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Presidential Elections and the American Political System 

Political Parties in America

Throughout American history, a variety of political parties have shaped the landscape of presidential elections. These parties emerged in response to the unique challenges and diverse ideologies of different eras. Today, the United States operates within a multi-party system, with the Democratic and Republican Parties as the most influential players. However, other parties, including the Reform, Libertarian, Socialist, Natural Law, Constitution, and Green Parties, also participate in presidential elections. In this learning material, we will explore the history of political parties in the United States and examine their impact on the election process. 

Historical Development of Political Parties 

  • Dixiecrats, Know-Nothings, Free-Soil, Prohibition: These are some of the early political parties that emerged in response to various social, economic, and political issues in American history. Each of these parties had specific ideals and candidates that they championed. 
  • The Birth of Political Factions: The Founding Fathers, concerned about the potential divisiveness of political parties, debated their merits during the Constitutional Convention of 1787. Benjamin Franklin and James Madison expressed their fears that ambition and greed might lead to factions that could threaten the stability of the new government. 
  • Political Factions vs. Political Parties: Ironically, despite these concerns, political factions quickly arose in support of or opposition to the Constitution itself. By the presidential election of 1796, political parties were firmly established in America. The Federalists, led by Alexander Hamilton, and the Democratic-Republicans, led by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, became the first major political parties. 

The Evolution of Political Parties 

  • Changing Policies and Ideals: Over the decades, the platforms and ideologies of political parties evolved. By the twentieth century, the Democratic and Republican Parties emerged as the dominant players. 
  • Notable Differences: Corinne Roosevelt Robinson highlighted significant differences between the two major parties in the early 20th century, emphasizing that their ideals and political stances were distinct. 
  • Modern-Day Parties: Today, the American party system is firmly established. Some Americans believe there are meaningful differences between the major parties, while others see them as indistinguishable. Regardless, political parties continue to play a crucial role in the nation’s governance. 

Reflection and Discussion 

  • The Founders’ Concerns: Reflect on the concerns expressed by the Founding Fathers, such as Benjamin Franklin and James Madison, regarding the potential divisiveness of political factions. Discuss whether these concerns were warranted in light of the role played by political parties in today’s elections. 
  • Party System Strength: Consider whether the American party system has strengthened or weakened the election process over time. Discuss the advantages and disadvantages of a multi-party system. 
  • Future of American Politics: Speculate on whether the American people might one day seriously consider candidates from outside the Democratic and Republican Parties for the presidency. Explore the potential factors that could lead to such a shift in the political landscape. 

Conclusion: Political parties have played a significant role in shaping American presidential elections throughout history. While concerns were raised by the Founding Fathers about the divisive potential of factions, political parties have become an integral part of the nation’s political landscape. As the United States continues to navigate its complex political terrain, the role of political parties in the election process remains a subject of ongoing discussion and debate. 

The Two-Party System and the Two Major Parties

The electoral system in the U.S. is called a two-party system. That means that two parties dominate the political field in all three levels of government. In the U.S. these two parties are the Republican Party and the Democratic Party. Other parties, often generally termed “third parties”, in the U.S. include The Green Party, Libertarians, Constitution Party and Natural Law Party. 

In the U.S., political candidates do not have to get the majority of votes – that is, more than 50% of votes – to be elected. Instead, candidates need a plurality of votes – that is, a higher percentage of votes than other candidates running for office. Since the Democratic and Republican Parties are the two largest parties in the U.S., candidates from these two parties tend to get the plurality of votes. Therefore, other smaller parties are often left unsuccessful in elections. Americans whose political values closely align with candidates from one of the third parties might therefore instead choose to vote for either the Democratic or the Republican Party. They do this to ensure that their vote is used on a candidate who has a better chance of winning. This keeps the two-party-system in effect. 

One advantage of having a two-party system is that it helps ensure that the two main parties in power have a wide platform that represents the general public. Because the two parties are so large, there is room for a wide range of political positions within each party. This means that there may exist slightly varying political viewpoints on different matters within each party. 

