s platform. The platform is essentially a list of broad policy goals. Lower profile party figures address the convention during the day, while voting and speeches by notable party or public figures are held in the evening. 

On the last day of the convention, there are formal acceptance speeches from the presidential and vice-presidential nominees.

There are 3 types of conventions: 

types of conventions

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After the party conventions, ballots are announced and the general election begins. The Republican and Democratic candidates for president and vice president participate in debates and campaigns across the country.

Voting takes place on the first Tuesday in November. In 2020 that will be Nov. 3.

There are two measures of success for presidential elections, but only one produces an official winner.

THE POPULAR VOTE: the total number of votes each candidate receives. The winner of the popular vote does not always win the election. 

THE ELECTORAL COLLEGE: Delegates chosen by each state vote for the candidate who won the popular vote in their state.

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After the general election, the governor of each state writes a Certificate of Ascertainment, which lists the electors for that state and how many votes for each candidate that each elector received. 

Each state gets a number of electors based on the number of congressional districts in that state. All the states but Maine and Alaska have a “winner takes all” system where whoever wins the most votes gets all of the state’s electoral votes.  

Electors are typically party insiders or individuals who represent certain demographics or issue areas in that party. Each elector casts one electoral vote after the general election. 

Current allocations: The allocations below are based on the 2010 Census.

Total electoral votes: 538; majority needed to elect: 270

electoral college, how many delegates does each state have

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