US politics15 January 2024

A guide to the 2024 presidential election: from primaries to president

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The 2024 presidential election is shaping up to be one of the most momentous in modern American history. Four years since Joe Biden received the most votes of any candidate in US history, the president now faces a tight battle for re-election. With his approval ratings hovering around 40 per cent, Biden will need to hold on to the fragile coalition he built in 2020 to return to the Oval Office for a second term.

All indications are that the election will be a rematch between Biden and one-time president, two-time Republican nominee, and four-time indictee Donald Trump. With the benefit of incumbency, Biden leads the only two other notable candidates for the Democratic nomination by over 60 percentage points. Trump’s sway over the Republican party has not waned since his controversial term ended, with his favourability among Republicans never falling below 74 per cent since he left office, as he bids to become only the second president in US history to serve non-consecutive terms.

Despite Biden and Trump’s dominant positions within their own parties, there is a long way to go before voters head to the polls on 5 November 2024. A host of other candidates are battling it out with the two presidents for the respective Democratic and Republican nominations. The first open Republican primary in eight years has already seen a crowded field whittled down over successive debates before the primaries have even begun. In the coming months the candidates face a crowded calendar of state-level contests, some of which will collide with Trump’s dates in court, to compete for delegates to each party’s nominating convention in July for Republicans and August for Democrats. The two contenders will then head to the general election on 5 November, where Americans will determine their president for the next four years, and potentially the direction of the country for far longer.

What follows is a guide to the 2024 presidential election, from the first primary contests in January to the general election in November, covering the key events to watch during the busy election year and the complex patchwork of laws and party rules that govern the road to the White House.

The path to the presidency

Nominating candidates

The first order of business for both major parties is to choose their respective candidates for the general election on 5 November 2024. In eight months of staggered elections across all fifty states, Americans will vote for delegates to represent them at the Republican and Democratic national conventions in July and August respectively, where each party officially ratifies its presidential nomination. State parties use two main electoral devices (and sometimes a combination of both) to choose delegates for the national conventions: primaries and caucuses.

The basics: Primaries and caucuses

Primaries and caucuses play an essential role in winnowing the field of major party candidates and electing delegates for the national conventions, and provide an initial testing ground for the electoral viability of potential nominees. For most of the twentieth century, Democratic and Republican party bosses and power brokers would handpick convention delegates behind closed doors, effectively choosing their parties’ presidential nominees in secret. After protests erupted at the tumultuous 1968 Democratic convention, reforms in the 1970s sought to make the delegate selection process more transparent and responsive to rank-and-file party members, broadening public participation and reducing the power of party leaders to control the nominee selection process. For both major parties, primaries have now become the dominant method of determining the presidential nominee, rather than caucuses, conventions or meetings between party leaders and officials.

What is a primary?

Primaries are state-wide elections conducted by state officials to select party candidates to run in the general election. Voters cast a secret ballot, with the option of mail-in and early voting in some states, to elect state delegates who will represent their preferred candidate at each party’s mid-year nominating convention. Many states, such as Florida, Pennsylvania and Iowa, hold closed primaries, meaning voting is restricted to registered party members only. Other states, including Georgia, Illinois and Michigan, hold open primaries, in which, regardless of their party registration, voters can choose to cast their vote for either the Republican or Democratic nominee.

What is a caucus?

Unlike primaries, caucuses are carried out by political parties rather than state officials, and usually only registered party members can participate. Although caucus procedures vary from state-to-state, they typically involve private local gatherings in which participants physically group themselves to tally support for each candidate. This process is repeated at the congressional district and state levels to elect delegates to the national conventions. Voter turnout at caucuses tends to be lower than in primaries and in 2020 turnout surged dramatically in caucus states which switched to the primary system. The number of states that hold caucuses has been waning for years, with some arguing that they should be completely phased out. In 2024, only a handful of states — Iowa chief among them, along with North Dakota, Wyoming and Nevada — and some overseas US territories, will hold caucuses to vote for each party’s presidential nominee.

