During an election year, the word “politics” gets bandied about a lot. It’s always helpful to take a step back to assess what, exactly, we mean when we use the word. From the political parties to the election itself (and, of course, the day to day running of government), here’s a quick guide to presidential politics.

The Major Parties

The two biggest and most powerful political parties in the US are the Republicans and the Democrats. Generally, Republicans tend to be more politically conservative, while Democrats are more liberal. Each election year, these parties hold primary elections to select their nominee—the person who will run for president as a representative of the party. Although many different parties field candidates for each election, the size and funding capabilities of the Republican and Democratic parties mean that their two candidates are usually the closest contenders. Serious third-party candidates (who don’t belong to either group) are possible, but rare.

The General Election

During the general election, the nominees of the parties campaign in states across the country. This is because the president isn’t directly elected by the people. Each state has a set number of delegates in a body called the Electoral College. Whoever has the most delegates at the end of the election becomes the president. If there is a tie, the House of Representatives gets to pick a new president.

The President’s Job

The new president is inaugurated in January, and immediately begins the process of running the government. As the head of state, he or she is constitutionally responsible for enacting and enforcing laws. The president may approve or veto laws that Congress passes. Although the president cannot create his or her own legislation, many presidents set the agenda for their political party and thus indirectly for their allies in Congress. Additionally, the president is the commander in chief of the military and has many diplomatic responsibilities. Although the president can’t do everything, he or she is one of the most powerful people both in the US and the world—which is why presidential politics are so interesting.