A Broad Political Spectrum 

Now, try to imagine a spectrum that says “liberal” or “progressive” in one end and “conservative” or “traditional” in the other. This spectrum represents a political party. This party’s representatives may be placed anywhere along the line, depending on how their political views fit within their party’s general policy. This is a simplified way of illustrating the wide scope of political opinions that both the Democratic and Republican Parties embrace. 

In the following, we are going to investigate the general policies of the two parties. However, in the light of the above, it is important to keep in mind that there are nuances within each party’s policies. Thus, the below merely provides a general description of the parties’ political stances. 

The Republican Party – General Policy and Political Values 

The Republican Party is often referred to as the GOP. This abbreviation stands for Grand Old Party. Its logo is an elephant. The Republican Party is known to support right-leaning ideologies of conservatism, social conservatism, and economic libertarianism, among other -isms. Thus, Republicans broadly advocate for traditional values, a low degree of government interference, and large support of the private sector. 

One main standpoint of the Republican Party platform is a strong focus on the family and individual freedom. Generally, the Republican Party therefore often tends to promote states’ and local rights. That means that they often wish for federal regulations to play a lesser role in policymaking. Furthermore, the GOP has a pro-business-oriented platform. Thus, the party advocates for businesses to exist in a free market instead of being impacted by tight government regulations. 

As mentioned above, Republican members and candidates’ stances towards particular issues may vary. Overall, however, the party is a proponent of religious freedom. Moreover, the GOP is generally “pro-life”, thereby opposing the legal right to free abortion and instead emphasizing unborn fetuses’ right to live. Furthermore, the party is generally against introducing an extensive gun control legislation, and thus Republicans safeguard the right to bear arms as articulated in the Second Amendment of the U.S. constitution. Additionally, the party values a powerful national defense and a strong military in order to provide increased security and peace. 

The Democratic Party – General Policy and Political Values 

The Democratic Party (whose logo is a donkey) generally represents left-leaning, liberal and progressive ideological values, thus advocating for a strong government to regulate business and support for the citizens of the United States. Thus, one of the key values emphasized by Democrats is social responsibility. Overall, Democrats believe that a prominent and powerful government can ensure welfare and equality for all. Much like the Republican Party, political opinions within the Democratic Party stretch across a wide spectrum, as both parties are, to a large degree, decentralized. However, from a general point of view, Democrats tend to support heavy taxation of high-income households. In comparison to Denmark, where taxes are generally high, the Democratic taxation policy may not seem excessive, but on a U.S. taxation scale these tax percentages are in the heavy end. 

Furthermore, Democrats to some degree support government-funded healthcare and the party thereby aims to ensure that health and social services are accessible for all U.S. citizens.  Additionally, the Democratic Party generally supports women’s legal rights to free abortion as well as LGBTQ+ people’s rights to equal treatment under the law. In opposition to Republicans a large part of the Democratic Party promotes a tightening of gun legislation and dispute the right to carry a concealed weapon (as opposed to open carry). Similar to the Republican Party, Democrats advocate for religious freedom and individuals’ right to practice their faith. However, at the same time, and generally more so than Republicans, Democrats value a separation between church and state, as is stated in the U.S. constitution 



  • How many levels of government are there in the United States? 
  • Compare the U.S. two party system to the Danish multi-party system. Identify some of the merits and demerits of each system. 
  • Take a look at the table showing Republican and Democratic stances on selected political issues. What other political issues can you come up with? Find out where the two parties stand on these and discuss in class or in groups. 
  • Which of the above selected political issues is the most important one to you? With which party do you mostly agree? 


  • Divide the class into two parties – The Republicans and the Democrats. Choose one or more of the issues from the table above to debate. Let each party have time to research the issue(s) and prepare arguments. The teacher will be moderating the debate. 


Party overview: Selected political areas 

Human and social values 

The Republican Party: Emphasis on individual freedom. 

The Democratic Party: Emphasis on community. 



The Republican Party: Lower taxes for all. 

The Democratic Party: Higher taxes, especially for high-income earners. 



The Republican Party: Enhanced funding. 

The Democratic Party: Reduced funding. 



The Republican Party: Values private healthcare services and low degree of government interference. 

The Democratic Party: Values equal access to some form of government-supported healthcare. 



