Shortcuts / 03 March 2020

The US Elections: Overview

The 2020 US presidential election is happening in November. In this episode of Squiz Shortcuts, we’re going to look at who can become President, how the parties elect their candidates, the all-important numbers; and what to watch out for in the 2020 election…

What’s the criteria for becoming President of the United States?
According to the US Constitution, you must be a natural born citizen of the United States, a resident for at least 14 years, and be aged 35 years and over. But you’re out if you’ve been impeached by the House of Representatives and convicted in the Senate (current US President Donald Trump was exonerated in his impeachment trial in the US Senate, which means he is free to run again in 2020). And no President can be elected more than twice, so the maximum time anyone can be President is eight years.

The two major parties in the US are the Republicans and the Democrats… Who are the Democrats?
The Democratic Party formed in 1828 and is the world’s oldest active political party. It started from a position of supporting limited government and state sovereignty while opposing banks and supporting slavery. But these days it is a party that stands for small L liberal values. What that means is Democrats generally support strong government and some socially progressive positions. 

And who are the Republicans?
The Republican party is sometimes referred to as the GOP – or Grand Old Party. It started from a position of opposing the expansion of slavery, and supported economic reform. These days it supports things like lower taxes, free(ish) markets, restrictions on immigration, increased military spending, gun rights, restrictions on abortion.

How do the parties select their presidential candidates?
The Republicans and Democrats select their candidate through a series of votes through a caucus, or a primary. These take place in ‘primary season’, which runs from January to June in an election year. These primaries and caucuses happen on a state-by-state basis. There are some slight differences between how a primary and a caucus is run, but we won’t go into that here. The voting process kicks off in the states of Iowa and New Hampshire – which tend to set the scene for the following elections in other states and therefore have significant influence over the results – although this is not always the case. 

So during primary season, the party’s candidates are basically fighting each other to become the presidential candidate. How does that work?
In each vote, the top candidates receive either all or a percentage of the state’s delegates. And those delegates then go on to vote for their state’s selections at each party’s nominating convention held mid-year, where a final party candidate is announced. This year, the Democrats will hold a Convention from 13-16 July. A month later, the Republicans will hold their own national convention between 24-27 August.

What happens during the presidential election campaign?
At just two and a bit months long, the actual battle between the two candidates is a lot shorter than the parties’ process to find a candidate. The election campaign itself is a fairly simple process – three presidential debates are held between September and October, as well as one vice presidential debate. These debates play a big role in the process of presidential elections. They can play an important role in helping voters make up their minds. And in a close race, with a very polarized electorate, a shift of just a few percentage points could matter a great deal. And on the first Tuesday in November, voters go to the polls to elect their president.

How does the electoral college system work?
When Americans vote on election day, they’re casting a vote for the position of electors in their state. And this is the foundation of what’s called the electoral college system. The electoral college ensures each state gets a certain number of electors based on its total number of representatives in Congress. There’s some weighting involved in favour of the smaller states and regional voters, but supporters say that’s an important feature of the system. Different states get a different number of votes in the electoral college, depending on the population of that state. So California, which has a high population, has 55 votes. Then you’ve got somewhere like Delaware, which is smaller, so they’ve got three votes. All up there are 538 votes in the electoral college, across the 50 states and the capital Washington DC, which makes reaching 270 votes the winning number for a President. However, there have been times when this result has been different to what people call the popular vote – the count of individual Americans votes. And again, that’s because the electoral college formula plays with how votes are ultimately counted. That’s happened four times in the past. More recently it happened to Al Gore in 2000, against George W Bush, and Hillary Clinton in 2016 against Donald Trump.

Who is eligible to vote in the US?
Contrary to here in Australia where voting is compulsory, exactly who can vote is a contentious issue in itself in the US. Voting isn’t compulsory in the US and in the 2016 election turnout hit a 20 year low with 55% of eligible voters coming out on election day. You have to be over 18, you have to be a US citizen. And in some states, you can’t have a felony conviction. That’s all fairly straightforward. But you do have to be registered to vote in your state. A big study after the last election found that it’s apathy that prevents people from voting. But there’s also regular accusation of what’s called voter suppression across the US where legal and illegal efforts are made to prevent eligible voters from exercising their right to vote. 

How are election campaigns funded?
US Presidential election campaigns take a lot of money to run… which means that there’s a lot of fundraisers. And that gets us into the murky world of political donors. There are what’s called Super PACS – a PAC is a political action committee – which have unlimited abilities to raise uncapped donations. But there are a lot of small donors too. In fact last election Donald Trump was able to draw about $280 million from small donors giving $200 or less which made up almost a third of his total fundraising effort. But to give you a sense of how much money it takes – in 2016 Hilary Clinton raised $1.19 billion to Trump’s almost $650 million. 

The US is a big country, so candidates have to be strategic with their time and money. What are the key states and why?
In the US these are called swing states, and it all comes down to the maths of the contest. But traditionally we’re talking about Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Wisconsin as “perennial” swing states. And they can have a big impact on an election result because of the electoral votes they have. Florida for instance, has 29 electoral college votes, so it’s a pretty important state to win. So these swing states are the ones to watch in the coming months. 

Squiz Recommends:
• Pod Save America – The Electoral College is f*cking stupid

• Hamilton the Musical (you can see a snippet of it here)

Axios – a US politics site that also does pithy email newsletters

Squiz Shortcuts - A weekly explainer on a big news topic.

Get the Squiz Today newsletter

It's a quick read and doesn't take itself too seriously. Get on it.