The presidential election in the United States 

Photo by Parker Johnson on Unsplash
Photo by Parker Johnson on Unsplash

Electing a President

Every four years, presidential elections take place in the United States. Electing a President is a long process, which consists of two major election processes. First, the primary elections take place, in which presidential candidates for the two parties are elected. Second, when the candidates for each party have been officially selected, the process of the actual presidential election begins. Below, you will be able to learn more about these processes.

Primary Elections

In Denmark, politicians and parties have three weeks to campaign from the moment the Prime Minister declares an election. In the United States, the election campaign takes place over a much longer period of time. Presidential elections are always held on the first Tuesday after the first Monday of November every four years. However, candidates start announcing their candidacy as early as the first months of the year before – that is, 1.5 – 2 years prior to the presidential election. In Danish general elections each party nominates a number of different candidates. But in the U.S. parties select only one candidate each for the presidential election. Therefore, parties hold primary elections – or primaries – in order to determine what candidate gets to represent each party in the presidential election.

If the incumbent President decides to attempt reelection, his party’s primaries will often be more or less a formality with little competition from rival candidates.

The primaries take place from February through June, and during this time elections move from state to state. The first election at the beginning February is always in Iowa. After Iowa follows elections in the rest of the states until June. In the primaries, candidates receive a number of delegates, depending on how many votes they get. Within the Democratic Party a total of 3.979 delegates are distributed among their candidates, and among Republicans the number is 2.472. In each state the amount of delegates available depends on the number of inhabitants in the state. The delegates are actually real people. These people are obliged to vote for the candidate to which they are assigned when the parties hold their conventions at the end of the primaries.

Why is Iowa important?

It is important for Iowa to get to be the first state to hold an election. This is due to the fact that voters in Iowa may then very well set the agenda for the whole election. Iowa is thereby able to influence the candidates’ chances of getting elected, in spite of the fact that the state does not have very many inhabitants. Thus, this state plays an important role in the primaries.

One very important day in the beginning of March is called Super Tuesday, and on this day 14 states hold elections, distributing 1/3 of all delegates. This day is highly significant to the two parties’ races towards presidential candidacy.

Variation across states

The rules determining how to distribute delegates between the candidates vary according to state and party. A rather simplified explanation is to say that in most states candidates receive an amount of delegates that matches the percentage of votes they get. But a candidate can only receive delegates if he or she gets a minimum of 15% of votes. However, some states apply a “winner takes all” system, where the candidate receiving the plurality of votes gets all of the state’s delegates.

The rules determining who may vote and how the process is conducted also varies according to state. In most states you may only vote within one of the parties. And in some places you even have to be a member of the party beforehand if you wish to vote at the primaries. In other places merely stating in which party’s election you wish to vote is sufficient. Here, there are thus two separate lines at the polling stations – one for Republican voters and one for Democrats.

The elections intensify

During the elections it becomes more and more clear which candidates have small chances of being elected. For this reason, many candidates withdraw their candidacies even before all states have voted.

The last primary election is held in the beginning of June. After this, all that is left is the parties’ conventions in July or August, in which presidential candidates for each party are officially appointed. The party of the incumbent President get to hold their convention second. At the conventions, delegates vote for the candidate to which they have been assigned at the primaries. Furthermore, participants at these conventions vote on central areas of each party’s policies.

Delegates, superdelegates, and unbound delegates

As we have now seen, each party has a number of delegates who are distributed at the primaries and are subsequently bound to vote for a specific candidate. In addition to these, each party has a number of delegates who do not have the same obligation to vote for a certain candidate. Democrats call these superdelegatesIn 2020 the Democratic Party has 775 superdelegates, and these consist of party leaders, such as governors, members of Congress, current and former leaders such as Presidents and Vice Presidents, as well as other appointed members of the party. These superdelegates are selected in advance and they are free and able to vote for any candidate of their choice.

In the Republican Party this group is called unbound delegates, and normally there are three unbound delegates in each state. However, Republicans have not made use of their unbound delegates since 2016. Instead, the people who are usually selected to function as unbound delegates must follow the result of the primary election in the state they are from. In the Democratic Party, the influence of the superdelegates has similarly decreased in 2020. Thus, superdelegates may not vote in the first round at the convention (unless one candidate is already certain of getting elected. If that is the case, superdelegates may cast their vote to express their opinion). In order to become elected as the presidential candidate a person must receive a majority of delegates at the convention. This means that over 50% of the delegates must vote for one candidate for him or her to be appointed as presidential candidate. A simple majority vote is not enough.

What happens if nobody gets the majority of votes?

If no candidate receives the majority of votes, voting continues in a second round. For Democrats, this means that the superdelegates will then be able to participate in the vote. For Democrats as well as Republicans, delegates are increasingly released from their obligations to vote for a specific candidate (to some delegates this happens in round 2, for some in round 3, etc. depending on which state they are from). This way, the delegates are able to attempt to convince each other of changing sides and voting for a specific candidate. However, delegates have all been selected based on who they support, in order to ensure that delegates who are obliged to vote for a specific candidate in the first round is a general supporter of him or her. In principle this does mean, however, that it is not the people, but the convention, who ultimately elects the presidential candidates.

The process of repeating voting rounds goes on until one candidate receives the majority of votes and thereby is officially appointed as the presidential candidate for a party. However, not since 1976 have there been any doubts about whether one candidate would receive a majority of delegates, and not since 1952 has there been more than one voting round at a convention. This shows that normally, after the primaries, it is clear who will become the parties’ presidential candidates. The convention can then instead be used as a means to launch the candidates’ presidential campaigns and unite the party in support of the candidate.

