The road to becoming the president of the United States is long and difficult – and typically expensive. Not every American citizen can be president. As directed by the Constitution, a presidential candidate must be a natural-born citizen of the United States, a resident for 14 years, and at least 35 years of age.
Passing muster on these three requirements, a person can declare their candidacy for president – but it only gets harder from there. Each candidate needs to form a campaign and begin raising money. When a candidate raises or spends $5,000, they must then register with the Federal Election Commission, name the campaign, and designate the purpose in raising and spending campaign funds.
The Campaign Trail
Running for the highest office in the land means traveling to all states – big cities and small rural areas – to get the candidate’s message to the voters. Staffers are hired to handle a myriad of jobs, including personnel management, fundraising, community organizers, state directors, and media relations. White papers are compiled on issues such as the economy, health care, and national security, highlighting the candidate’s views.
Most campaigns for president are a 12 to 20 month process, and as the hopefuls gain momentum and funding, depending on political party rules and regulations, they must face the state primaries and caucuses designed to weed out undesired candidates.
Narrowing the Candidates
There are two ways states use to select a potential presidential nominee: primaries and caucuses. In its simplest form, a primary uses secret ballots while the caucus is a more informal gathering of voters who select their choice at the end of the meeting.
There are many determining factors throughout the primaries: Early primaries could indicate a candidate’s viability, Super Tuesday primaries of large blocks of electorates can force candidates out of the race, and major financial donors tend to realign with the leading candidate. In other words, the process chokes the poorer performing contender out by cutting funding.
The primaries all lead up to the political party convention, where the official selection of the nominee happens.
Political Party Conventions
U.S. presidential elections take place every four years on the Tuesday immediately after the first Monday of November. In July of the election year, the two largest political parties, the Republicans and Democrats, each hold a convention with state electors to select their nominee. Most often, the candidate with the most primary and caucus wins is then confirmed by a vote of the delegates at the convention.
The delegates to the convention consist of pledged and unpledged. A pledged delegate must support the candidate that won the primary process. An unpledged delegate, or super delegate, can support whomever they choose.
Once selected, nominees are sprinting toward election day, flooding the airwaves with ads to inform voters, visiting cities and towns, holding rallies, and talking to the electorate at large leading up to Election Day. This entire process is incredibly expensive. The average presidential campaign costs between $50 million and $100 million – and spending more than the competition doesn’t guarantee a win.
Although there is early voting in each state, the events unfolding on the regular election day decide the president. Voters have a 12-hour window to cast their ballots at the polls. Once closed, the votes are tallied and reported. However, the U.S. president and vice president are not elected directly by citizens. Instead, they’re chosen by “electors” in a process known as the Electoral College – a constitutional requirement. As such, a candidate can win the popular vote but lose to the decisions of the electors, though this only rarely happens.