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February 2016
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America's voting system is crazy — here's what you need to know

Why do U.S. presidential elections take so long?

America’s two main political parties — Democratic and Republican — choose their respective nominees through party-sponsored contests in each of the states and U.S. territories, a process that starts in February and takes up to five months.

Iowa and New Hampshire traditionally kick off the process early in the year, and then other states follow — but before that, candidates have typically spent a year laying the groundwork for campaigns in those regions.

Once each party has a candidate, they spend the rest of the summer and autumn campaigning until the general election on November 8.

Why do they cost so much money?

Also unlike some other countries, there’s no limit on how much you can spend. A presidential campaign can cost up to $1 billion — and that’s not even counting money spent by outside groups. It’s not cheap to travel across the country for two years or more, buy advertisements on television, and pay a small army of campaign workers.

What’s the difference between a “caucus” and a “primary”?

A “primary” is what most people traditionally think of when they imagine voting – people show up at a neighborhood polling place to vote for their candidate by ballot.

A “caucus” is very different. It’s a neighborhood event that requires several hours of active communal participation and debate, and takes place in the evening in a home or public space, depending on the size of the caucus location.

Why are Iowa and New Hampshire so important?

While they comprise just a tiny fraction of America’s voters, they play an outsized role in the nominating process by virtue of going first.

Results in these states provide a snapshot of a candidate’s popularity, organizing ability and momentum. Expect to see a few candidates who fare poorly drop out after Iowa or New Hampshire.

When will we finally know who the nominees will be?

We usually know who the party nominees will be by late spring, but they are not officially chosen until the national party convention in the summer.

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