How The U.S. Presidential System Works

This summer, I worked on Elizabeth Warren’s campaign for president. My role was to gain support for Elizabeth Warren for the first caucus vote, which takes place in Iowa, in February 2020. Whilst I was there I got a lot of questions about how the elections actually worked, so before I kicked off my series, I wanted to ensure you all understood the process. I’ll be explaining the presidential system in terms of how the final candidates are chosen. Explaining the whole system, including the House of Representatives and The Senate will confuse the piece even more. If you want me to explain this as well, in comparison to the UK system, feel free to comment or message me via my social media @etienne.2.0

To start with the basics, every 4 years Americans head to the polls to cast their ballot for their preferred presidential candidate. Due to the nature of the system, two main parties dominate – The Republicans and the Democrats. The action of casting a vote may seem simple but the lead up is long and complicated.

Usually, candidates announce that they’re running for president, as a Republican or Democrat candidate, anywhere up to 2 years before the election. So far 27 prominent Democrats have announced their candidacy, and 1 Republican, besides current President Trump. This number has gone down to 19 as 8 candidates have dropped out of the running. The top four in the running are Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, Joe Biden, and Kamala Harris.  As explained above, the U.S. system works differently from the U.K. because instead of a national vote they have a series of state votes which take place over the course of 5 months. This is because it is the most direct way of people influencing what the party stands for instead of just voting for the party.


As you can see, a key difference is that there is no official leader of the opposition (Democrats at the moment). So for instance in the U.K. Jeremy Corbin is the official leader of the Labour party. Whereas in the U.S. there are multiple candidates running for the presidency, which are Democrats.


Unlike most countries, the American campaign finance laws are a lot less restrictive, and therefore cost a lot of money. As a result of this, all candidates have large campaign teams who help raise the tens of millions of dollars needed to keep their candidate afloat.

The candidates travel across the country, holding massive rallies, where they set out their policies and ideas for the country, and try and gain as much support as possible. If you kept up with my social media accounts (@etienne.2.0), you will have seen that I attended multiple rallies, for example for Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren, and Pete Buttigieg. The key messages I connected with, from these rallies, will be discussed throughout this series and the key images and videos will be shared on my social media tagged above.

warren rally


As aforementioned, there are a lot of candidates running for president. So how is the final candidate to stand for the democrats chosen?

The presidential election cycle is split into two voting phases. First, are the primary elections and caucuses. Starting from February 3rd (in Iowa) each state will hold elections for their favourite candidate. These votes will take place on different days in different states. The difference between a primary election and caucuses is that primary elections are run by the state and local governments, whilst caucuses are private events directly run by the political parties themselves. Some states only hold primary or caucus elections, and others use a combination of both.

Primary elections work in a similar way to the UK system, state governments fund and run them and voters go to a polling place, vote and then leave. A caucus is very different from the system we are used to in the UK. Individuals who are viewed favorably within the party are identified as potential delegates. There is a comprehensive discussion and debate, resulting in an informal vote to determine which individuals will serve as delegates at the National Party Convention.

Another difference to the UK system is that you can have closed primaries and caucuses. These require voters to register with a specific party in order to be able to vote for that party’s candidate. For example, if you were a Republican who wanted to vote for a Democratic candidate you would have to re-register as a Democrat. When I was in Iowa over the Summer my role was to speak to Democratic candidates to find out who they were voting for, however I spoke to many Republicans who also wanted to vote for a Democratic candidate but were not on my list, and would have to register themselves as Democrats in order to vote that way in the upcoming caucus. This massively differs from the UK, whereby a voter can vote for any party they want, regardless of their usual voting pattern.

The Iowa caucus is a little different. In February Democrats and Republicans meet with their respective party members to make their presidential pics, choose delegates and discuss party platforms. The meetings are held in schools, restaurants, churches, and other public buildings, and even in private homes. Iowa has 1,681 precincts. Any registered party member can participate in the caucusing. The key difference between the Republicans and Democrats is that the Republicans cast secret votes for a candidate, whilst Democrats physically cluster to show their support for a particular candidate.

iowa caucus

A Democratic candidate needs at least 15 percent of the voters at the caucus site to remain viable; otherwise, these voters will be persuaded to realign and join another candidate’s cluster. The size of each group (basically a “preference group”) determines the number of delegates it can send to county conventions in March. These delegates then meet to decide only who they are going to endorse for their nominee, based on the outcomes of the caucuses. The representatives of the caucuses will then pledge their delegates to the candidate they voted for at the National Convention. All of the Republican vote totals are forwarded to GOP state headquarters to determine their delegates.

A democratic Iowa caucus certainly seems a lot more interesting and exciting compared to a typical secret vote cast in the UK. However, it can be very overwhelming having a room full of people, with everyone knowing who you are voting for. For this reason, some people choose not to go to the caucus. This is obviously not good and will likely affect the percentage of support that each candidate is given. Moreover, in February Iowa is often below freezing so some voters will not feel inclined to leave their homes on a bitterly cold February night. Luckily Iowa is looking at running a virtual caucus this year, alongside the typical in-person caucus, for voters which would rather stay at home and vote.

The National Convention is where the Democrat and Republican nominees are officially chosen by the delegates. So the more support a candidate gets in the primaries and caucuses, the more delegates they will have representing them at the National Convention. The result is often known beforehand because of the results of the primaries and caucuses, but this is the official announcement of the result. In the convention, the delegates from each state will say whose nomination they will support. The convention becomes the opportunity for key political figures to endorse the presidential nominee as well as reinforce the campaign’s key message, such as MAGA (Make America Great Again) … but please lets never speak of that again.

democratic convention.jpg

After this comes stage 2 – the main public election which will take place next November (2020). The public doesn’t vote directly for their choice of President. Instead, a system called the Electoral College is used. This works by each state being allocated a number of Electors that will make the final choice. A state has the same number of Electors as it does Senators and Representatives. In the majority of states, the Electors are supposed to vote for the Presidential Ticket which received the most support from the public vote.  A Ticket = Presidential candidates usually choose someone with different skills or knowledge to be their ‘running mate’. This presents voters with the best package. Together, they are known as a Ticket.

Just like in the UK, the electoral college uses the first past the post system. 270 or more electoral votes need to be won in order to win. During a Presidential election, each state holds its own independent vote. The winner of this vote then tells the state’s members of the electoral college who to vote for. For example, let’s say Elizabeth Warren is the Democratic nominee and she gets the majority of votes in California, the electors in California would then vote for her in the electoral college on behalf of the people of California.

And there we have it, that is the Presidential Election system in the U.S. explained as simply as possible. Don’t worry if you found this confusing, I did too, and I am always there to answer any questions you have. But for now, I am excited to announce that my next post will be focused on the pretty awesome Elizabeth Warren.



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