A matter of timing

The primaries and caucuses operate on a staggered schedule, with the timing of each state and territory’s events determined either by state legislatures or parties. The 2024 season will kick off with Iowa and New Hampshire in January and stretch until early June, when overseas territories Guam and the Virgin Islands hold their caucuses. Slated for 5 March this year, ‘Super Tuesday’ is the single biggest voting day of the calendar, when over 14 states will hold primaries and approximately one-third of all delegates to the presidential nominating conventions will be won. Each party’s presumptive nominee is typically clear by April or May, well before the last primary contests occur.

Why do Iowa and New Hampshire go first? And why does it matter?

The Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary are always the first events of the nominating process. New Hampshire’s primary rose to prominence in 1952, when the state allowed voters to directly record their presidential candidate preference on the primary ballot for the first time, essentially debuting the ‘preference primary.’ The Iowa caucuses reached the top of the Democratic nominating schedule largely for logistical reasons, with the institution of new candidate selection procedures in the 1970s.

Originally, this timing had little significance and few noticed or cared about the states’ early positions in the nominating calendar. Yet this changed in 1976, when Jimmy Carter led grassroots campaigns in Iowa and New Hampshire to deliver unexpected early victories, seizing upon the early contests to catapult himself onto the national stage and ultimately to the White House.

Both Iowa and New Hampshire have since played a significant role in presidential election cycles, with some arguing that their influence is outsized, not least due to the states’ smaller, predominantly white populations. Though the number of delegates at stake in Iowa and New Hampshire is relatively low (no more than 50 in each case for either party, out of thousands that will be distributed) the contests offer the first testing ground of a candidate’s voter support and grassroots organisational capacity, attracting the eyes of media and political elites which can provide early momentum that surges candidates from obscurity to national fame. Every major party nominee since 1972 has won in at least Iowa or New Hampshire, with the exceptions of Bill Clinton in 1992 and Joe Biden in 2020.

As New Hampshire and Iowa have grown in relevance, these early contests have also become a boon for the states’ economies. In 2020, Des Moines local businesses reportedly raked in US$11.3 million in election tourism from the Iowa caucuses and more than an estimated US$200 million in advertising exposure. Both states have since officially cemented their first-in-nation status through state laws and party rules, and other states have sought to 'front load’ their primaries and caucuses earlier in the nominating season to capitalise on the profile and importance afforded to early contests, creating a crowded calendar.

The Biden-less New Hampshire primary ballot

When New Hampshire primary voters head to the polls on 23 January, one key name will be missing from the Democratic ballot: Joe Biden. In the culmination of a months-long dispute over primary rules, New Hampshire Democrats will not see the incumbent president’s name on their primary ballot and will not send delegates to the August national convention — all to preserve New Hampshire’s cherished status as the nation’s first presidential primary.

In December 2022, President Biden unveiled plans for South Carolina to kick off primary season instead of Iowa and New Hampshire, and ordered New Hampshire to repeal the state statute enshrining its decades-long first-in-the-nation status. Pushing South Carolina to the front of the calendar would elevate the state that resurrected Biden’s candidacy in 2020 (after he placed just fifth in the New Hampshire primary) and give Black and minority voters — a critical Democrat voter base historically shortchanged in the primary voting system — a “louder and earlier voice,” according to Biden, in the nominating calendar. Iowa Democrats reached a compromise to vote via mail-in ballot between January and March, breaking with years of tradition. However, New Hampshire Democrats refused to budge, meaning Biden will not appear on the now-unsanctioned ballot and potentially offering a break-through moment for one of Biden’s few intra-party rivals.

Winning the nomination

What does a candidate need to win their party’s nomination?

In 2024, a Democrat candidate needs to collect a majority (1,973) of the party's estimated 3,945 pledged delegates to win the Democratic nomination. A Republican candidate must secure at least 1,215 of the estimated 2,429 Republican delegates to become the party’s nominee. Candidates may win state delegates on a proportional or winner-takes-all basis, or using a hybrid system.

The political parties use different methods to determine the number of national convention delegate slots that are up for grabs in each state. This can include calculations based on population, voting record in the last election, and party representation across the state. Most delegates are ‘pledged’ to support a specific candidate at the national convention, and in recent years both parties have made concerted efforts to curtail the power of ‘superdelegates,’ political party elites who are not elected by primary voters and who have historically wielded significant influence over the party nomination process.

