In order to be elected president, a person must meet the eligibility requirements laid out in the Constitution. After that, the person must secure his or her party’s nomination. Finally, he or she must face a demanding campaign and election process.
According to the Constitution anyone who wishes to become president must be:
- At least thirty-five years old
- A resident of the United States for at least fourteen years
- A natural-born citizen
The last requirement has caused some confusion and controversy. According to U.S. law, a child born abroad to parents who are American citizens is also a citizen, but it is not clear from the Constitution whether such a person could be president. As of 2006, the courts have not ruled on whether an American citizen born outside of the United States may be president. A variety of people have tried to amend the Constitution to allow citizens born abroad to be president, but so far they have had no success.
Demographics of the Presidents
The Constitution allows women and members of any ethnic, racial, or religious group to be president, but for most of the country’s history all of the presidents have been Protestant white men. Barack Obama is the first non-white person to serve as president and John F. Kennedy, a Catholic, is the only non-Protestant to hold the office.
The major parties select their presidential nominee at their national conventions, held every four years. At the conventions, delegates from each state vote and whichever candidate wins a majority of delegates becomes the party’s nominee. To win delegates, candidates compete in primary elections, held in each state prior to the convention. Primary races are usually hotly contested.
Because citizens get to vote in the primaries, they have a large role in the election. Prior to the 1972 election, voters played little role in selecting the party nominees, but that is not the case anymore. Before acquiring the party nomination, a presidential candidate must prove that he or she can attract voters by winning primaries.
The general election pits each party’s nominees against each other. Candidates can usually rely on the support of voters from their own party, so the campaign is frequently a competition for independent voters. The candidates travel to battleground states to hold rallies, aimed at both turning out their own base and persuading undecided voters to support them. The candidates usually debate each other on television. Following a blitz of last-minute campaigning, the voters go to the polls on election day.
The Electoral College
The Constitution only states that the candidate who receives a majority of votes in the Electoral College becomes president. It says nothing about the popular vote. The intent of the framers was to filter public opinion through a body composed of wiser, more experienced people; the framers did not want the president to be chosen directly by the people.
Each state gets a number of electors equal to its total number of members of Congress (all states get at least three). State governments determine how electors are chosen. No federal officeholders can serve as electors.
Voters think that when they cast their vote, they are voting for a presidential candidate. But in all but two states (Nevada and Maine are the exceptions), voters actually vote for electors, who have pledged to vote for their party’s candidate during the Electoral College. Some states have laws that require every elector to vote for the candidate who received the most popular votes in the state, a winner-take-all system. Many of the states with a winner-take-all system have laws to punish faithless electors, those who vote for someone other than the winner of the state’s popular vote.
Sometimes a candidate loses the popular vote but still becomes the president. In fact, this has happened four times in American history: John Quincy Adams in 1824, Rutherford B. Hayes in 1876, Benjamin Harrison in 1888, and George W. Bush in 2000. These men all became president despite having lost the popular vote. In races with a significant third-party candidate, the winner frequently gets less than 50 percent of the popular vote, such as when Woodrow Wilson defeated opponents Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft in 1912 or when Bill Clinton defeated George H. W. Bush and Ross Perot in 1992.
Choosing the Vice President
Originally, the presidential candidate who received the second-greatest number of electoral votes became the vice president, but this created problems between presidents and vice presidents who were from different political parties. The Twelfth Amendment, ratified in 1804, made it so that the Electoral College chooses the president and the vice president separately.
Presidential Term Limits
George Washington set a key precedent when he stepped down from office after serving only two terms. For more than 100 years after Washington, presidents refused to run for office more than twice, until Franklin Roosevelt was elected to four consecutive terms during the Great Depression and World War II. The Twenty-second Amendment was ratified in 1951, making it illegal for presidents to be elected more than twice.
According to the Constitution, the vice president’s main job is to assume the office of the president if the president dies, leaves office, or can no longer perform presidential duties. Congress has the power to determine succession if both the president and vice president die, leave office, or cannot perform their jobs. The chart on the next page shows how the Succession Act of 1947 sets the order of presidential succession.
|2||Speaker of the House|
|3||President Pro Tempore of the Senate|
|4||Secretary of State|
|5||Secretary of the Treasury|
|6||Secretary of Defense|
|8||Secretary of the Interior|
|9||Secretary of Agriculture|
|10||Secretary of Commerce|
|11||Secretary of Labor|
|12||Secretary of Health and Human Services|
|13||Secretary of Housing and Urban Development|
|14||Secretary of Transportation|
|15||Secretary of Energy|
|16||Secretary of Education|
|17||Secretary of Veterans’ Affairs|
|18||Secretary of Homeland Security|
Vice Presidential Succession
Until the Twenty-fifth Amendment was ratified in 1967, there was no law about what to do when the office of the vice president was vacant. When a vice president succeeded a president who had died, for example, he had no vice president. The Twenty-fifth Amendment specified that a new vice president would be nominated by the president and approved by both houses of Congress.