Background Information about U.S. Election – Part I


This article is written by Molly Heidemann, Associate Director of International Student and Scholars. 


Unless you have been living under a rock, you know that there is a presidential election happening in the United States on November 8. Perhaps you have some opinions about who you would like to see win the election. Maybe you have some questions about how the whole thing works. I decided to ask some Chinese students and colleagues what they would like to know about the election. I didn’t realize they would ask me such hard questions! I am going to do my best to answer their questions below. However, I am not an expert. I would like to urge all of you who have questions about the election to come our workshop on Thursday, November 3 at 5:30pm in MacMillan 212. Two professors from the Political Science department will be presenting about the US election process and will be better able to answer all the questions you have. This is a “once-in-four-years” opportunity, so don’t miss it!

1.What are the requirements to become a presidential candidate?

According to the US Constitution, there are three eligibility requirements to be President of the United States:

  • You have to be 35 years old,
  • You have to be a “natural born citizen” of the United States, and
  • You have to have resided in the United States for at least 14 years

Apparently, I am eligible to be President. Maybe I will run in 2020.

2. What are the factors to determine who will become a president in the end?

Well, I can’t possibly explain the entire process here, so the short answer is that they have to win the vote. A slightly longer answer is that they first have to win the nomination of their party during the primary process, and then they have to win at least 270 of the 538 available electoral votes during the general election. Essentially, each state has a certain number of electoral votes, based on the population of the state. Ohio has 18 electoral votes, making it the state with the 7th most votes. Whichever candidate wins the popular vote in a given state wins all of the electoral votes for that state.

3. Why is Ohio so important in this presidential election? Is there something special about Ohio?

As mentioned, above Ohio has the 7th most electoral votes in the country. It is also a “swing state.” This means that the race is typically very close in Ohio; sometimes the Democratic candidate wins and sometimes the Republican candidate wins. This is different from California, for example, which always votes Democrat, or Alabama, which always votes Republican. In the current election, there are about six or seven swing states. What makes Ohio so special is that in every presidential election since 1964, Ohio has voted for the candidate that has ended up winning. Actually, we have only voted for the wrong candidate twice since 1896! Thus, we are sometimes referred to as a “bellwether” state… “As Ohio goes, so goes the nation.” However, for the current election, most pollsters say that Trump would have to win Ohio (and most other swing states) in order to win the election, whereas Clinton could win without winning those states.

4. Why do people only care about Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton? I heard there are two more candidates, but I didn’t hear people talk about them too much.

The other two candidates that you are referring to are Gary Johnson (Libertarian Party) and Jill Stein (Green Party). However, my google search indicates that there are nearly 30 other candidates for president who will appear on at least some states’ ballots. The Ohio ballot will include Trump, Clinton, Johnson, Stein, and someone named Richard Duncan, who I’ve never heard of. The reason you don’t hear much about these other parties is that the US has a two-party system, which means that the two major political parties (Republican and Democrat since 1856) dominate our government. There are various rules in place related to ballot access and debates that make it difficult for third-party candidates to have a fighting chance. For example, there is a rule that says a candidate must have at least 15% support in public opinion polls in order to participate in a major debate. This is why Johnson and Stein weren’t able to participate in the debates.