American presidential elections 2016

, par Mathieu Besmier

I. General context

To understand the United States presidential electoral process, one must know that altering the US Constitution (ratified in 1789) is a difficult process. It would almost be considered a sacrilege by many Americans who see it as a sacred text, connecting them to the American Revolution and the US Founding Fathers who shaped the American republic and democracy. Watch the video to understand why it is a difficult process.

In the system as it currently works, each party selects its candidate through the process of PRIMARIES, open to registered voters state by state. To learn more about primaries, watch the video.

This year, Hillary Clinton had to fight her way to the nomination against Bernie Sanders. On the other hand, outsider Donald Trump rather easily defeated his opponents, and ends up the first non politician to land the nomination of a major party in (at least recent) history. In July 2016, both parties held their CONVENTIONS. Once a real moment of selection of the candidate, this event has now mostly become an expensive and carefully prepared ready-made show for televisions.

The candidate for the presidency has a “running mate” : the candidate for the vice-presidency. The choice of this second member of the “ticket” is the presidential nominee. He/she is usually a complementary partner (to convince voters to choose their ticket) rather than a double. Hillary Clinton chose Virginia US Senator Tim Kaine for his “safeness”, whereas Donald Trump picked Mike Pence, Governor of Indiana, for his appeal to very conservative Republicans (Pence is a Tea Party member). Surprisingly, little attention seems to be paid to their ability to step in the president’s shoes if the president resigns or dies.

II. Election day (or elections days ?)

The fact that the USA is a federal country is essential in understanding the voting process. The president is not elected directly by voters. Because the size of the US territory made it difficult to organize the elections in a uniform way federally until the 20th century, voters on November 8th 2016 will actually select “electors” who will gather in the nation’s capital in December to officially elect the president. On election night, whichever candidate has the most votes in a state wins (“carries”) all the electors of that state (this is called the “winner takes all system”). While some states are traditionally Democrat or Republican, others are called “swing states” as they can go either way, depending on the election. Add to this, the fact that the number of electors for each state is based on its population, and this explains why certain states are considered “battleground states” for both candidates. Winning these states specifically might make you win the election, even if your total number of votes across the country is inferior to that of your opponent.

If all goes well, the name of the next US president will be known on the night of November 8 (the next morning for us in France). The president will then be inaugurated on January 20 in Washington, DC. During this now widely televised ceremony, he will pronounce the oath of office, 39 words that will make him/her the president : "I [name of the future President] do solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States. So help me God."

Understanding the American presidential election : Useful link for kids

Who’s Running for President in 2016 ? The candidates’ official websites :


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