The Republican Party: For strong border control and deportation of undocumented immigrants. 

The Democratic Party: For residency of certain undocumented immigrants. 



The Republican Party: Values religious freedom – such as defending marriage as a bond between a man and a woman and promoting the right to display religious scripture in public. 

Democratic Party: Values religious freedom – such as advocating for legal marriage between any two individuals and a clear separation of church and state. 

History of the Democratic and Republican Parties 

Founded in 1828, the Democratic Party is the oldest of the two largest U.S. political parties. The Republican Party was officially founded in 1854, but the histories of both parties are intrinsically connected. Actually, we can trace the two parties’ historical backgrounds all the way back to the Founding Fathers. Now, let us look at the history of the two major political parties in the U.S. 

The Founding Fathers disagree 

Differing political views among U.S. Founding Fathers eventually sparked the forming of two factions. George Washington, Alexander Hamilton and John Adams thus formed The Federalists. They sought to ensure a strong government and central banking system with a national bank. Thomas Jefferson and James Madison instead advocated for a smaller and more decentralized government, and formed the Democratic-Republicans. Both the Democratic and the Republican Parties as we know them today are rooted in this early faction. 

Democratic-Republican division 

At the beginning of the 19th century the Democratic-Republicans were largely victorious and dominant. The Federalists, in turn, slowly faded, eventually dissolving. Because the Democratic-Republicans were so popular, the party had no less than four political candidates pitted against each other in the presidential election of 1824. John Quincy Adams won the presidency, in spite of Andrew Jackson winning the popular vote. This sparked a strong political division within the party, which eventually caused the party to split in two: The Democrats and the Whig Party. The Democrats were led by Andrew Jackson. He was against the existence of The Bank of the United States and he largely supported state’s rights and minimal government regulation. The Whig Party stood in distinct opposition to Jackson and the Democrats, and supported the national bank. 

The donkey in the Democratic Party’s logo is said to derive from Andrew Jackson’s opponents calling him a “jackass”. “Jackass” is both another word for a male donkey and nickname that describes an unintelligent or foolish person. Instead of disputing this nickname, Jackson embraced it. It has since become an overall symbol of the Democratic Party in general. 

The issue of slavery: Enter Abraham Lincoln 

In the mid-nineteenth century, slavery was a widely discussed political issue. The Democratic Party’s internal views on this matter differed greatly. Southern Democrats wished for slavery to be expanded and reach into Western parts of the country. Northern Democrats, on the other hand, argued that this issue should be settled on a local level and through popular referendum. Such Democratic infighting eventually led to Abraham Lincoln, who belonged to the Republican Party, winning the presidential election of 1860. This new Republican Party had recently been formed by a group of Whigs, Democrats and other politicians who had broken free from their respective parties in order to form a party based on an anti-slavery platform. 

Civil War 

At that time in the U.S., tensions were high between Northern and Southern states, causing the Civil War to break out in 1861, in the immediate aftermath of Lincoln’s inauguration. In the Civil War, seven Southern States formed the Confederate States of America and fought for detachment from the United States. However, the Union won the war, and the Confederacy was formally dissolved. The issue of slavery was at the center of political disagreement during the Civil War. This caused Republicans to fight for the abolition of slavery and Lincoln signing the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. 

At this point in history, the U.S. South was predominantly Democratic and held conservative, agrarian-oriented, anti-big-business values. These values were characteristic of the Democratic Party at the time. The majority of Northern voters, on the other hand, were Republican. Many of these fought for civil and voting rights for African American people. 

The parties change course 

After the war, the Republican Party became more and more oriented towards economic growth, industry, and big business in Northern states, and in the beginning of the 20th century it had reached a general status as a party for the more wealthy classes in society. Many Republicans therefore gained financial success in the prosperous 1920s until the stock market crashed in 1929 initiating the era of the Great Depression. 

Now, many Americans blamed Republican President Herbert Hoover for the financial damages brought by the crisis. In 1932 the country therefore instead elected Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt to be president. 

