Kris Seago
Government/Political Science
Material Type:
Full Course
Academic Lower Division
Austin Community College
  • ACC Liberal Arts
    Creative Commons Attribution
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    Becoming a Candidate and Nominee


    Becoming a Candidate and Nominee

    Learning Objective

    By the end of this section, you should be able to:

    • Explain the key elements and phases of deciding to run for office and becoming a political party’s nominee in a partisan election

    Introduction: Deciding to Run

    Running for office in Texas can be as easy as collecting one hundred signatures on a city election form or paying a registration fee of several thousand dollars to run for governor of a state. However, a potential candidate still needs to meet state-specific requirements covering length of residency, voting status, and age. Potential candidates must also consider competitors, family obligations, and the likelihood of drawing financial backing. His or her spouse, children, work history, health, financial history, and business dealings also become part of the media’s focus, along with many other personal details about the past. Candidates for office are slightly more diverse than the representatives serving in legislative and executive bodies, but the realities of elections drive many eligible and desirable candidates away from running.

    When candidates run for office, they are most likely to choose local or state  office first. For women, studies have shown that family obligations rather than desire or ambition account for this choice. Further, women are more likely than men to wait until their children are older before entering politics, and women say that they struggle to balance campaigning and their workload with parenthood. Because higher office is often attained only after service in lower office, there are repercussions to women waiting so long. If they do decide to run for the U.S. House of Representatives or Senate, they are often older, and fewer in number, than their male colleagues.

    Office seekers by demographic
    Figure 8.2 Those who seek elected office do not generally reflect the demographics of the general public: They are often disproportionately male, white, and more educated than the overall U.S. population.
    Political Campaigns: Crash Course Government and Politics #39


    Becoming the a Political Party's Nominee

    States, through their legislatures, often influence the nomination method by paying for an election to help parties identify the nominee the voters prefer. Many states fund elections because they can hold several nomination races at once. In 2012, many voters had to choose a presidential nominee, U.S. Senate nominee, House of Representatives nominee, and state-level legislature nominee for their parties.

    The most common method of picking a party nominee for state, local, and presidential contests is the primary. Party members use a ballot to indicate which candidate they desire for the party nominee. Despite the ease of voting using a ballot, primary elections have a number of rules and variations that can still cause confusion for citizens. In a closed primary, only members of the political party selecting nominees may vote. A registered Green Party member, for example, is not allowed to vote in the Republican or Democratic primary.

    Parties prefer this method, because it ensures the nominee is picked by voters who legitimately support the party. An open primary allows all voters to vote. In this system, a Green Party member is allowed to pick either a Democratic or Republican ballot when voting.

    For state-level office nominations, or the nomination of a U.S. Senator or House member, some states use the top-two primary method. A top-two primary, sometimes called a jungle primary, pits all candidates against each other, regardless of party affiliation. The two candidates with the most votes become the final candidates for the general election. Thus, two candidates from the   same party could run against each other in the general election. In one California congressional district, for example, four Democrats and two Republicans all ran against one another in the June 2012 primary. The two Republicans received the most votes, so they ran against one another in the general election in November. In 2016, thirty-four candidates filed to run to replace Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA). In the end, two Democratic women of color emerged to compete head-to-head in the general election. California attorney general  Kamala Harris eventually won the seat on Election Day, helping to quadruple the number of women of color in the U.S. Senate overnight. More often than not, however, the top-two system is used in state-level elections for non-partisan elections, in which none of the candidates are allowed to declare a political party.

    Regardless of which nominating system the states and parties choose, states must also determine which day they wish to hold their nomination. When the nominations are for state-level office, such as governor, the state legislatures receive little to no input from the national political parties. In presidential election years, however, the national political parties pressure most states to hold their primaries or caucuses in March or later. Only Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina are given express permission by the national parties to hold presidential primaries or caucuses in January or February. Both political parties protect the three states’ status as the first states to host caucuses and primaries, due to tradition and the relative ease of campaigning in these smaller states.

    Presidential candidates Bernie Sanders and Jeb Bush campaigning
    Figure 8.3 Presidential candidates often spend a significant amount of time campaigning in states with early caucuses or primaries. In September 2015, Senator Bernie Sanders (a), a candidate for the Democratic nomination, speaks at the Amherst Democrats BBQ in Amherst, New Hampshire. In July 2015, John Ellis “Jeb” Bush (b), former Republican governor of Florida, greets the public at the Fourth of July parade in Merrimack, New Hampshire. (credit a, b: modification of work by Marc Nozell)

    Other states, especially large states like California, Florida, Michigan, and Wisconsin, often are frustrated that they must wait to hold their presidential primary elections later in the season. Their frustration is reasonable: candidates who do poorly in the first few primaries often drop out entirely, leaving fewer candidates to run in caucuses and primaries held in February and later. In 2008, California, New York, and several other states disregarded the national party’s guidelines and scheduled their primaries the first week of February. In response, Florida and Michigan moved their primaries to January and many other states moved forward to March. This was not the first time states participated in frontloading and scheduled the majority of the primaries and caucuses at the beginning of the primary season. It was, however, one of the worst occurrences. States have been frontloading since the 1976 presidential election, with the problem becoming more severe in the 1992 election and later.

