The Mother of All Elections: Understanding the race for the White House

It’s the world’s most important election. But do you understand how it works? Leonard Doyle, US editor, introduces our essential guide

A passing knowledge of the TV show ‘Pop Idol’ is a good starting point for understanding the US presidential election process. Both involve a glorified talent contest with viewers watching a lot of television before casting their votes. Candidates try to appeal to as broad a segment of their target audience as possible. Then they must go through the pain of being kicked out at various stages in the caucus and primary process. Finally, next November, there will - in the case of the presidency - be only two contestants left. One will be deemed to have the X-factor and will become president.

There are number of firsts to look out for in this election. At the time of writing, there is still a good chance that the country will elect its first Mormon, female or African-American president this year. The 2008 election is the first since 1928 in which no incumbent president or vice-president has sought his party's nomination. (In other words, neither George Bush nor Dick Cheney will be on the ballot.) It is also a very expensive election, whose total cost is expected to exceed $1bn - another first.

But although the process may seem extravagant, convoluted and drawn out, the rules for electing a US president are quite straightforward. This year Election Day is 4 November 2008. Under the US Constitution, a presidential election must be held once every fourth year. Candidates must be US citizens, born in the US and at least 35 years of age. That is more or less it. Political parties don’t come into it.

It takes a lot of self-belief and a lot more money to run for president. Potential candidates from the two dominant parties, the Democrats and the Republicans (as well as from a host of minor political parties and independents), usually start by setting up an exploratory committee to test the waters. If they decide they have enough support, they then inform the federal election commission that they are in the race and get busy fundraising and hiring staff.These days the candidate's web designer can be as important as his pollster or strategist. Websites are the windows through which more and more people view campaigns.

The fundraising process, which starts well in advance of the general election, has been revolutionised by the internet. It allows candidates with an appealing message to raise vast amounts of money. Barack Obama, a candidate with widespread appeal but no real organisation behind him when he started out, has managed to raise over $100 million, most of it from individuals contributing $10 to $25 a time. He has easily matched Hillary Clinton, who has the backing of major fund-raisers linked to the Democratic Party.

But raising that sort of money is only a beginning. When election year starts, there are still four main stages of the electoral process to be negotiated…


The election gets underway in the depths of winter with a primary or caucus. In the US, voters who can declare on the day their support for one or other party are allowed to vote. This is only the first stage in a long process, and a lot of water will pass under the bridge before a candidate is chosen. By tradition, New Hampshire is the first primary election after Iowa’s caucus process (see the A-to-Z glossary for definitions). But other states have recently tried to increase their influence in the nomination process by declaring earlier and earlier votes. January is now crowded with primaries, as many states want to get in on the early action of picking a president. The delegates they choose get to go to the party’s convention in the late summer, when a candidate is chosen. Candidates need a majority of delegates at the convention to win. Such is the unhappiness at the influence of the early states - Iowa and New Hampshire - on the choice of president that other states have demanded the right to vote earlier. Such demands can backfire. This year Florida’s Democrats have been punished by losing their vote because the state - fourth largest in the country - tried to jump the queue and vote earlier without permission.


The major parties hold their conventions in late August or early September. (This year, the Democrats are at Denver from 25 to 28 August, while the Republicans are in Minneapolis St Paul from 1 to 4 September.) Delegates from each state arrive with flags, shouting out which candidate they are backing. The candidate with the most delegates wins - and normally secures the support of party rivals. The winning candidate also names a vice-presidential running mate. Conventions used to be occasions where the crucial deals were done. Today they are more likely to be coronations, since the parties will usually have chosen their leaders by then, and scenes of wild televised celebration are often the most memorable feature of proceedings. But there is still the theoretical prospect of a brokered convention, at which a candidate has to be agreed upon.


After the conventions, the serious business of electing the president gets properly underway. This is not always a pretty sight. The chosen candidates, buoyed by the acclaim of their conventions, may briefly polish and hone their political positions, but the emphasis is on selling themselves; showing off their support and doing everything possible to undermine the opposition. Campaigns spend heavily on nationwide television publicity, recording the razzmatazz surrounding their own leader and drawing attention to any weaknesses in the other camp. There are also televised debates between the candidates.


US presidential elections are held on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November. Votes are counted and the result is usually known within hours of the close of polls. Once votes are counted, it is up to the electoral college. Every state has a different number of electoral college members depending on its population and representation in Congress. The candidate who wins the most votes in each state controls all that state's electoral college members. (In Maine and Nebraska, additional votes are given to candidates who win the states' House of Representatives Districts).

As soon as a candidate gets a majority of votes from across the states, the election is viewed as over. Electoral college members then meet - 41 days after election day - and vote for the president, supporting the winning candidate or according to their party allegiance. The electoral college votes are formally counted in front of Congress and, after some two years of campaigning and primaries, it all ends with the new president swearing this simple oath: "I do solemnly swear [or affirm] that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States". By tradition, most new presidents tend to add the words "so help me God".