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Refresher Course: How to run for U.S. president

Mary McIntyre
A collection of presidential campaigns pins found in a flea market in New Hampshire.

Every other Tuesday, Civics 101 hosts, Hannah McCarthy and Nick Capodice, join NHPR’s All Things Considered host Julia Furukawa to talk about how our democratic institutions actually work.

It’s two weeks away from the 2024 New Hampshire primary and it’s a busy time for presidential hopefuls. Hannah joins Julia this week to break down how a person goes from candidate to party nominee to president.

You can listen to Civics 101 here, or wherever you get your podcasts.


Let’s go back to the very beginning of an election cycle. How does someone start a presidential campaign?

Let's talk about what the FEC, the Federal Election Commission, says that you're actually allowed to do in the lead up to running for president. So what you can do is form something called an exploratory committee. It's this committee that tells you, the candidate or the potential candidate: Are you popular? Do you have a shot? What do voters want? What should you be talking about?

Forming an exploratory committee does not make you an official candidate, but rarely does someone form one without later becoming a candidate.

As you said, many political figures test the waters early on. How does someone officially declare their candidacy?

This is the bureaucratic, kind of boring stuff, right? You have to fill out two forms to register with the FEC. So there's the statement of organization and a statement of candidacy. Those are the really big ones. And to be very clear, the FEC defines established candidacy as simply as someone has a slogan that says something like ‘Julia for 2024’ or ‘Furukawa for President.’ Even raising more money than the FEC considers reasonable for exploration can make you a candidate.

How do candidates typically run their campaigns to secure that party nomination?

So during the primary, it is a lot of state fairs and kissing babies and traveling around the country to secure support, making stump speeches, [and] courting donors. And then Julia, there's getting very coy with those private political action committees [PACs], that officially have to be unaffiliated with a candidate, but can raise tons and tons of money with really no cap on how much a single entity can contribute.

But there's this, I would call it, like a wink and a nod system. And PACs are often run by former candidate staffers. You know, there's no law that says you can't know the person who's running a PAC, and there isn't even a law that says that you cannot show up to their events. You just cannot officially coordinate expenditures.

Once a candidate has the party nomination, what happens then? How does their strategy change leading up to the general election? 

Once you have the nomination, everything changes. Your presidential campaign merges, like Borg-style, with either the Republican National Committee or the Democratic National Committee. Your staff will multiply tenfold. A $100 million campaign becomes a $1 billion campaign.

Whatever big, big secret people know about you but haven't revealed yet, might turn into the worst October of your life. That's what we think of as the October surprise. I think we saw during the 2016 election that a major news event can maybe really mess with a candidate or maybe not really touch them at all.

Campaigns and super PACs are working both to get people to the polls and to stop people from getting to the polls. And then there are these nonprofit organizations. And these organizations ostensibly want to get as many people to the polls as possible, in the name of simply a truly participatory democracy.

Michelle Liu is the All Things Considered producer at NHPR. She joined the station in 2022 after graduating from Northwestern University with a degree in journalism.
Julia Furukawa is the host of All Things Considered at NHPR. She joined the NHPR team in 2021 as a fellow producing ATC after working as a reporter and editor for The Paris News in Texas and a freelancer for KNKX Public Radio in Seattle.
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