Making social science accessible

29 Jan 2024

This explainer provides a guide to the US presidential election process and what it will look like in 2024.

On the Tuesday next after the first Monday in November (which happens to be 5 November 2024), up to 161 million eligible voters will go to the polls to vote for the next president of the United States. However, the process to get to that result is a system unlike any other. This explainer will look at each of the components of the election process, and also how the 2024 US presidential election will be unique. It will cover everything from what the Electoral College is to how Donald Trump’s criminal cases might affect the election.

What are primaries and caucuses?

US presidential elections take place in two phases. First, the two main political parties – Democrats and Republicans – hold primary elections or caucuses to nominate a candidate for president.

Primaries can be open or closed. To participate in the latter, a voter must be registered with that party in order to vote in its primary.

Four states – Iowa, North Dakota, Nevada, and Wyoming – hold caucuses. Voters attend meetings run by their party and attempt to convince others to vote for their preferred candidate. They then divide into groups according to their candidate and are tallied.

The initial races are generally considered to be the most important. Success in these tends to determine whether candidates stay in the race. Poor performance in Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina, typically prompts candidates to withdraw. The biggest voting day every election is on ‘Super Tuesday’ in February or March when approximately one-third of all delegates can be won.

The primaries and caucuses together determine the choice of presidential candidate. Following all the primaries, the parties convene for their national conventions when delegates are totalled and the party nominee is announced. Delegates attend the party’s national convention where their votes are pledged or bound in the first ballot for the candidate their state supported in the primaries/caucuses. In modern times, it is common for the convention to be something of a formality or rubber-stamping exercise, since poorly performing candidates have generally withdrawn.

The conventions effectively fire the starting gun for the general election in which whoever wins a simple majority of the votes in a given state wins all the Electoral College delegates for that state. The two exceptions are Maine and Nebraska which allocate two electoral votes to the state popular vote winner, and one electoral vote to the popular vote winner in each congressional district (2 in Maine, 3 in Nebraska).

“The swing states (also referred to as key battleground states) to watch in the 2024 election will be Pennsylvania, Arizona, Georgia, Wisconsin, and Nevada”

While candidates hold campaign rallies across the country, and participate in televised debates, they tend to focus their efforts (and particularly their spending) on key swing states which flip between parties with a narrow margin of victory (equivalent to UK marginal constituencies). Since the country is closely divided with most states securely Republican or Democrat, those few swing states are the primary focus.

The swing states (also referred to as key battleground states) to watch in the 2024 election will be Pennsylvania, Arizona, Georgia, Wisconsin, and Nevada. New York, Florida, and Ohio were all once swing states, but have become safe states for their respective parties in the past decades, while formerly safe seats like Arizona and Georgia became swing states in 2020. 

Chart showing the six swing states that will likely determine the 2024 presidential US election (Nevada, Arizona, Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Georgia)

What is the Electoral College?

The Electoral College is a system unique to the US and applies only to presidential elections. Rather than the president being elected by a simple majority of the popular vote, the share of the votes of each state and of the District of Columbia in the electoral college is calculated according to its share of the national population with the proviso that, regardless of how small its population, each has at least three votes. Therefore, a successful candidate must win 270 of 538 electoral votes. All but two states use a winner-takes-all voting system. For example, in 2020 Biden won Georgia with only 49.5% of the vote (compared to Trump’s 49.2%), giving Biden all 16 electoral votes.

“This system means that a president can win without winning the popular vote”

This system means that a president can win without winning the popular vote. In 2000, George W. Bush beat Al Gore while losing the popular vote by around 545,000 votes. In 2016 Donald Trump beat Hillary Clinton, even though he lost the popular vote by nearly 2.9 million. Prior to 2000, the only election where the candidate lost the popular vote but won in the electoral college was in 1888.

What are the key dates for the 2024 US election?

The primary election season began on 15 January 2024 with the Iowa caucuses for both parties. From then, each party will hold their respective primary in each state between January and June. In 2024, ‘Super Tuesday’ will be on 5 March. By 4 June all states will have voted, the parties will then hold their national conventions at the end of the summer when their nominees will be announced. Election day is the first Tuesday in November – which will be 5 November 2024.

All states will hold their primaries even if only one candidate has a feasible route to the nomination. For example, in the case of the Democratic Party this year almost all states (unless they cancel them) will be holding primaries even though the only candidate with a chance of winning the nomination is Joe Biden.

Who are the candidates?

Barring unforeseeable events, President Biden will be the Democratic Party candidate. Traditionally, a first-term incumbent is the presumptive nominee for the party. Biden has been challenged by Robert F. Kennedy Jr, Minnesota Representative Dean Phillips, and author Marianne Williamson. However, they have been unable to gain any traction, with Kennedy dropping out to run as an independent candidate.

“Trump would be only the second former president to win the nomination after losing office”

The Republican field started more open. There are only two candidates left after the Iowa caucus, Donald Trump and former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley. Candidates that have dropped out include Florida governor Ron DeSantis, former VP Mike Pence, former New Jersey governor Chris Christie, and entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy. The clear front-runner is former president Donald Trump. He won Iowa with the largest-ever vote share of 51%. He is polling at over 60% as of January 2024 and (absent unforeseeable events) will be the Republican presidential candidate.

Trump would be only the second former president to win the nomination after losing office, after Grover Cleveland in 1892.

Will there be third-party candidates?

It is possible a third-party candidate may run. While they would have no chance of winning, they could affect the outcome of the presidential race. In 1992, Ross Perot won the highest share of the popular vote of any independent candidate since 1912 with 19% (though he did not win a state, and hence gained no Electoral College votes). It is still debated whether his campaign cost George H.W. Bush the election. In 2000, the Green Party candidate Ralph Nader probably cost Al Gore the election by winning 97,421 votes in Florida, where Bush won by only 537 votes. In 2016 Green Party candidate Jill Stein was seen as tipping the scales against Hillary Clinton by winning votes in key states that Clinton lost.

