A Long and Winding Road: Steps to Becoming a Presidential Nominee
by Heather Lang
How do you think our founding fathers would feel about the complex and expensive process that has evolved for selecting presidential candidates? Would they be shocked? Dismayed? Probably both! In fact, the U.S. Constitution does not even mention a nomination process because our framers wanted to avoid a government with political parties.
Instead, the framers planned for a process where each state would award its electoral votes to the person who was most popular. After a vote tally, the person with the most votes would become president and the runner up would become vice president. This simplistic plan fell apart very quickly, and by 1800, opposing parties had already emerged.
For many years, Democratic and Republican leaders, not voters, chose their nominees at their national conventions. Eventually the parties realized that in a democracy, the choice should belong to voters. This shift has led to our long and complicated nomination process.
Today most individuals become candidates for president by winning either the Republican or Democratic nomination. The Democratic National Committee (DNC) and the Republican National Committee (RNC) set the general rules for their own nomination processes. Some third parties, like the Green Party and the Libertarian Party, also have nomination processes in certain states. Other Independents, individuals not affiliated with either the Democratic or Republican parties, can also petition states to print their name on the general election ballot for president. But each state has different requirements, and no Independent has gained enough traction to win the presidency.
• Who Can Run for President, Anyway?
• How Does a Candidate Stand Out in the Crowd?
• How Do Caucuses and Primaries Work?
• What Happens at the National Conventions?
• Read More
• Discussion Questions for Young People at Home and in the Classroom
• Activities for Young People at Home and in the Classroom
• Reference Sources
Who Can Run for President, Anyway?
Believe it or not we all know lots of people who are eligible to declare their candidacy for president! The U.S. Constitution only has three requirements for an individual to become president. He or she must:
- Be a natural-born citizen of the United States
- Be at least 35 years old
- Have been a resident of the United States for 14 years
As soon as a candidate raises or spends more than $5,000 for their campaign, they must register with the Federal Election Commission, and the hard work begins.
How Does a Candidate Stand Out in the Crowd?
Until the end of the nineteenth century, candidates left most of the campaigning to their supporters. Times have sure changed! Now many candidates start campaigning over a year before the primaries. While campaigning for president has always been intensely competitive, now it requires incredible persistence and resilience, as well as a very thick skin. Candidates must withstand cruel verbal attacks and be prepared to have details about their private lives revealed to the world.
Some of the most heated exchanges happen at publicly televised debates, where candidates have an opportunity to show the nation what they stand for. Public debates between candidates date all the way back to 1858 when Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas, vying for a seat in the U.S. Senate, participated in a series of seven debates, mostly on the topic of slavery.
In the twentieth century, radio and television brought debates directly into people’s homes. The first nationally televised general election presidential debate took place in 1960 between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon. Many feel it may have made the difference for Kennedy, who came across as calm, professional, confident, and open.
Now televised debates are a critical part of presidential campaigning. But to participate, a candidate must meet the qualifications set by their party. For example, in order to qualify for its debates in the 2020 race, the Democratic Party required each candidate to poll at a certain percentage and to meet specific fundraising criteria. These rules prevented Democratic candidate Michael Bloomberg from debating because he was financing his own campaign and didn’t have donations from enough individuals. In response, the Democratic Party altered its rules and removed the individual donor requirement, making it possible for Bloomberg to participate in the last few debates.
As technology evolves, campaigning is becoming more and more personal and public. Today candidates must work tirelessly to connect with voters and create a brand, using all the media outlets available to them.
How Do Caucuses and Primaries Work?
Voting for Democratic and Republican presidential nominees takes place at either caucuses or primaries in each of the fifty states, D.C., and the U.S. territories of American Samoa, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Citizens of the U.S. territories are not entitled to vote for president, since the Constitution only mentions the states. So, voting in the caucuses and primaries is their only chance to participate in the process of electing the president. Many people think it is unjust that these Americans pay taxes and serve in the military, but can’t even vote for their commander in chief.
The DNC and RNC in each state determine the rules that will control their party’s primary or caucus. The processes can vary a lot even between parties in the same state. But all voters are ultimately voting for delegates—individuals who will represent them by voting for their candidate at the national convention. The DNC and RNC decide on the number of delegates each state will have at the convention.
In a small number of states, people vote for the candidate they would like to run for president at caucuses, which are small meetings in public places like gymnasiums, town halls, fire stations, and churches. The caucuses take place at the same time, on the same day across the state.
At the Democratic caucuses in Iowa, for example, voters separate into small groups based on which candidate they support. Each group gives speeches and tries to convince others to join their group. If a candidate doesn’t get at least 15 percent of voters, he or she is eliminated, and those voters can choose to support one of the remaining candidates. This is truly voting with your feet! Once every remaining candidate has at least 15 percent of the votes, the caucus is over, and the percentages will determine how many delegates each person has won. Instead of this public form of voting, Republican caucuses in Iowa use secret paper ballots.