    Political parties allot delegates to their national nominating conventions based on the number of registered party voters in each state. California, the state with the most Democrats, sent 548 delegates to the 2016 Democratic National Convention, while Wyoming, with far fewer Democrats, sent only 18 delegates. When the national political parties want to prevent states from frontloading, or doing anything else they deem detrimental, they can change the state’s delegate count, which in essence increases or reduces the state’s say in who becomes  the presidential nominee. In 1996, the Republicans offered bonus delegates to states that held their primaries and caucuses later in the nominating season. In 2008, the national parties ruled that only Iowa, South Carolina, and New Hampshire could hold primaries or caucuses in January. Both parties also reduced the number of delegates from Michigan and Florida as punishment for those states’ holding early primaries. Despite these efforts, candidates in 2008 had a very difficult time campaigning during the tight window caused by frontloading.

    One of the criticisms of the modern nominating system is that parties today have less influence over who becomes their nominee. In the era of party “bosses,” candidates who hoped to run for president needed the blessing and support of party leadership and a strong connection with the party’s values.

    Now, anyone can run for a party’s nomination. The candidates with enough money to campaign the longest, gaining media attention, momentum, and voter support are more likely to become the nominee than candidates without these attributes, regardless of what the party leadership wants.

    Newly elected members of Congress (2018) Dan Crenshaw (R-Houston) and Lizzie Fletcher
    Figure 8.4 Newly elected members of Congress elected in 2018 included Dan Crenshaw (R-Houston) and Lizzie Fletcher (D-Houston), shown here speaking to business groups in 2019. Image Credit: Andrew Teas License: CC BY

    Take a look at Campaigns & Elections to see what hopeful candidates are reading.


    References and Further Reading

    Jennifer L. Lawless. 2012. Becoming a Candidate: Political Ambition and the Decision to Run for Office. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    Jennifer L. Lawless and Richard L. Fox. 2010. It Still Takes a Candidate: Why Women Don’t Run for Office. Revised Edition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    Harold Meyerson, "Op-Ed: California’s Jungle Primary: Tried it. Dump It," Los Angeles Times, 21 June 2014.

    Josh Putnam, "Presidential Primaries and Caucuses by Month (1976)," Frontloading HQ (blog), February 3, 2009.

    William G. Mayer and Andrew Busch. 2004. The Front-loading Problem in Presidential Nominations. Washington D.C.: Brookings Institution.

    Joanna Klonsky, "The Role of Delegates in the U.S. Presidential Nominating Process," Washington Post, 6 February 2008.

    "Party Affiliation and Election Polls," Pew Research Center, August 3, 2012.

    Shanto Iyengar. 2016. Media Politics: A Citizen’s Guide, 3rd ed. New York: W.W. Norton.

    Paul Begala. 1 October 2008. “Commentary: 10 Rules for Winning a Debate.”

    2nd Congress, Session I, "An Act relative to the Election of a President and Vice President of the United States, and Declaring the Office Who Shall Act as President in Case of Vacancies in the Offices both of President and Vice President,"Chapter 8, section 1, image 239.

    28th Congress, Session II. 23 January 1845. "An Act to Establish a Uniform. Time for Holding Elections for Electors of President and Vice President in all the States of the Union," Statute II, chapter 1, image 721.; 42nd Congress, Session II, "An Act for the Apportionment of Representatives to Congress among the Several Sates According to the Ninth Census." Chapter 11, section 3,

    Donald Ratcliffe. 2013. "The Right to Vote and the Rise of Democracy, 1787–1828," Journal of the Early Republic 33: 219–254; Stanley Lebergott. 1966. "Labor Force and Employment, 1800–1960," In Output, Employment, and Productivity in the United States after 1800, ed. Dorothy S. Brady. Ann Arbor, Michigan.

    National Bureau of Economic Research, "Presidential Popular Vote Summary for All Candidates Listed on at Least One State Ballot. [PDF]." (November 7, 2015)

    Licensing and Attribution


    American Government. Authored by: OpenStax. Provided by: OpenStax; Rice University. Located at: License: CC BY: Attribution. License Terms: Download for free at 8795-c48329947ac2@1.

    Adaption and Remix, and Original Content. Authored by: Deborah Smith Hoag. Provided by: Austin Community College. Located at: http://austincc.eduProject: Achieving the Dream Grant. License: CC BY: Attribution

    Adaptation and Remix: The Path to Nomination. Authored by: John Osterman. License: CC BY: Attribution