For both parties, California is the biggest prize numerically, where an estimated 424 Democratic and 169 Republican delegates are up for grabs, although nominations are typically finalised by the time California votes. By contrast, just 12 Republican delegates are expected to be assigned to New Jersey, and 17 Democratic delegates in Wyoming reflecting their small populations and limited support for each respective party.

What happens at the national conventions?

Throughout most of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, national conventions played a critical role in determining each party’s presidential nominee. They were frequently the scene of contentious struggles between delegates (selected through closed party meetings rather than primaries or caucuses), and it was not uncommon for multiple ballots to take place before a majority of delegates coalesced around a single candidate. However, since the rise of primaries and caucuses in the 1970s, national conventions have sharply diminished in importance. Today, they symbolically ratify, rather than select, the party nominee, who is usually clear after accumulating enough delegate votes by Super Tuesday or by May at the latest — well before each party’s national convention takes place. By April 2016, it was clear that Donald Trump would clinch the Republican Party nomination and in 2020, despite a closely fought contest, Joe Biden was the clear Democratic frontrunner and presumptive nominee as early as March.

While today’s national conventions may not be the decisive forum for debating and selecting each party’s nominee, they still play a key role in kicking off the general election campaign. In front of a prime-time national television audience, each party officially nominates its joint presidential and vice presidential ticket through an hours-long state-by-state delegate roll call. The conventions are often an opportunity for each party to try to make their candidate more appealing to the broader electorate, with party leaders and up-and-comers delivering speeches and parties formally adopting the policy platform they will run on for the general election in November.

Winning the general election

The Electoral College

One of the US electoral system’s most important, controversial and poorly understood constitutional provisions is the Electoral College. Rather than directly electing the president in the general election, Americans instead select a group of 538 individuals who together form the Electoral College — a group that will gather in December 2024 to formally elect the presidential ticket that has won a majority of 270 electoral college votes. Under the Constitution, every state receives an elector for each Congressional district in the state, plus one for each of its Senators. While larger states such as California may have as many as 54 electors, each state has a minimum of three, proportionally overrepresenting voters in small states such as Wyoming.

The College was originally intended to safeguard the presidency from what was seen as an uneducated public at risk of being unduly influenced into making a poor choice. However, opposition to the College system has grown over time, and it is now regularly cited as one of the most anti-democratic features of the US political system. Yet despite attempts to abolish it in favour of a national popular vote, most notably in 1970, the College persists and will continue to play an outsized role in closely fought presidential elections for the foreseeable future.

The winner takes it all

In the general election, every state except for Maine and Nebraska employs a winner-take-all system in which the winner of the popular vote in each state receives all of that state's electoral college votes. For example, in Texas in 2020, Trump won 52 per cent of the vote meaning he picked up all 38 of the state’s electoral college votes. Electors must generally ‘pledge’ to vote for a particular candidate when they are selected. Although some electors are occasionally ‘faithless’ and fail to follow the preference of their state — which occurred in unusually high numbers in 2016 — faithless electors have never altered the outcome of an election.

The loser has to fall?

Due to its winner-take-all nature, the results of the Electoral College vote are often disproportionate to the national popular vote. Indeed, the loser of the national popular vote may still win the presidency if they can win in enough — and crucially, the right — states. In recent times, this has been the case in the 2016 and 2000 elections, in which presidents Trump and Bush were elected despite their opponents winning more votes nationally. Additionally, in the unlikely event of an Electoral College tie, the presidency is decided in a ‘contingent election’ wherein the president is chosen by the House of Representatives and the vice president by the Senate, which may choose to ignore the results of the nationwide popular vote. However, a contingent election has not occurred since 1837.

What to watch in a crowded year

The swing states

In a presidential election, not all states are created equal. Certain states defy the common designation of being ‘red’ or ‘blue’ states and are instead known as ‘purple’ states, hotly contested by both major parties. While tens of millions of ballots are cast in a US general election, razor thin margins of just a few thousand votes in these states can determine the result of the election due to the winner-take-all nature of the electoral college system. In 2020, Biden’s electoral college win was secured by just over 40,000 votes across three swing states, despite beating Trump by over 7 million votes nation-wide in the popular vote.

