Road to the White House (Part 1): A Guide to the 2024 U.S. Presidential Candidate Selection Process

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Road to the White House (Part 1): A Guide to the 2024 U.S. Presidential Candidate Selection Process
Road to the White House (Part 1): A Guide to the 2024 U.S. Presidential Candidate Selection Process

By Pearl Matibe in Washington D.C.

America has more than 89,004 local governments, which can make understanding the intricacies of voting, delegates, and federalism in the United States not so simple. However, White House Correspondent, Pearl Matibe, engaged in a comprehensive briefing in Washington, with Dr. Bridgett King, a renowned expert from the University of Kentucky’s Department of Political Science, who talked about the intricate details of American election processes. In a moderated briefing, Dr. King shed light on the federalist system’s impact on election administration, the role of states in candidate selection, and the diverse mechanics of casting, counting, and certifying votes across the country. 

Dr. King’s opening remarks emphasized the fundamental structure of the American electoral system within a federalist framework. She highlighted the significant variation in election processes between states and even within local jurisdictions, emphasizing the absence of a centralized electoral management body.

This decentralized approach, Dr. King noted, results in a complex web of stakeholders and organizations involved in facilitating elections, ranging from voters and political parties to state and local election officials, advocacy groups, and technology vendors. 

One key aspect highlighted by Dr. King was the diversity in the roles and responsibilities of chief election officials at the state level. She provided insights into the different pathways through which these officials are selected or appointed, highlighting the diversity of administrative structures that contribute to election management across America.

She shed light on the complex candidate selection processes within primary elections and caucuses, in the United States. In an in-depth discussion, she explained the delegate counts for each party, she noted that the Republican side boasts a total of 2,429 delegates, with 2,328 of those being pledged and the remaining 104 unpledged. In contrast, the Democratic Party encompasses 4,672 delegates, among which approximately 3,900 are pledged, and 739 are unpledged, commonly referred to as superdelegates.

Dr. King further explained the path to becoming the presidential nominee for both the Republican National Convention (RNC) and the Democratic National Convention (DNC). She stated that to secure the Republican nomination, a candidate must garner the support of 1,215 delegates. On the Democratic side, the magic number for a nominee is 1,968 pledged delegates.

In the United States, the path to the presidential nomination is far from monolithic. As Dr. Bridgett King of the University of Kentucky outlined, America’s federalist structure results in a kaleidoscope of processes across the 50 states for conducting primaries, caucuses, and nominating conventions. 

“There is considerable variation not only between states but also within states,” said Dr. King. “Neither the federal nor state governments are dependent on each other for power when it comes to elections.”  

This decentralized approach means the nuts and bolts of how Americans vote in primaries and caucuses can differ drastically from locality to locality. From voter registration deadlines and voting technology to the timeline for certifying results, the rules are set at the state and local level, sometimes even varying within a state’s counties and municipalities. 

Pinpointing an exact number of “election jurisdictions” is difficult, as it depends on whether one is counting counties, cities, townships, or other delineations. According to the U.S. Census, there are 89,004 local governments, though not all administer their own elections. 

At the helms of this intricate web are the chief election officials designated by each state, whether secretaries of state, governor appointees, or boards and commissions. Overseeing the ground game are thousands of local authorities facilitating the voting process. 

“The theme, if there is one characteristic of voting, registration, and the primary process in the United States, is the difference,” Dr. King stated. 

This varied landscape emerged through “trial, error, and compromise” as the young nation grappled with electoral chaos in its early years. The Federalist system allowed states to impose order through structures and geographic boundaries while maintaining autonomy. 

“Those decisions exist within this broader umbrella of federalism,” said Dr. King. “States and localities have the freedom to make decisions supported by or in the best interest of their voters.”  

Despite this patchwork quality, primaries and caucuses serve the same core function – allowing voters to select delegates to the national nominating conventions rather than directly choosing each party’s presidential nominee. These “pledged delegates” are typically party activists obligated to vote at the convention according to their state’s primary or caucus results. 

How those pledged delegates are allocated to candidates reveals another layer of complexity. “Some states use a proportional system based on the popular vote, others are winner-take-all, and the Republican Party employs a hybrid model,” explained Dr. King. “The Democratic Party leans more heavily on proportional allocation.”  

The cast of delegates also includes unpledged or “superdelegate” figures like members of Congress and state party leaders, who can support any candidate at the convention. 

A hard-fought contest where no candidate secures a majority could precipitate a “brokered convention” – a rarity in modern times where nominees emerge through elaborate deal-making. 

Amid this patchwork system, a select group of “swing states” take on outsized importance, particularly in the general election. These are states that could plausibly swing for either party’s nominee due to their voters’ tendency to oscillate between Republican and Democratic candidates. 

“Swing states are particularly important because they are unknown entities that can swing one way or the other,” said Dr. King. “They also possess a number of electors in the Electoral College that can be the determining factor in sending one candidate to the White House over another.”  

As a result, swing states like Ohio, Florida, and Pennsylvania become campaign battlegrounds every four years. They draw intense mobilization efforts, saturation media coverage, and a deluge of candidate spending and appearances as the two parties fight for every last vote. 

“In swing states, you often see turnout higher than other states,” noted Dr. King. “You see more mobilizing of specific groups like young people, rural voters, and racial minorities.”  

As the 2024 primaries ramp up, the quality of American elections is on full display. From the patchwork of primaries and caucuses to the hard-fought general election battlegrounds, the road to the White House is rarely the same pathway twice in the United States’ unique federalist landscape, but we shall be observing closely.

Pearl Matibe is a Washington, DC-based foreign correspondent, and media commentator with expertise on U.S. foreign policy and international security. You may follow her on Twitter: @PearlMatibe