American election diaries (1): A guide to becoming the next U.S. President

21 Jun 2024 ,

This year, more voters than ever before in history are heading to the voting booths – and no election promises more far-reaching consequences than the one for the next U.S. President. In this Vox series, Antonia Leise and Maddy Cicha take a look at one of the most important elections of 2024. But how does one actually become a U.S. President? A humorous guide.

Do you perform well under pressure? Would you consider yourself a natural-born leader? And does your dream job include housing provided by your employer in a buzzing urban area (rose garden included)? Then becoming the President of the United States of America might just be the job for you. And it’s up for grabs this autumn!

But what does it actually take to become the world’s most powerful politician? In this article, We’ve summarised the process in eight easy steps.

Step 1: Declare that you’re a candidate

According to the U.S. Constitution, a candidate needs to meet three basic requirements, including being (1) a natural-born citizen, (2) at least 35 years old, and (3) a resident of the United States for at least 14 years. There are no federal deadlines for registering with the Federal Elections Commission (FEC) as a presidential candidate, but most office seekers will register and announce their candidacy in the spring before the election year, which will give you plenty of time to raise money and campaign. Oh, and of course, this is also the time for you to come up with a peppy campaign slogan.

Step 2: Find your (political) identity

Every candidate suffers through an identity crisis at some point or another. Luckily, there are very few political ideologies to choose from in the U.S. You can run on the political left (or what most people in Europe would consider ‘centre’), as a Democrat, or on the political right, as a Republican. But seeking the nomination of a recognized party, such as the Democrats or Republicans, is only one of three ways that you can get your name on the presidential ballot.

Though the U.S. is known for its two-party system, many states will also recognise ‘third’ parties, like the Libertarian or Green Party. And you can also run as an independent candidate. That is a little more tricky, though, because you need a certain number of signatures from voters in each state to get your name on the ballot. The number of signatures needed can range from 275 in Tennessee to 219,403 in California, which explains why rapper Kanye West was only on the ballot in 12 states during his brief run as an independent candidate in the 2020 election.

Finally, you can always run as a write-in candidate. Though this might be the most difficult option of all. Not only do you have to be quite popular to convince the majority of a state to write your name on a ballot where you’re not listed, but each state has different requirements when it comes to your legitimacy as a write-in candidate. Hopefully, you’re already famous if you’re taking this route!

There are many ways to becoming a U.S. President, but running with a party (and being white, male, and Christian) does help your chances. Statistically. Illustration: Ivana Smudja.

Step 3: Navigate the political selection vocabulary

Running a campaign is a popularity contest and can be ruff (just ask the nine dogs who have been elected as mayors across the country). Once party candidates are recognized – two legs or four – most states hold primary elections six to nine months before the presidential general election. But some states will hold a caucus instead. Cauca-what? Don’t worry, running for office comes with some new vocabulary. But we’ve got you covered.

A primary is a typical election where voters submit ballots. A caucus is a meeting where the political parties ask participating voters to form groups representing their desired nominee, and those groups give speeches hoping to recruit undecided voters. At the end of the night, whether it be a primary or caucus, the candidate with the most votes in a state is awarded that state’s delegates, though sometimes a state will split its delegates between multiple candidates (each state has its own set of rules for this, and it is complex).

Step 4: Become your party’s nominee

Congratulations! You’ve made it through the primary election season. Have you been named your party’s nominee? Well, that depends on the number of delegates you’ve received. If you have acquired the most of anyone running in your party (i.e., as a Republican or Democrat), or you’ve simply outlasted the other candidates, you will likely be named your party’s nominee at their national convention. Each party will hold a convention, which is pretty much a big (but exclusive) celebration stocked with celebrities and famous guest speakers, to formally announce a nominee.

Around that time, the nominee will also formally announce their running mate (or vice president). As a newcomer to American politics, perhaps you’d like to start with something smaller than the presidency – like the vice presidency. Donald Trump is still looking for a vice president for his ticket, now that anticipated pick Governor Kristi Noem is likely out of the running. That happened after Noem published an autobiography where she (quite literally) brags about shooting a puppy and implies she would shoot President Biden’s dog too. So, if you have made it this far, whatever you do, don’t do that.

Step 5: Presidential debate

Now that your name is on the ballot, it’s time to officially face your opponent. While back-and-fourths on X (formally known as Twitter) might be an invention of the 21st century, presidential debates have a much longer tradition. The first general presidential debate was held in 1960 between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon, but there have been unofficial presidential debates reaching back to Abraham Lincoln.

After months of uncertainty (and a letter signed by every major U.S. broadcaster), both Biden and Trump have agreed to two presidential debates, one scheduled in June and one in September. Excluded from the presidential debate will be third-party candidate Robert F. Kennedy, jr. – and it is unclear what will happen to the debates should Donald Trump be sentenced to serve time in prison before the first appointment.

Step 6: Survive Election Night

After months of shaking hands and making promises that may or may not be kept once you become the next President, it all comes down to this moment: election night. Of course, you will have anxiously followed the opinion polls over the past months, but there might be some surprises in store once it comes down to the election. Just ask Hillary Clinton.

This year, on the 5th of November, the United States of America will head to the ballots and, throughout the day, the election’s results will trickle in. However, it can take days – or even weeks – until all the votes have been counted and you know whether the people have decided in your favour. Well, more or less.

‘There might be some surprises in store once it comes down to the election. Just ask Hillary Clinton’

A bit more than a month later, the Electoral College will then officially vote. While the vote of the Electoral is a mere formality, it has received some criticism since its establishment in 1787. Because of the Electoral College, a candidate can, for example, receive the ‘popular vote’ but not be elected President. Famous examples of this have been Hillary Clinton’s loss against Donald Trump in 2016 and Al Gore’s loss against George W. Bush in 2000.

Step 7: Inaugurations and (hopefully) no insurrections

The people and the Electoral College have decided – and now you’re officially the President of the United States. But before you can start fixing the dwindling economy, meet with NATO partners to discuss Russian nuclear weapon drills, and decide on your response to the war in Palestine, you have to be inaugurated.

‘You will need to decide on a poetry reading, musical guests, and, potentially, how to handle sore losers storming government buildings’

The inauguration is generally scheduled on January 20th (unless that day falls on a Sunday, then it’s moved to January 21st) and is the formal swearing-in ceremony. Before the inauguration, you will need to decide on a poetry reading, musical guests, and, potentially, how to handle sore losers storming government buildings.

On inauguration day, you and your vice president have to swear an oath, after which you will be allowed to carry out official duties. Many past presidents have opted to take the oath on a Bible, but you may break the tradition with your book of choice. Or, a magazine, as a matter of fact. You could swear yourself into office with a Vox magazine if you wanted to, for example. Or, like Teddy Roosevelt, omit the book entirely.

Step 8: You’ve made it

A few months and millions of dollars in campaign funds later, you have finally made it. You are now the President of the United States! For the next four years, your vice president and you will have your work cut out for you. But don’t forget: the next election is coming soon. Unless this is your second term in office. Because in the U.S., unlike in the Netherlands, there is still an official restriction on the time you are allowed to serve. The only President successfully breaking the term limit to date has been Franklin D. Roosevelt – but do not get your hopes up. The previously unofficial limit has been constitutionalised since then.

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