To get the country back on track, Roosevelt introduced his New Deal. The New Deal launched a number of progressive government-funded social programs, ensuring social security, improved infrastructure, and minimum wage. This meant that a large number of Southern Democrats whose political views were more traditional and conservative, didn’t support Roosevelt’s liberal initiatives and joined the Republican Party instead. Roosevelt’s progressive, liberal policies play an important role in shifting the party’s political agenda to look like the modern Democratic Party as we know it today. And, after Roosevelt died in 1945, the Democrats stayed in power with Harry S. Truman in The White House. He continued to take the Democratic Party in a progressive direction with a pro-civil rights platform and desegregation of military forces, thereby gaining support from a large number of African American voters, who had previously supported the Republican Party because of its anti-slavery platform. 

The Democratic Party largely stayed in power until 1980, when Republican Ronald Reagan was elected as president. Reagan’s social conservative politics and emphasis on cutting taxes, preserving family values, and increasing military funding were important steps in defining the modern Republican Party platform. 

American politics today 

Following Reagan’s two terms in office, his Vice President, George H. W. Bush was elected as his successor in the White House. Since then, Republicans and Democrats have taken turns in The White House. In 2008, Democrat Barack Obama was elected as the first African American president. One of Obama’s most notable political achievements was reforming American health care with the Affordable Care Act, commonly known as Obamacare, which ensured that the large majority of Americans became covered by insurance. 

After two terms in office, Obama’s successor, Republican and well-known business man Donald Trump was elected. He moved into the White House in 2017. Two of the main accomplishments on Trump’s agenda was providing tax reliefs and to establishing strong borders in order to reduce the number of undocumented immigrants entering the United States. 

In 2020, Democrat and previous vice president for Barack Obama Joe Biden was elected as Donald Trump’s successor. President Biden now serves as the 46. president of the United States. 

Now that we have gained a broad historical overview, let us take a deeper look into contemporary Republican and Democratic Party policies and political values. 



  • Which early faction are both the Democratic Party and the Republican Party rooted in? 
  • What was one of the main political issues that was present during the Civil War? 
  • Name one Democratic and one Republican president who have played an important role in shaping the parties to become the way we know them today. 
  • Why are many of the states that were primarily Republican more than one hundred years ago often more Democratic today? And vice versa? 


  • Present a president! Choose one U.S. President and do your own research on him. What party did he represent? When was he in power? What were the main political issues on his presidential platform? Which changes did he make on American society? What mark did he leave on the world? Do you agree with him? Why/why not? Would you vote for him if you were able to do so? Present your findings to the class. 

The Structure of the U.S. Political System

In this section, you will be able to learn how the political system functions in the United States. Democracy can be carried out in many ways, and democratic practices vary from country to country. In Denmark the people vote for the candidates they wish to gain a seat in the Danish Parliament, Folketinget. After that, the elected members of parliament (MPs) choose who is going to be the Danish Prime Minister. In the United States the election is more directly focused on who is going to be the country’s President. In the U.S., people vote personally for the specific candidate who they believe should be President. Before the presidential election however, the parties go through the long process of the so-called primary elections. Here, they select the one candidate who is going to represent each party in the presidential election. 

You can learn more about the election processes, the structure of the U.S. Congress, and how bills are passed, among other themes, by clicking on the different headlines in the index above. On this page, you can read about the structure of the political system in the United States. Thus, you can learn about the nation’s tripartition of power – divided between the President, the Congress, and the Supreme Court. 

The tripartition of power: Who are the relevant actors? 

After the United States declared its independence from Great Britain, the country set out to organize their own political system. In doing this, they were inspired by the French philosopher, Montesquieu. In 1748 Montesquieu had presented his ideas on how best to organize a political system. These ideas featured a division of power, which was to ensure that one single person or group would not be able to function as the autocratic leader of a nation. Montesquieu’s idea was that power must be divided into a legislative, an executive, and a judicial branch. All democratic societies have since then been inspired by these principles. 

In the United States, the Congress is the national parliament – that is, the American version of Folketinget in Denmark. The Congress functions as the legislative branch of the U.S. government. The President functions as the executive branch, and the courts (The Supreme Court), in turn, function as the judicial branch. The image at the top of this page provides a visual presentation of this tripartition. 