You are not alone if you think the caucus system is complicated. Still a little confused? Check out this clever Lego video for a visual demonstration of how the Democratic caucuses work in Iowa:
Almost all states have replaced caucuses with primaries, where registered voters cast secret ballots, just like in the general election. Most state primaries are either open or closed. In states that have open primaries, a registered voter, regardless of their party affiliation, can choose to vote in either the Democratic primary or the Republican primary or a third party primary, if there is one. In states that have closed primaries, a voter registered with a party may only participate in that party’s primary. This means, in a closed primary, Independent voters would not be able to cast a vote, since they are not registered with either party. Some states have semi-closed primaries where registered Independents can choose to vote in either the Democratic or Republican primary.
Nearly all primaries and caucuses are binding, which means the delegates are legally required or “pledged” to vote for a particular candidate at their party’s national convention, based on state primary results. The Democratic Party always awards delegates using a proportional method. This means the percentage of delegates a candidate receives is the same as the percentage of votes they received. For example, suppose a state has 100 delegates at the national convention. If a candidate wins 60 percent of the vote at the state primaries, then she would get 60 of the state’s delegates at the national convention.
The Republican Party leaves it up to the states to decide if they would like to use the proportional method or allow the winner to take all the delegates.
To complicate matters further, some states also have superdelegates, who are unpledged and can support whomever they want. These superdelegates might be mayors, congressional leaders, former presidents, and other party activists. Superdelegates make up less than 15 percent of the Democratic delegates. No Republican delegates have the freedom to vote as they wish.
Turnout at caucuses is usually smaller than primaries for a number of reasons. Primaries allow voting with minimal effort and include absentee ballots. Caucuses are a much bigger time commitment, making it impossible for some to participate. Imagine if you have a family to care for or you work two jobs—it would be difficult to take an evening off to attend your local caucus. Other voters may not be comfortable publicly declaring their support for a candidate. For these reasons caucuses tend to attract the most enthusiastic voters.
Caucuses and primaries usually take place from late January or early February through June, instead of on one day, like in the general election. The first caucus takes place in Iowa, and New Hampshire holds the first primary. Winning these first two events can give a candidate enormous momentum moving forward. Many people believe Iowa and New Hampshire have too much influence on the race, especially considering the size and demographics of these states.
Another critical day is “Super Tuesday,” usually in early March, when lots of primaries take place. States with primaries in June complain that their results might not even matter. Whether this is fair or not, a staggered primary schedule does allow candidates a chance to campaign across the country and connect more personally with voters.
The below illustration of “The 2024 Presidential Primary Calendar” (c) 2023 by Frontloading HQ. Visit the source for instructions on reading the map: http://www.frontloadinghq.com/p/the-2024.html
What Happens at the National Conventions?
After the last voters have cast their ballots and the primary season comes to an end, each party holds a national convention where the delegates from all the states, D.C., and the U.S. territories come together to vote for the candidate who will run for president.
The DNC and RNC require a majority vote of delegates to nominate a presidential candidate. Except for the superdelegates, the delegates’ job is to confirm the choice that voters made during the primaries and caucuses.
Over the years there has been a lot of controversy about the power of superdelegates. In 2018 the DNC decided to decrease their power by prohibiting superdelgates from voting in the first round, if their votes will decide the nomination. When no candidate wins a majority in the first round of voting, and it becomes a “contested” or “brokered” convention, superdelegates may vote. In these subsequent rounds all the other delegates can also vote for whomever they want.
Parties try to avoid contested conventions at all costs, because statistically, candidates who need more than one ballot to earn the nomination have a much lower chance of becoming president. Still, occasionally there can be factions within a party that make a majority vote impossible. This can even result in a “dark horse” candidate, who did not start out with many delegates, winning the nomination. In 1920, Warren Harding won the Republican nomination on the tenth ballot, and at the 1924 Democratic convention, John W. Davis won the nomination after 103 ballots!
At the national conventions, the Democratic and Republican presidential nominees also officially announce their vice-presidential running mates. Each convention culminates in great celebration as the nominee for president and vice president give formal acceptance speeches to cheering delegates and loyal supporters.
Once at the end of this long and winding road, the presidential nominees have no time to waste. They must embark on their next journey and battle for the presidency.
- Read the qualifications and limitations on presidents in the U.S. Constitution.
- Learn more about the qualifications for president, as well as compensation and risks, in “Help Wanted: President of the United States.”
- Read more about how candidates campaign for president in “Persuading the People: Presidential Campaigns.”
- Discover the history of political parties in America in “Choosing Sides: The Rise of Party Politics.”
- Learn more about all of the political parties in “Links for National Political Parties.”
- Find tips for watching presidential debates with the young people in your life in “Presidential Debates: Watch the Debates with Your Kids and Teens!”
Discussion Questions for Young People at Home and in the Classroom
- In 2024 the primary and caucus season begins in February and stretches through June. Would it make more sense to hold the primary election on the same day in all states, like we do for the general election? What are the advantages and disadvantages of holding multiple primary dates instead of holding all primaries and caucuses on the same date?
- Iowa and New Hampshire vote first every year. What do you think about that? If you do not agree that is fair, how do you think the schedule should be determined?
