Primaries? Electoral College Votes? Huh? Dummies' guide to the US presidential elections

So Donald Trump has won the primaries in US.

Wait, didn't someone say Hillary Clinton has won the primaries in the US?

Ok, got it. Both Trump and Clinton have won the elections.

But wait, how is that possible? Only one person is supposed to win the election, right? If both have won, then who is the president of America?

Well, Barack Obama is the president of America. He had defeated Clinton in similar primaries eight years ago.

Now wait, Obama defeated Hillary? But aren't they from the same party?

 Primaries? Electoral College Votes? Huh? Dummies guide to the US presidential elections

Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton in file photos. AFP

Yes, they are.

Then how...? Did Clinton change her party? This is so confusing…just let me know who has won the election to become next president of USA: Trump or Clinton?

Answer is, neither of them. Obama remains the president till the next president is elected in November. Trump and Clinton have won the primary elections and they are their parties' presumptive presidential nominees. They still have to contest the US presidential elections.

But if they are just candidates, then what the hell were they contesting so far?

#FacePalm and #BackToSquareOne.

All of us have an idea about elections. Most probably the first one you remember must be the one in your school or college. If not, then maybe you have seen the Resident Welfare Association elections where two of your quarrelling neighbours contested for the same post and then stopped talking to each other altogether. If not, then I am sure you remember the 2014 Lok Sabha elections for sure when Narendra Modi became Prime Minister of India.

So, how is the election of Modi different from the election of Barack Obama? Very simple. India is a parliamentary form of democracy while USA is a presidential form of democracy. In India, we vote to elect a member of parliament and those MPs decide who will become the Prime Minister. So, even though Narendra Modi was the PM candidate of BJP/NDA, actually
voters of India didn’t vote for Modi. They had to vote for the local candidate of their choice. Once the BJP/NDA combine won the majority in the Lok Sabha, they selected Modi to be the Prime Minister. This is called “Indirect Democracy”.

On the other hand, in the US, there is this Presidential system where people voted directly for Obama in order to make him the president. This is called “Direct Democracy”. But there is a brilliantly unique aspect of US elections, which is called primaries.

Let’s say primaries are elections before the election.

These primaries are held by each of the two political parties (US has a two-party system) to select their presidential candidate. So American voters not only have a choice to directly elect their President, they also have a choice to decide who they wish to contest the election altogether.

For example, if we had the same system in India, then Congress/UPA would be running a primary election to decide who would be their presidential candidate: Rahul Gandhi or Manmohan Singh. Now suppose Rahul Gandhi wins that primary election where only Congress/UPA supporters get to vote, then he becomes the presidential candidate of Congress/UPA.

Now imagine, the BJP will similarly run a primary election to decide who will be their presidential candidate: Modi or Sushma Swaraj or Rajnath Singh. Now imagine Modi wins that primary election where only BJP/NDA supporters get to vote, then he becomes the presidential candidate of BJP/NDA.

Similarly, AAP supporters can vote in their party's primary election to decide whether Arvind Kejriwal or Ashutosh should be their presidential candidate. Every party can do this.

Finally, if we had the same system in India, the final election will become a contest not just between Rahul and Modi but many such 'presidential candidates' and every Indian will get the chance to vote for who should be the president. The candidate that gets the most number of votes will be elected president. This is called a presidential form of election.

Suppose 2014 Lok Sabha Election was a 'presidential election'. Then, based on the votes polled, this would have been the result:


This is how a 'normal' presidential election works. But apart from the primaries, the US presidential system has another unique proposition called WTA (Winner Takes All). But more on that later. For now, let's stick to part one of the US elections.

There are two main parties in US: The Democrat and the Republican. The Republican is also known as the Grand Old Party (GOP). Current POTUS Obama is a Democrat. The previous US President, George W Bush, was a Republican. This year, the frontrunner among Republican candidates is controversial billionaire Donald Trump. He is the party's presumptive nominee for president (the formal declaration will be made during the party's meeting in July).

The contest within the Democratic was between Clinton and Bernie Sanders. Clinton is most likely to be the party's presidential candidate - the formal acknowledgement will be made during the party's meeting in July).