Presidential election

When the two parties have elected their presidential and vice presidential candidates at each of their national conventions a several months long presidential election campaign begins. Besides the candidates from the Republicans and Democrats, a few candidates from other minor parties are on the ballot as well. Those candidates rarely have any real influence on the outcome of the election. The election is held on the first Tuesday following the first Monday of November.

There are three requirements to be a presidential candidate: One has to (1) be 35 years of age or older, (2) be a natural born citizen of the U.S., and (3) have lived in the States for more than 14 years. Additional to these requirements, a President may only serve two terms. If a President has already been elected twice it is not possible to run for office a third time.

Differences between Denmark and the U.S.

The electoral system works quite differently compared to the Danish system. In Denmark the Prime Minister can call an election at any given time – though it has to be within 4 years since the last election. Folketinget can also force the Prime Minister to resign if the government has a majority of parliament members against it. In the U.S. the presidential election is fixed to be held every 4th year, and Congress (the Senate and House of Representatives) cannot force the President to resign just because a majority of Congress members are against the President. The President would need to be impeached to be forced out of office.

In Denmark a party is assigned 25% of the mandates in Folketinget if the party receives 25% of the votes at the general election. This kind of electoral system is called proportional representation because the parties receive the same ratio of mandates as they received of the votes.

The U.S. is divided into 50 states. Each state has a certain number of electoral votes which is decided by the size of their population. There are 538 electoral votes, and these are split between the 50 states. California has 55 electoral votes since it is the state with the largest population. In contrast, Alaska and six other states with low population numbers (as well as Washington D.C.) only have three electoral votes.

The presidential candidate that receives most of the electoral votes wins the election. A candidate can win the electoral votes in a state by getting more votes than the other candidate(s). But, in contrast to Denmark, every single one of the states’ electoral votes will be assigned to the winner of the state. This means that candidates do not merely get the same proportion of the electoral votes as the popular vote. Thus, if candidate A receives 51% of the votes in California and candidate B only receives 49% every single one of California’s 55 electoral votes will be assigned to candidate A even though there was only a two percentage point difference between the two candidates. This kind of  “winner takes all” electoral system is called election by majority vote. Only Nebraska and Maine deviate from this system.

Winner takes all

When using this kind of electoral system it opens the possibility of having a candidate winning the popular vote but not become President anyway. Imagine if the U.S. only consisted of three equally sized states. If candidate A received 100% of the votes in one of the states and 49% of the votes in the two others, candidate A would only win all of the electoral votes in one of the states. Candidate B, on the other hand, would win all of the electoral votes in the two other states. In this case candidate A would have received more votes in total than candidate B, but it is Candidate B that receives most electoral votes and is elected President.

The example above is overly simplified. But it has actually happened five times in history that a candidate has become President even though another candidate won the popular vote. The last time it happened was at the 2016 election between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. Clinton won the popular vote with 48% of all the votes while Trump received 45,9% of the votes. Thus, Clinton won the popular vote with just shy of 3 million votes more than Trump. In spite of this, Trump was assigned 306 of the 538 electoral votes while Clinton was assigned only 232 electoral votes which meant Trump was elected President.

What happens after Election Day?

The Election Day in the beginning of November isn’t the end of the road though. The 538 electoral votes each presidential candidate has received are actually 538 real people – the so-called electoral college. Mid December the electoral college will vote for the candidates who become President and Vice President. Here, they are supposed to vote for the candidate who won the election in their state even if they might prefer another candidate themselves. There has been several examples of “faithless electors” who choose to vote for another candidate than they are supposed to.

On the 6th of January, Congress (the Senate and the House of Representatives) assemble to count the electoral votes. They can then proceed to declare the President and Vice President elected. In the unlikely event that the candidates get the exact same amount of votes, the two chambers of Congress will elect the President and Vice President. The House will elect the President, but for this procedure in the House, each state only has one vote. The Senate will elect the Vice President.

Two weeks later, on January 20th, the president-elect will officially be sworn in as President of the United States of America at an inauguration ceremony in Washington D.C.


  • What is the purpose of the primary elections?
  • How come it isn’t necessarily the candidate who receives the most votes who becomes President?
  • Which pros and cons can you identify in having a presidential election running for such a long period of time?
  • Compare the American “winner takes all” electoral system for presidential elections with the Danish proportional representation system. Which pros and cons can you identify for each system?

Activity :

  • Make your own campaign commercial!
  • Now, you are going to make your own short campaign commercial.
  • Go to and watch some of the recent and previous presidential campaign commercials available on the site.
  • Discuss in class: What do you notice about these adds? How are the arguments being built? How are the messages being conveyed and communicated? Who are they aimed at? What do you think are some key features of political advertisement?
  • Now, divide the class into two parts: A Republican section and Democratic section. Within these two sections, divide the students into smaller groups of 2-4. Have students do a brief study on their parties’ overall political agendas – This information can be found on our page about the Democrats and the Republicans.
  • Now, each group has to make their own, short campaign video or audio clip, relating to the party they belong to. Be creative! The only rule is that each group must try to convey their own party’s policies and make sure that the language and style of their campaign correlates with the general features of campaign videos that you previously discussed.
  • Present your videos to the class and make sure to give constructive feedback to all groups.
  • In-class discussion and evaluation: What were the students’ experiences with making a campaign video/audio? What were some of the challenges they met? What did they learn?