Welcome to THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English. I'm Faith Lapidus.
And I'm Steve Ember. This week our subject is the presidential campaign, heading into the biggest day of the nominating season: Super Tuesday.
This presidential election is creating unusual interest and excitement across America, especially with young people and Democrats.
The Democrats hope to reclaim the White House after eight years of Republican presidency. Yet candidates from both parties are promising change.
There are major issues facing Americans. The weakening economy. The Iraq war. Other concerns include the troubled housing market, high costs of health care and energy, and the debate over illegal immigration.
But interest in the election is also being driven by the candidates themselves.
Democrats Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama would become America's first female or first black president. Republican John McCain would become, at age seventy-two, the oldest president elected to a first term. Or if the Republicans nominate Mitt Romney and he wins, he would become the nation's first Mormon president.
Americans will choose their next president in general elections on November fourth. The names on the ballot will be the result of a nominating process that began just after New Year's Day.
Each state has its own process for choosing presidential candidates. But for candidates the goal is the same: to secure enough delegates to win their party's nomination.
State nominating elections will be held through June. Most of these votes take place in the form of primary elections. Other take place at meetings known as caucuses, or at state conventions.
The Democratic Party will hold its national nominating convention in August in Denver, Colorado. The Republican National Convention will take place in September in Minneapolis-Saint Paul, Minnesota.
To win nomination, candidates will need a simple majority of their party's delegates. The rules for awarding delegates, though, are anything but simple.
Democrats and Republicans are the two major political parties in the United States. Small, so-called third parties like the Green Party also nominate candidates for president.
The nominating season began January third with the caucuses in Iowa. At caucuses, voters gather in local places like schools, libraries or even people's homes. Some caucuses use secret ballots like traditional elections. But others require voters to gather in different areas of a room to show their support for their favorite candidate.
The main difference between a primary and a caucus is the process involved. A primary is more like a traditional election. The majority of states hold primary elections.
More than forty states will be holding primaries this year. Some are open primaries. That means independent voters can take part. Others are closed primaries: only members of a party can vote.
The ability to win a closed primary can be an important test of party support for a candidate.
For example, the first two primaries that John McCain won, in New Hampshire and South Carolina, were open. The Arizona senator won them on the strength of independent voters. His victory last week in Florida was his first win with only Republicans voting.
He defeated Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, thirty-six percent to thirty-one percent. Winning Florida put John McCain into the lead in Republican delegates.
Hillary Clinton won the Democratic primary in Florida. But none of the Democratic candidates campaigned there. National party officials are refusing to seat Florida's delegates at the convention this summer. The dispute is over the decision to hold Florida's Democratic primary before February fifth -- Super Tuesday.
This is the week for Super Tuesday. The name is used for the day when the largest number of states hold presidential nominating elections. Super Tuesday is so big this time, "Super Duper Tuesday," it seems closer to a national primary than ever before.
Primaries did not become an important part of the nominating process until the nineteen sixties. Before then, only some states held them. Nominees were mainly decided at the conventions by party leaders.
Many Americans disliked that system. Pressure to end the political deal making led to more primaries. But that led to a new criticism: that states with early primaries have too much influence on presidential races. Candidates give more attention to small states with early contests than big states with later ones.
This time, many states moved their nominating elections earlier in the year. Super Tuesday will include big states like California and New York, which have hundreds of delegates.
In all, twenty-four of the fifty states will hold primaries or caucuses, with one exception. Republicans in West Virginia will hold a convention.
Alex Keyssar is a political historian and professor at Harvard University. He says having almost half the states vote on a single day puts greater importance on raising money for television advertising and travel.
It also put more pressure on candidates to do well early in the primary season or drop out, as several already have.
Last Wednesday, former North Carolina senator John Edwards left the race for the Democratic nomination. And former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani left the Republican race. Neither had won any states.
The Democratic race has narrowed to two candidates: Senator Hillary Clinton of New York and Senator Barack Obama of Illinois. Former president Bill Clinton has campaigned for his wife. But his recent attacks on Barack Obama brought strong criticism within the party.
Going into Super Tuesday, Hillary Clinton has more delegates than Barack Obama. But even winning all twenty-two states holding Democratic votes would not give either of them enough delegates to secure the nomination.
About one thousand seven hundred Democratic delegates will be awarded. Two thousand twenty-five are needed for nomination.
Going into the primary season, many experts predicted that clear front-runners would be known by the close of Super Tuesday. Now they are not so sure.
Tom Mann, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, says delegates could end up split among candidates. But he thinks it is likely that the parties will want to gather their support around one candidate.
At the national nominating conventions, delegates are generally expected to support the candidate who sent them. But some delegates have a right to vote for another candidate.
In a tight race, the nominee could be decided by hundreds of delegates known as superdelegates. These are party leaders and elected officials. Superdelegates are free to choose any candidate, but they often vote for the candidate who wins their home state.
The Democrats award delegates proportionally. For example, if candidates win forty percent of the popular vote in a state, they win forty percent of that state's delegates.
The Republicans generally use the winner-takes-all system. The candidate with the highest percentage of votes in a state wins all of that state’s delegates.
As a result, Super Tuesday is more likely to produce a commanding front-runner for the Republicans than for the Democrats.
One thousand one hundred ninety-one delegates are needed to win the Republican nomination. More than one thousand will be awarded on Tuesday.
Republican candidate Mike Huckabee won the Iowa caucuses. That gave him a strong start. But now the former Arkansas governor is low on campaign money. Last week he finished fourth in Florida, behind John McCain, Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani.
Ron Paul, a Republican congressman from Texas, finished fifth.
John McCain, a former prisoner of war in Vietnam, says the biggest issue of the twenty-first century is "radical Islamic extremism." Mitt Romney presents himself as the true conservative. And he says his experience in business prepares him to deal with the economy.
Hillary Clinton says she has the experience to deal with America's problems from her first day as president. Barack Obama, forty-six years old and a first-term senator, says experience is important. But, he said at a California debate last week, "it is important to be right on day one."
Our program was written and produced by Brianna Blake. I’m Steve Ember.
And I’m Faith Lapidus. For election news, and for transcripts and MP3s of our programs, go to voaspecialenglish.com. Join us again next week for THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English.