Trying to Make Sense of the Confusing Presidential Election Process: Everything You Need to Know


Santiago Ochoa

A line forms outside a Bernie Sanders hours before the event starts.

Ryan Lanxton, Writer

Throughout 2020, everyone in the United States is constantly bombarded with political ads, candidate debates and campaign promises. The whole process can seem confusing for those who aren’t familiar with it.

During what is commonly referred to as the election cycle, each party, the Democratic and Republican, field a list of candidates to vie against each other for their respective party’s nomination. That nominee is then pitted against the other party’s nominee, the winner of which will gain the presidency.

Because the Republican Party already controls the presidency with Donald Trump, he is their party’s nominee, meaning the Democrats have to find a candidate that they believe will be able to win against him.

During the current election cycle, approximately 250 people filed with the Federal Election Commission to run as a candidate, 29 of which were able to actually get their names on ballots or were considered to be serious candidates. 

Some of the more well-known candidates to withdraw before the formal primaries included Texas Representative Beto O’Rourke and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio. 

The most common way for the party to narrow their choices is through the primary process. These are semi-informal elections where each state allows candidates to receive votes from that state’s Democratic voters.

The strength of the candidate’s performance in these primaries is what determines if they will be able to continue their campaign against the other potential nominees.

Most of the primaries have already happened this year. In March alone there were 26 primaries between the states and various US territories, 15 of which were held on March 3, known as Super Tuesday.

However, what is most at stake during the primaries are the votes of delegates for the candidates. The Democratic and Republican parties use their own systems for determining how these delegates are allocated, but for 2020, only the Democratic Party’s process is important.

When a candidate runs in a primary, depending on where they finish determines how many delegates they are proportionally given. For example, in the Michigan primary on March 10, Joe Biden, who won the election with 52.9% of the vote, received 73 delegate votes. Bernie Sanders, who finished in second with 36.4% of the vote, received 52 delegates.

The candidate who receives the majority of delegates by the time of the Democratic National Convention, which was scheduled to be held from July 13 to 16, will automatically receive the party’s nomination for the presidency. However, if no one receives a majority, the convention will have to repeatedly cast votes until one does.

Due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, it is unclear whether the Convention will be held in-person or not. Already delayed into August, Biden is advocating for it to be hosted virtually or votes be cast through mail.

With Sanders suspending his campaign on April 8, Biden is essentially a lock for the nomination. However, Sanders is still asking for people to vote for him in the remaining primaries so he can gather as many delegates as possible. By getting enough candidates to keep Biden from winning the nomination, Sanders can try and get some of his ideas adopted before handing them over.

What makes the Democratic nomination process unique is their use of superdelegates. These delegates are not automatically pledged to a candidate and can vote for whomever they please. These superdelegates are typically Democratic governors, members of Congress and other DNC members, totalling an estimated 764 superdelegates for 2020.

Over the past several months, potential candidates have also engaged in debates with each other. At these debates, the candidates have tried to answer tough questions in the hopes of swaying the voters while also attacking the other debaters in the hopes of exposing their weaknesses.

Money has played an increasing role in the election process, as well. Typically, candidates who can raise the most money are able to televise the most ads, send the most cold-calls and better organize their campaigns.

Sanders was able to raise millions of dollars, mostly from individual donors contributing small amounts at a time. Michael Bloomberg, a billionaire who was able to self-fund his own campaign, ultimately spent over $500 million, more than any other candidate.

By the time a nominee has been selected at the convention, they must then run against the president. Between July and the general election on Tuesday, November 4, three debates will be held between the nominee and president. One of these debates will be held on the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor campus on Thursday, October 15.

It’s not entirely clear yet if Biden or some other potential nominee will be able to defeat Trump in the general election. By early November, we’ll find who has what it takes to win the presidency.