- How effective do you think the current system is for Independent and third-party candidates? Should Independents be afforded a primary season in addition to the Democrats, Republicans, and third-party candidates? What changes would you recommend?
- Discuss the role of delegates at the national conventions. Does it make sense that some of the delegates are non-binding “superdelegates”? Do you think the change the DNC made in 2018 solves the problem? (Read about this in “What Happens at the National Convention?” earlier in this article.)
- Most states have replaced caucuses with primaries. What are the pros and cons of each? Find out what methods are used in your state: Caucuses? Primaries? Or both? Do you believe the current method in your state works for all voters?
- What are the pros and cons of the “winner-take-all” approach some states use in the Republican primary? Do you think it makes sense?
- Discuss the role of the Electoral College in the presidential election. (You can read about it in “Getting the Votes and Getting Elected: The Popular Vote vs. The Electoral College.”) Ask students to consider how the presidential nomination process is similar to the Electoral College. How is it different?
- Do you think presidential debates are a good way for voters to judge candidates? Do you think the rules are fair? With the evolution of technology and the Internet, how do you think presidential debates will change in the future?
- In addition to televised debates, presidential candidates share their message on social media. Can citizens get to know each of the candidates by reading posts on Facebook, Twitter, etc.? Is the information reliable? Why or why not?
- What are your overall thoughts about the presidential nomination process? Is it effective? Too long and expensive? If you believe the process could be improved, what changes would you suggest?
Activities for Young People at Home and in the Classroom
Caucus vs. Primary: Test Both Options
Explain to students how caucuses and primaries work. Perhaps show them the “How the Iowa Democratic Caucus Works, Featuring Legos” video. Then take an initial vote in your classroom to see how many students think each method is more effective: caucus or primary. Make a note of the results.
Try both methods in your classroom by holding a vote with four or five different choices. The vote could be for something as simple as a favorite book or dessert.
First hold a primary, then a caucus. Compare the results of each process. Did the candidates receive the same number of votes in both the primary and the caucus? Invite students to discuss why they think the results differed or were the same.
Next, have students list the pros and cons of their experience with the primary and the caucus. With the completed list of pros and cons, ask students: Which process do you think is better? Compare these decisions to the original vote taken by students before you tested both methods. Did students change their minds? Which method did they prefer?
Host a Political Debate
Set up a political debate on a topic of your choosing. Perhaps consider hosting a debate in which one side argues for the benefits of the caucus and the other side argues for the benefits of the primary. Or, choose a topic of particular interest to your students. Invite the students to suggest the rules that should be put in place and why each rule is important. Make a comprehensive list of rules.
When you host the debate, invite students who are not actively participating to play the role of reporter. Some student reporters can choose to write articles; others may choose to present a live report. Another option is to invite some students to write an analysis of the debate, pointing out what they believed to be the strongest and weakest arguments on each side.
The League of Women Voters. Choosing the President. New York: Lyons, 1999.
“Ballot access for presidential candidates.” Ballotpedia. https://ballotpedia.org/Ballot_access_for_presidential_candidates
Desilver, Drew. “Contested presidential conventions, and why parties try to avoid them.” Pew Research Center. February 4, 2016. https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2016/02/04/contested-presidential-conventions-and-why-parties-try-to-avoid-them/
“Electing the President: A Guide to the Election Process.” League of Women Voters.
Masters, Jonathan and Ratnam, Gopal. “The U.S. Presidential Nominating Process.” Council on Foreign Relations. January 13, 2020. https://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/us-presidential-nominating-process
Montanaro, Domenico. “How Exactly Do the Iowa Caucuses Work?” NPR. 30 January 2016. https://www.npr.org/2016/01/30/464960979/how-do-the-iowa-caucuses-work.
“Nominating Presidents.” United States Senate. https://www.senate.gov/artandhistory/history/minute/Nominating_presidents.htm
“Presidential Election.” USAGov. https://www.usa.gov/election
“The Constitution of the United States.” National Archives. https://www.archives.gov/founding-docs/constitution-transcript
“Understanding the Nomination Process.” Bill of Rights Institute. https://billofrightsinstitute.org/educate/educator-resources/lessons-plans/current-events/nomination-process/
Vermont Public Radio. “How the Iowa Democratic Caucus Works, Featuring Legos. YouTube video, January 27, 2016. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SJqv–jyXPgBooks
Heather Lang loves to write about real women who overcame extraordinary obstacles and never gave up on their dreams. To research her books, she has explored the skies, the treetops of the Amazon, and the depths of the ocean. Her award-winning picture book biographies include Fearless Flyer: Ruth Law and Her Flying Machine; Swimming with Sharks: The Daring Discoveries of Eugenie Clark; Queen of the Track: Alice Coachman, Olympic High-Jump Champion; and Anybody’s Game: Kathryn Johnston, the First Girl to Play Little League Baseball. When Heather is not writing at her home in Lexington, Massachusetts, she loves to go on adventures with her husband and four children. Visit her at HeatherLangBooks.com.
©2023 by Heather Lang; The National Children’s Book and Literacy Alliance