Six of these swing states are shaping up to be key battlegrounds in 2024. Five of them were won by Trump in 2016 and flipped by Biden in 2020. Biden will need to hold onto most of these critical states to secure a second term, but a key — albeit early — poll in November 2023 showed him lagging in five of the six, setting off alarm bells for Biden supporters.

Arizona - 11 electoral college votes

2016: Trump wins by 91,234 votes.

2020: Biden wins by 10,457 votes.

Long seen as a conservative state, Arizona’s political orientation has shifted along with its demographics as a growing Latino population has bolstered Democratic support in recent years. Democrats performed strongly in the November 2022 midterms, which is likely to serve them well in 2024.

Georgia - 16 electoral college votes

2016: Trump wins by 211,141 votes.

2020: Biden wins by 11,779 votes.

Historically Republican, there has been a recent political shift in Georgia which delivered victories for Biden in 2020 and two Democratic senators in 2021. Nevertheless, Republican support in the state remains strong. Trump’s Georgia trial for election interference also puts it at the centre of another political firestorm.

Michigan - 15 electoral college votes

2016: Trump wins by 10,704 votes.

2020: Biden wins by 154,188 votes.

Democrats carried Michigan in every presidential race from 1992 to 2012, but Trump’s shock win in 2016 helped to deliver him the presidency. With strong Democratic results in the 2022 midterms, Democrats will be determined to not lose the crucial state to Trump a second time.

Nevada - 6 electoral college votes

2016: Clinton wins by 27,202 votes.

2020: Biden wins by 33,596 votes.

While Nevada has tended to vote Democrat in recent years, slim victories in 2016 and 2020 have given Democrats cause for concern. With divided results in the 2022 midterms and suggestions that the Democratic margin is shrinking in the lead-up to 2024, Nevada may prove a key bellwether in the election.

Pennsylvania - 19 electoral college votes

2016: Trump wins by 44,292 votes.

2020: Biden wins by 80,555 votes.

With the fifth highest number of electoral college votes of any state, Pennsylvania is a major prize. Like in Michigan, a run of Democratic victories in Pennsylvania were broken by Trump in 2016. Yet after finding electoral success in 2022, Biden will be hopeful of keeping his thin margin of victory alive.

Wisconsin - 10 electoral college votes

2016: Trump wins by 22,748 votes.

2020: Biden wins by 20,682 votes.

Wisconsin re-elected a Democratic governor and a Republican senator in 2022 and remains a divided battleground following Trump’s key win in the state in 2016. Wisconsin was the only state in which Biden led Trump in November, but only by two percentage points.

Trump's legal battles

For much of the year, attention will not be focused on Trump's performance in the court of public opinion, but in the court of law. Trump faces charges in four major criminal cases which will play out concurrently with the 2024 election calendar. As the first former US president to be indicted, there is no precedent for his situation, so it is difficult to forecast the exact implications of the indictments for Trump’s campaign. Thus far his indictments have only strengthened Trump’s polling dominance among Republicans and campaign fundraising. Unfortunately for Trump’s electoral rivals, the Republican nomination is likely to be all-but-decided by the time his first trial begins on 4 March, and a verdict is not guaranteed in any of the cases prior to the November election. Even if he were to be convicted, Trump would still be eligible to run and indeed could potentially pardon himself of federal (though not state) charges if elected president.

The expected start dates of the trials listed below may be affected by legal challenges on various issues raised by former president Trump.

Federal election interference

Jurisdiction: Federal (Washington DC)

Scheduled to begin: 4 March 2024

Trump faces four charges relating to his attempts to overturn the 2020 election results by using false claims of interference, resulting in the 6 January attack on the US Capitol. Unlike his Florida-based classified documents trial, jurors will be drawn from Washington DC, where they are less likely to support Trump politically. Trump’s legal team have applied to have the case dismissed on immunity grounds, with the Supreme Court likely to have to make a ruling after a process of appeals.