In 2024, independent candidates may again affect the election. The most significant could be Kennedy who is currently polling at 10% in national polls with evidence of significant cross-party appeal.

Green Party candidate Jill Stein has also declared her candidacy. Cornel West dropped out of the Green Party to run as an independent. They will be looking to win over younger, more liberal voters who are alienated by Joe Biden. Even though both are polling below 2% nationally, they might well affect outcomes in swing states. Another potential third-party candidate could come from the group No Label, which has toyed with the idea of fielding a Democrat and Republican on the same ticket.

How does the Vice President (VP) get selected?  And why does it matter?

The front-runner in the primaries tends to nominate a running mate prior to the party’s national convention. At the convention, the Vice President (VP) is accepted.

Presidential candidates typically try to choose VPs that can improve their chances of being elected. They might select someone who is a significant figure in a key swing state or has voter appeal for a certain demographic that the presidential candidate struggles to appeal to.

However, research has found that the effect of VP selection is limited and usually evaporates before election day. Results show that selections targeting regions, religions, gender or ideological identity have no effect.

When will we know the outcome of the election?

The outcome is generally announced the same night. Polls typically close around 8pm in their respective time zones. Tallying begins immediately after and goes through the night with results announced in the very early hours of the next morning.

2020 was an exception. The results were not announced until three and half days after the election as, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, there were a large number of mail-in ballots. However, with the pandemic over, more voters will vote in person, hence results could be announced early in the morning of 6 November.

What is the lame duck period?

Unlike UK elections, where a new prime minister enters 10 Downing Street the next day, US elections have a transition period of nearly three months. Congress will meet in joint session on 6 January 2025 to count the electoral votes. The Vice President, as President of the Senate, presides over the count and announces the results of the Electoral College vote. The President of the Senate then declares who has been elected President and Vice-President of the United States.

“US elections have a transition period of nearly three months”

The outgoing president, House and Senate remain in office until the inauguration on 20 January. The president retains all of their formal authority during this period and will face few if any consequences for using it. For example, Bill Clinton issued 140 pardons on his last day in office including to close colleagues and his half-brother.

Is there a risk of voter suppression or election interference?

The 2020 election saw claims of widespread voter fraud from the Republican Party. Trump supporters called for vote counting to stop in states where he was leading and to continue in states where he was behind. There were accusations of voting machine tampering by right-leaning news channels. Trump appointed Attorney General William Barr to investigate these claims. Barr concluded in December 2020 there was no evidence of widespread fraud.

Such accusations will likely arise again in the 2024 election, especially if Trump loses.

Experts have pointed to what appears to be concerted efforts by the Republican Party to pass voter suppression laws. In the aftermath of the 2020 election, many Republican-led states were successful in passing such laws deploying methods such as the removal or reduction of polling locations and ballot drop-boxes (boxes designated for dropping off ballots instead of posting them). Other laws have been introduced to reject ‘mismatched’ signatures, purge voter rolls, and restrict mail-in voting.

By June 2023, 322 bills in 45 states had been proposed by state politicians to restrict voting access, with 11 states enacting 13 restrictive laws. To date, all such bills have been put forward by Republican politicians. 13 states have enacted 19 laws to expand voting access.

What is Donald Trump on trial for and how will it affect the campaign?

In March 2024, Donald Trump will stand trial for the first of four indictments currently levelled against him. Two are directly related to his involvement in the attempt to overturn the 2020 election. The first is a federal indictment related to attempts to overturn the election results including on 6 January 2021. The case is expected to begin on 4 March.

He will face his first indictment on state charges in New York over the alleged hush money payments made to porn star Stormy Daniels in 2016 with a trial date set for 25 March.

The other federal case brought against him concerns the alleged mishandling of classified documents after his presidency, which led to the FBI searching his residency at Mar-a-Lago in August 2022 and recovering 13,000 documents. That trial will begin on 10 May.

The final indictment on state charges has not been officially scheduled but had been set for 5 August 2024. The indictment was initiated by the state of Georgia in relation to alleged attempts to overturn the 2020 election results in the state. It remains doubtful that this indictment will move to trial.

“These trials will occur during the campaign and verdicts are unlikely before election day”

These trials will occur during the campaign and verdicts are unlikely before election day on the 5 November 2024. If Donald Trump were re-elected he might succeed in ending the cases against him at federal level or even pardon himself to provide present and future immunity from prosecution. He could not avoid state proceedings, but the pressure on state authorities to do so would probably be intense.

It is unclear how much these trials will affect his campaign, but according to polling it has not affected his popularity among his base. A poll from Iowa, the first state to vote, found that 61% said criminal charges would not affect their vote and that 90% think Biden did not win the election fairly.

Timeline of key election and Trump trial dates

Why have Colorado and Maine said Trump cannot be on the ballot for the primaries? Will that still apply in the presidential election?

The Colorado Supreme Court and Maine’s secretary of state have removed Donald Trump from the primary ballot invoking Section 3 of the 14th Amendment of the Constitution which was enacted after the Civil War to bar individuals who engaged in insurrection or rebellion. The purpose of Section 3 was to prevent Confederate officials from serving in the government.

This is the first time this has been invoked since the Civil War.

The state supreme courts of Minnesota, Michigan, and California have all ruled that election officials cannot bar Trump from running in the primaries. Oregon is expected to rule soon. Given that Trump is already the presumptive nominee, the rulings are of little consequence.

By Stephen Hunsaker, researcher, UK in a Changing Europe. 

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