Section 2: How an American Election Works: Elections & the millions of people who make it happen

This post is part of an archived series of blogs called The LeVine Line, written by former Ambassador Suzan G. LeVine during her time at U.S. Embassy Bern.

25 October 2016

A Presidential election is broken down into three parts – the pre-election, the primary season, and the general election. The pre-election season is when candidates start to state their cases and begin campaigning to win over key influencers and others who can have a multiplier effect to help them get elected. Many candidates use this time to test the waters – to see if they have a message that resonates with the people and is powerful enough to attract donors and supporters that will carry them through to win the nominations. That is why in the U.S., you can see so many contenders jumping into the fray at this early stage. In this cycle, for example, there were 17 candidates for the Republican nomination and five of them dropped out even before the first primary contest was ever held.

The primary process is the way political parties identify their nominee. It is not run by the federal government; it is run by the political parties (the two main ones are the Democrats and Republicans) – who determine the rules and the process. In addition to each party determining the overall nominating process, the party in each state determines the rules for their respective state primaries (for example – the Florida State Republican Party runs the Republican primary in Florida). The goal in this part of the election for each candidate is to accrue more than 50% of the delegates that the party has made available. Once a candidate gains enough delegates over the course of the primary contests, he or she becomes the presumptive nominee.

Each party then holds nominating conventions to confirm the selection and the candidates becomes the official party nominees. It is after the conventions are over – this year by the end of July –that the general election begins and continues until Election Day.

In the United States, a lot of ones’ election success relies on the candidate and party’s ability to get people to register to vote and then to mobilize them so that they actually vote. That process has evolved over time to become very labor and technology intensive – in other words, a blend of grassroots organizing and big data. For the Obama campaigns, millions of volunteers were instrumental in his election – all orchestrated with a tremendous professional staff. Another way to think about these massive campaign is to recognize that it’s like the ultimate billion dollar start-up. The strategists think about how many million people they need to vote for their candidate and then work back to how to ensure that number of people turn out in support of their campaign. For example – President Obama’s team started with the number of votes they thought they needed, then worked back to how many doors on which they needed to knock, phones numbers to call, people to rally, etc. This effort generated 69 million votes for President Obama in 2008 and 66 million in 2012.