How to win the United States Presidential election

With the US Presidential election fast approaching, we take a look at some of the key questions about how the election works.

  • The power of the US president 
  • The US election process explained 
  • Does the candidate with the most votes become President? 
  • Why is 270 the magic number in US politics?
  • What is meant by a swing state?
  • When does the winner start their term as President?

The power of the US President explained 

By design, the US political system is a complicated machine. The founding fathers made it their mission to create a political system which ensured dictatorial leadership would not be possible.

The Founding Fathers

This form of governing is known as ‘the separation of powers’. The model splits power between the legislature (Congress), the executive (the Presidency) and the judiciary (the Supreme Court). Each with separate and non-conflicting powers to the other.

The US President is commonly referred to as the world’s most powerful person, below we outline the POTUS’s main powers.

  • The power to sign or veto legislation 
  • Command of the armed forces 
  • Ask for the written opinion of their Cabinet 
  • Convene or adjourn Congress
  • Grant reprieves and pardons
  • Receive ambassadors 

The US election process explained 

First and foremost, the US Presidency is not won by winning the most votes. Twice in recent history has the candidate with the most votes failed to win the election. Democrat candidates Hillary Clinton (2016) and Al Gore (2000) both won the popular vote in their respective elections, but it was their opponents who made it to the White House.

So, how do you win the US Presidential election? 

Victory in the US presidential election requires a majority victory in the Electoral College.

There are 538 Electoral College votes up for grabs and the candidate who manages to get 270 or more will become President.

The 538 number is comprised of 438 Congressional Representatives and 100 Senators. Each US state has two senators, with Congressional Representatives being split on a proportional basis between the states.

The most populous states have the most Electoral College votes (California (55), Texas (38), New York (29), Florida (29) making popularity in those states vitally important for Presidential candidates.

Most states use a winner takes all system, whereby the candidates who wins the most votes in the state, wins all of the allotted Electoral College votes. The two exceptions being Maine and Nebraska who adopt a slightly different system.

Below is Donald Trump’s 2016 winning Electoral College map. The red states are where he took victory, with the blue belonging to the defeated Democrat candidate, Hilary Clinton.

What is meant by a swing state? 

If you tune into any US election coverage, you’ll likely hear the term ‘swing state’.

In an election, the Democrats enjoy majority support in the ‘Blue Wall’ states and the Republicans enjoy support in the ‘Red Wall’ states. Victory for both parties in their ‘heartland’ states is to be expected, with upsets exceptionally rare.

Blue Wall states – Democrat heartland 

California (55), New York (29), Illinois (20),  New Jersey (14), Washington (12), Massachusetts (11), Maryland (10), Minnesota (10),  Oregon (7), Connecticut (7), Hawaii (4), Maine (4), Rhode Island (4), Delaware (3), and Vermont (3), as well as Washington, D.C. (3).

Red Wall states – Republican heartland

Texas (38), Alabama (9), South Carolina (9), Oklahoma (7), Mississippi (6), Utah (6), Nebraska (4), Idaho (4), South Dakota (3), North Dakota (3), Alaska (3), and Wyoming (3).

Swing/Purple states – Battleground states

The swing states, therefore, are the states where the election is won or lost. Victory in these key battleground states is essential for both candidates as neither can rely entirely on their heartland support for victory.

Key swing states include Florida (29), Colorado (9), North Carolina (4), Virginia (18), Ohio (15) and New Hampshire (6). It can be argued, therefore, that Florida is the most important battleground state in the US election. Except for 1992, when Florida sided with incumbent George Bush, the state has voted with the winner in every presidential election since 1964.


When does the winner become President? 

After Election Day (November 3), the Electoral College will meet on December 14 to cast their official ballots for president. This is very much a formality with the winner being known a soon as the popular vote in each state is announced. This is usually on the day following the election.

On January 6, 2021, Congress will count the votes from the Electoral College and declare a winner. Once again, this is a formality.

On January 20th 2021, The newly elected — or re-elected — President will take the oath of office during the inauguration and begin their 4-year presidential term.


Written by Ciaran McDiamond

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