Once that is done, then on 8 November, the American voters will vote for one of these two candidates to be their next president.

India has 29 states, but the US has 50 states. Each state has been allocated Electoral College Delegates proportional to their population size. In all, there are 538 such delegates in the American Electoral College.

Let's look at it from an Indian perspective. Imagine that the 543 Lok Sabha seats are the Electoral College Votes of India. Now anyone who wins 272 of these 'Electoral College Votes' becomes the PM of India. Similarly, imagine that 538 Electoral College Votes are at stake in USA. A majority of 270 Electoral College votes is required to become the President of USA.

BUT the big difference is that in India, we have elections in each of the 543 Lok Sabha seats and each seat has different candidates and thus different winners. But in the US presidential system, its the same candidate in all the 'seats' and all the 'states'. They of course, do have the Congressional elections, but that's a whole different ballgame.

In parliamentary democracies, there are generally two kind of elections: First Past The Post (FPTP) system which is the simplest form of election and the Proportional Representation (PR) System. It will take only two minutes to understand the difference. Lets take the example of Uttar Pradesh. It has 80 Lok Sabha seats. In 2014 Lok Sabha elections, the BJP and allies won 73 out of these 80 seats. Five seats were won by SP and two seats (Rahul Gandhi and Sonia Gandhi) were won by the Congress. The BSP got nothing. This is called the FPTP system. Here are the results:


Now in the PR system, the elections are at state level and there are no candidates. Only parties contest the elections on their symbol. The seats are then distributed in proportion to the votes different parties have polled. So, in Uttar Pradesh, if it was an election according to the PR system, then the 80 seats would have been distributed like this:


But the Americans have their own unique system called the Winner Takes All (WTA). In this system, the party which gets the majority of the votes in any state, gets ALL the seats in that particular state.

For example, if WTA system was applied in Uttar Pradesh, then because BJP and allies got majority of votes in the state, they would end up getting ALL the 80 seats in UP.


Let's compare the outcome of the Lok Sabha election of 80 seats in Uttar Pradesh when each of the three electoral systems are applied:


Now imagine the WTA system being applied to all states in India in the 2014 elections. Here's what it would have looked like:


But as you will realise while going through this table, we may have started out not with two but at least presidential candidates as we have many strong regional parties and leaders instead of only two as is in the US:


Thus, if India had a presidential system along the lines of the one in US, following the model of WTA, then Modi would have become a president with an even bigger landslide. He would have got 414 Electoral College Votes while he would have needed just 272.

During the presidential election on 8 November in the US, the WTA will be applied to each of the 50 states. Any candidate who wins majority of votes in one state, gets all the electoral college votes of the state. For example, Florida has 25 Electoral College Votes. The candidate who wins even 13 votes in Florida gets all the 25 votes.

The winner for each state is declared separately. With each state's final results, the Electoral College Votes from that state are added to the kitty of the winner.

The WTA system is generally aimed at getting a clear mandate and clear majority for leading candidates. However, more often than not, the American elections end up being a very close race. As we saw in the controversial election of 2000 when the Republican candidate George W. Bush barely managed to defeat Democrat Al Gore. Let's see how that happened:

Out of US' 50 states, 22 are generally known as Red States, because the Republican candidates have never lost in these states in the last four presidential elections. Similarly, 18 states where Democrats have won are called Blue States. The other 10 states are called Swing States or Battleground States or Purple States because these are the states which have swung between the two parties and the results in these states practically decide the final winner. These 10 states are Ohio, Colorado, Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Michigan and Florida.

Mostly, the elections become too close to call in these states. Now a candidate needs atleast 270 Electoral College votes to become the US president. In 2000, Bush just barely managed to win 271 electoral college votes, while his rival Gore won 266 electoral college votes. It all came down to one single state of Florida — Bush polled 48.85 percent votes while Gore polled 48.84 percent votes. Thus Bush became president winning Florida by a razor thin margin of 0.01 percent votes. This is how close it can get.

But elections are all about winning and winner takes all! Keep an eye on the American elections as whoever wins it will be the most powerful person on Earth.

You can follow me on Twitter @cvoter #USAtracker polls or at @UPI or also at and

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Updated Date: Jun 14, 2016 21:54:37 IST

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