The role of the Congress is to pass laws, and the President’s role is to implement such laws after they have been passed. Finally, the role of the courts is to interpret laws and make judgments in court based on these interpretations. 

A principle of checks and balances 

It is not enough, however, to divide these different, central duties of government between the three branches. The U.S. political system also follows a principle of “checks and balances”, which enables all three branches to mutually control each other. This prevents any of these three branches from getting too powerful. 

In order to control the legislative power (Congress), the President, who is the executive power, is able to veto legislation passed in Congress. The judicial power, the courts, are also able to restrict Congress’ exercise of power. The courts can do this by declaring laws, which have otherwise been passed by Congress, unconstitutional. 

In addition to this, the President’s power is restricted because Congress has the power to trump a veto cast by the president regarding the passing of a law. Congress can do this by passing such a law with a two thirds majority. Further, the courts are able to declare the President’s actions unconstitutional should the President act beyond the scope of his authority. 

Contrary to Denmark, the process of selecting Supreme Court Justices in the U.S is politically influenced. Nine justices make up the United States Supreme Court, and they usually serve for the remainder of their lives. When a new Supreme Court judge is to be selected, the president in power at the given time picks out a candidate for the position. Then, the candidate must be approved by the Senate. This means that Democratic and Republican presidents have the ability to appoint judges who have a set of values that matches their own. Therefore, the issue of who gets the opportunity to take office at the U.S. Supreme Court is greatly influenced by the incumbent President. 

Differences between Denmark and the U.S. 

Montesquieu’s ideas about a tripartition of power have also inspired the Danish political structure. Folketinget, the Danish parliament, is the legislative branch, the government is the executive branch, and the courts make up the judiciary branch. One significant difference between the two political systems in Denmark and the U.S. is that the Danish government is not directly elected by the people, but by Folketinget. Generally, most members of the Danish government are also members of Folketinget. Therefore, they are able to vote for their own policies and participate in no-confidence votes directed at the government. Because of these key overlaps between the legislative and the executive branches, the division of power in Denmark is not in actual fact a tripartition, but rather what is called parliamentarism. 

In the United States the tripartition is more evident. The President and his government are not themselves members of Congress, and the people – not the members of Congress – elect the president more directly. Furthermore, the U.S. Congress is not able to force the President to leave office should there be a majority of votes against him. 


  • How is power divided in the United States? Between which branches? 
  • What is the “checks and balances” principle? 
  • Compare what you have just read about the political system in the U.S. with the knowledge you have about the structure of the Danish political system. 


  • Drawing exercise: Make your own illustration of the structure of the political system in the United States. Think about what you have learned about the tripartition of power, and how the different branches are able to regulate each other. 

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 superdelegates. In 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 www.livingroomcandidate.org 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? 

The Road to Choosing a Presidential Candidate: Understanding Political Primaries


Have you ever wondered how a candidate becomes the official nominee of a political party for the position of President of the United States? It’s a fascinating process that has evolved over time. Let’s dive into the world of political primaries and caucuses, where candidates are nominated to represent their parties in the race for the White House. 

  1. The Constitution and the Nomination Process: 

The United States Constitution outlines the rules for electing the President, but it doesn’t provide any guidance on how political parties should choose their candidates. So, how did this process develop? 

  1. The Early Days of Party Conventions: 

In the past, party conventions were lively gatherings, often dominated by powerful party bosses who had control over the delegates’ loyalties. The selection of presidential candidates was more about trading favors, patronage, and even money than reflecting the will of the people. 

  1. Reforming the System: 

As dissatisfaction with this system grew, efforts were made to reform it. In the early 1900s, some states started holding primary elections to choose delegates for national nominating conventions. These primaries aimed to reduce the influence of party bosses. 

  1. Theodore Roosevelt and the Birth of Primary Elections: 

In 1912, Theodore Roosevelt attempted to secure the Republican nomination through primary elections. While he won the popular vote, he didn’t secure the nomination because only 42% of convention delegates had been selected through primaries. This event led to significant changes in the nomination process. 

  1. The Rise of the Progressive Party: 

Unable to secure the Republican nomination, Roosevelt and his supporters formed the Progressive Party. Their actions helped kickstart reforms that aimed to diminish the power of party bosses and put the candidate selection process more in the hands of voters. 

