The Process of Candidate Selection in an Electoral System


By Jennifer Nicoll Victor, Ph.D., George Mason University

The U.S. process of candidate selection is incredibly long and arduous. Presidential candidates campaign for nearly two years. To have any reasonable shot at winning, a candidate would need to spend a year conducting a serious national campaign. This is because the Constitution has mandated a four-year term for a president.

The image of the White House in Washington DC
A president is in office for four years in the United States. (Image: turtix/Shutterstock)

The Year-and-a-Half-Plus Process

A year-and-a-half-plus process of voting is run by the states, which introduces a fair amount of variation about how selecting a candidate operates from one place to another. In addition, political parties are in charge of the rules that govern nominating procedures. Each political party goes through a nomination process to select a single candidate. 

When it comes to parties nominating candidates to be their standard-bearer in a presidential election, the national political parties themselves make the rules and define the procedures. It used to be the case that all of this was done at each party’s national convention, where a candidate was selected and then nominated. 

Today, parties still use conventions, but typically the nominee has already been identified prior to the actual convention. This is because each state party organizes a contest to determine how to allocate that state’s votes to the national nominating convention.

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‘Caucus’ Process of Candidate Selection

An image of a voter holding a vote sign
There are two methods to select the delegates of each state, primary and caucuses. (Image: oleschwander/Shutterstock)

States basically use one of two procedures to assign delegates to their party’s national nominating convention: caucus or primary. A caucus is an increasingly less common means of selecting a nominee, but it’s still utilized in around 10 US states and territories. 

By tradition, the very first nominating contest of each presidential election cycle happens in Iowa, where the Democratic and Republican parties hold their caucuses on the same day, usually in January or February of the presidential election year.

When a state holds a caucus, it is basically a series of simultaneously occurring town meetings, where voters and candidate representatives come together to make their case, deliberate, and take a series of votes that result in a single nominee winning each meeting. Generally, caucuses are open to all registered voters of the party with which they are caucusing, but caucus events can sometimes last many hours, especially if there are many candidates to consider. These votes are tallied across the state and ultimately winners from each party are declared.

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‘Primary’ to Assign Delegates

The more common method employed by states is to use a primary to allocate the state party delegates to the national nominating convention. A primary election is a standard election that occurs before the general election—usually in the late winter or spring—in which qualified candidates from one party compete against one another to win the state party’s delegates. 

Often the Republican and Democratic parties will hold their primaries on the same day, but not always. In addition, different states use different primary election rules. In a closed primary, only registered voters who have pre-identified their party registration can vote in that party’s primary. In other words, only registered Republicans can vote in the Republican primary, and only registered Democrats can vote in the Democratic primary.

Three Presidential Election Indicators 

A party that has held the presidency for one term and nominates its presidential incumbent for re-election, has a built-in advantage. However, a party that has held the presidency for two full terms has a disadvantage. 

American voters typically don’t like one particular party to hold on to the presidency for too long. This is not necessarily a conscious decision on the part of voters, but the historical record shows that a party rarely wins three or more successive terms for the White House.

An image of a tribune with two American flags on both sides and White House illustration in the background
There are three accurate indicators for the presidential election. (Image: Maxx-Studio/Shutterstock)

Forecasters tend to look at the popularity of the incumbent party’s president—regardless if that incumbent is running for re-election—in order to ascertain how satisfied the public is with the presidential leadership that has been associated with that political party. The most predictive indicator is the president’s popularity rating in July of the presidential election year. 

The third accurate indicator of a presidential election is the economy. Forecasters have observed that the state of the general US economy in the second quarter of the election year is the best indicator of whether it (economic conditions) will help the incumbent or the challenger. Strong economic indicators have been associated with an incumbent party holding on, and a struggling economy is associated with the challenger winning.

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There are several economic indicators that can describe the state of the economy, including the unemployment rate, change in the gross domestic product (GDP), stock market fluctuations, interest rate hikes, the durable goods report, and others. 

Scholars have observed that in the past the most predictive indicator has been the change in the relative GDP after the end of the second quarter. Therefore, forecasters looked particularly closely at the GDP decline at the end of June 2020, in determining whether a robust economy helps re-elect an incumbent president or give a structural advantage to his challenger.

Common Questions about the Process of Candidate Selection in an Electoral System

Q: How is the voting process run in the United States?

The entire process of voting is run by the states, which brings up a fair amount of variation about how the process of candidate selection utilizes from place to place. Besides, political parties are responsible for the rules that legislate nominating protocols.

Q: What is the Caucus process for selecting a candidate?

Although the Caucus is a less common way to select a candidate, it is still common in 10 states of the United States. During this process of candidate selection, Democratic and Republican parties hold their caucuses and represent meetings to vote and select one nominee.

Q: What happens in primaries?

The primary procedure is a process of candidate selection. In a primary, voters are allowed to crossover, meaning that any registered voter, regardless of party affiliation, can vote in a primary.

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