Hush money

Jurisdiction: State (New York)

Scheduled to begin: 25 March 2024

Manhattan prosecutors allege that Trump falsified business records to give hush money payments for electoral gain in his 2016 presidential campaign, but legal experts suggest the case faces a difficult path to conviction based on the arguments on which it relies.

Classified documents

Jurisdiction: Federal (Florida)

Scheduled to begin: 20 May 2024

Trump faces charges over his alleged mishandling of classified documents after his presidency, particularly at his Mar-a-Lago estate, as well as his refusal to hand them back when requested. While the case against Trump is strong, it is expected to be scuttled if he is re-elected.

Georgia election interference

Jurisdiction: State (Fulton County, Georgia)

Scheduled to begin: 5 August 2024 (proposed)

In the case that produced Trump’s historic mug shot, Trump has been indicted on over a dozen counts relating to his attempts to interfere with the certification of Georgia’s 2020 election results. Testimony from multiple co-defendants who have pleaded guilty could prove damaging to his defence.

A Trump-less ballot?

Due to his alleged engagement in the events of 6 January and efforts to overturn the 2020 election, Trump has been disqualified from the primary ballot in Colorado and Maine. The states’ rulings, spurred by citizen campaigns, rest on the US Constitution’s 14th amendment which bars candidates from holding office if they have engaged in “insurrection or rebellion,” and was originally intended to prevent those involved in the Confederacy during the US Civil War from holding office. Trump is the first presidential candidate in history to be disqualified under the provision, and now faces dozens of similar legal efforts in a host of other states, though some state courts have rejected challenges to his eligibility, such as in Michigan. As the first use of the amendment to disqualify a presidential candidate, with implications for the future of US elections, the US Supreme Court is expected to have the last word on the issue. It will begin reviewing the Colorado case from 8 February and a ruling is expected in February or March.

A third party spoiler?

The US political system makes it difficult to break the two-party stranglehold over executive power. Independent or minor candidates must navigate different requirements in each state to get on to the ballot nationwide and in practice have no chance of winning in the general election. But this is not to say that they cannot affect the election’s outcome. Presidential election results often hang on fine margins in key states, and due to the widespread use of first-past-the-post voting systems, a small number of votes cast for a third-party candidate in a particular state can have a large impact on the fortunes of presidential hopefuls, by splitting progressive and conservative voters away from the two major parties. A small number of Green Party voters in 2000 could have handed Democratic nominee Al Gore victory in the decisive state of Florida, Ross Perot’s 1992 campaign garnered almost 20 per cent of the popular vote and was seen to have delivered the White House to Bill Clinton, while former president Theodore Roosevelt’s third-party campaign in 1912 split the Republican vote and resulted in the election of President Woodrow Wilson.

The anticipated tight margins of the 2024 race could make the election susceptible to similar events, and Robert F Kennedy Jr’s independent campaign is currently polling at over 10 per cent nationwide. Whether he or another third-party candidate can swing the election, and in what direction, is unlikely to be known until voters head to the ballot box in November.

So... who's going to win?

The simple answer is: no one knows. Pundits and presidential candidates are notorious for declaring each successive election the ‘most important’ of their lifetimes, but this election is indeed particularly unusual. This year’s election is likely to see a rematch of the 2020 race between two historically unpopular candidates both seeking second terms. It has been almost 70 years since the most recent general election rematch, and over a century since a former president faced their successor. If Trump succeeds, he will become the first former president to make a White House comeback since Grover Cleveland in 1892 and the first to be elected while facing criminal charges, and reclaim the mantle of oldest-ever president by the end of his second term.

On the other hand, President Biden is highly unpopular, with his approval ratings exactly one year out from the election lower than any US president since Jimmy Carter in 1979. Although he is only three years older than Trump, Biden has faced significant backlash over his age and ability to act as the chief executive and would be 86 by the end of a second term. While national polls put the president in a near-dead heat with against leading Republican candidates, Biden’s support lags in key swing states that he will have to win to chart a course back to the Oval Office.

Polls currently show Biden and Trump, almost certainly the two major party candidates, neck-and-neck. Both will have to overturn the weight of history to secure a second term in office. The path to the presidency will follow a complex web of state laws, party rules and court rulings, and which candidate finally triumphs in November remains anything but certain.

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