  1. Adoption of Primary Elections: 

By the 1920s, most states had adopted primary elections as the method for selecting delegates, making them a crucial part of the nomination process. 

  1. Today’s Primary System: 

Today, almost every state participates in primaries or caucuses to elect delegates who support their chosen presidential candidate. National party conventions no longer serve as places to choose candidates; instead, they focus on launching nominees and setting the election themes. 


The process of nominating presidential candidates has come a long way from the days of backroom deals and party bosses. It’s now a system that relies on the voices of citizens in selecting the nominees who will vie for the highest office in the land. As you explore the world of politics, remember that your participation in the primaries can shape the future of the nation and the candidates who seek to lead it. 

Congress: The Senate and House of Representatives

While the President functions as the executive power in the United States, the legislative power lies with the Congress. In this section you can read about how Congress is structured and how elections for Congress work. 

The Congress is the national parliament in the U.S. It is divided into two chambers: the Senate and the House of Representatives. Here, politicians are elected from all of the 50 states in the U.S. In Denmark there is only one chamber in the parliament. That is Folketinget. Denmark used to have two chambers as well, until Landstinget closed after a constitutional amendment (grundlovsændring) in 1953. 

A bill must receive a majority of the votes in both chambers of Congress for legislation to be passed in the U.S. You can learn more about this on our page about the legislative process. 

The Senate 

In the Senate, there are two representatives from each state. That is a total of 100 Senators. That means that the same number of Senators represent the least populated state of Wyoming as the most populated state of California. To illustrate the contrast, Wyoming has only 0,5 million inhabitants, while California has 39 million. 

To become a candidate for the Senate you must be at least 30 years old. Additionally, any candidate must have been a citizen of the U.S. for a minimum of 9 years, and must be a resident of the state in which they run for office. Elected Senators serve a term of six years. However, elections for Senate do not work the same way as Danish elections for Folketinget. In Denmark, all politicians are up for re-election at the same time. In contrast, elections in the Senate are held every two years. This means that only 1/3 of the Senators are up for re-election each time. But two Senators from the same state are never up for re-election at the same time. Therefore, every state has two elections for Senate in a period of six years. 

As with the presidential election, being elected Senator is a long process. Primary elections are held in spring in each state where the parties decide which candidate is going to represent them at the election. In several states the primary election is the most decisive because either the Republicans or Democrats have such a strong hold on some states that the candidate they choose to represent them will be a certain winner of the actual election. At the election it is the candidate that gets the most votes that will become one of the states two Senators. 

House of Representatives 

The other chamber in Congress, the House of Representatives, consists of 435 members. The House also contains an additional 6 representatives of American territories (including Washington D.C. and Puerto Rico). However, these are not allowed to vote. Out of these 435 seats, each state has a certain number of representatives, based on their population size. Each seat in the House corresponds to approximately 750,000 people. Thus, a state with 7.5 million inhabitants would have 10 seats in the House. Consequently, the smallest states only have one seat in the House, while California has 53 seats. The number of seats allocated to each state is up for evaluation every 10 years, when the U.S. Census Bureau (comparable to Danmarks Statistik) conducts a Census for the entire United States. The total number of seats must always equal 435 though. 

In order to run for office a candidate must be at least 25 years of age. Additionally, a candidate must have been a U.S. citizen for at least 7 years. Candidates also have to be residents of the state (but not necessarily the congressional district) in which they are running for office. 

Elections for the House are held every two years, but, in contrast to the Senate, every member of the House is up for re-election each time. Thus, members of the House only serve two year terms. Every state has the same number of congressional districts as it has seats in the House. Congressional districts each consist of approximately 750,000 people. The candidate who receives the most votes in each district gets to represent the district in the House. 

In the next section, we will dive into the American legislative process. In doing this, we will elaborate on the function of the U.S. Congress and its chambers and touch upon the overall role of Congress in the U.S. political system. 


  • Compare how Folketinget works in Denmark with how Congress works in the U.S. Which differences and similarities are there? 
  • In your own words, explain how elections for Congress are conducted. 
  • Close to 40 million people live in California. Seven states have less than 1 million inhabitants. Do you think it is fair that California has 53 seats in the House of Representatives when seven of the small states have only 1 seat? Why/why not? 
  • Do you think it is fair that every state gets two seats in the Senate even though some states has a very large population compared to others. Why/why not? 
  • What do you think about that there is a minimum age to be elected for office in the U.S. (25 years old for the House, 30 years for the Senate, and 35 years for presidency)? Which advantages and disadvantages do you see in having a lower age limit as this for taking office? 

What does the legislative process look like? – The role of Congress and the President

If you have already read the previous sections about division of power, the presidential election, and Congress we are now ready to connect all this knowledge. We will do this by taking a look at the legislative process in the U.S. We will also examine the procedural roles of the different branches of power in the political system. 

Bills are passed jointly between the two chambers in Congress. These chambers are called the Senate and the House of Representatives, and they constitute the legislative power in the U.S. The president can choose to veto the bill. Therefore, all three authorities, the president, the Senate, and the House, are integral parts in the legislative process. In some areas of politics the president even has a mandate to pass policies without having to get it approved by Congress. 

Presidential, Senate, and House elections are separate procedures. Therefore, the same party does not always have the presidency as well as the majority of seats in both chambers at the same time. For example, when Donald Trump was President of the United States, in the last half of his term the Democrats had the majority of seats in the House. The Republicans, in turn, held a majority in the Senate as well as the presidency. If one party controls all three parts it is much easier to implement its policies. Because in such cases it is not necessary to strike compromises with the other party. If the Republicans have the majority of seats in one chamber and the Democrats in the other, it is necessary to compromise in order to pass laws. To understand why, let us now move on to examine how a bill becomes law. 

From bill to legislation 

Anyone can write a bill. However, only members of House of Representatives can officially present the bill as something to be voted for. When one or more politicians from the House does this, it is called “sponsoring” a bill. Thus, if a president wants to pass a bill, they must get someone elected to the House to sponsor it. 

The role of the Senate and the House 

When the bill has been introduced to the House it is assigned to a committee for examination. The committee may then adjust the bill before they take it to the floor for a vote. If a majority vote in favor of the bill, it moves to the Senate. In the Senate, the bill is processed as well. If members of the Senate wish to adjust the bill they do so. After that, they move on to a vote. If the bill receives the majority of votes in the Senate as well, a joint committee between the House and Senate is formed. This committee will try to find a compromise between the two versions of the bill that the two chambers have voted through. Subsequently, the new bill is sent back to both the House and Senate. Here, they can be passed by a simple majority in both chambers. 

For a bill to be passed it must be voted through with the exact same language in both the House and the Senate. A bill may therefore be sent back and forth between the two chambers several times. However, the bill could also be passed by the Senate in the first round without any changes being made. In that case it would not be necessary to establish a joint committee, since the bill would immediately have been passed with the exact same language in both chambers. 

The president’s role 

If a bill is successfully passed with identical language in both the House and the Senate it moves on to the President. The President then has ten days to either sign the bill into law or veto the bill. The President can also choose to neither sign the bill nor veto it. In that case the bill will still become law even without the president’s signature after the 10 days. If the President chooses to veto the bill it will be sent back to Congress. In Congress, the processing of the bill will then start over. 

However, it is possible for Congress to trump the president’s veto. This can be done if more than 2/3 of the members of the House as well as the Senate vote in favor of the bill. In that case the process would not have to start over and the bill would just be passed, despite the president’s veto. The Supreme Court has the possibility of preventing the bill turning into law if it considers the bill to be unconstitutional. That rarely happens though. 

When a bill has been passed it is the president’s job to implement it in national legislation. 



  • What advantages and disadvantages can you identify in situations where the same party is not in control of both chambers of Congress and in possession of the presidency? 
  • What advantages and disadvantages do you think there are in having so many different institutions be a part of the legislative process (House of Representatives, Senate, the President, and in some instances the courts)? 


  • To the right, you can watch the iconic School House Rock video “I’m Just a Bill” which describes the process of how a bill becomes a law.