I am somewhat ignorant of the US political system but have been following the election recently. As an outsider, I don't understand how it is possible for a businessman to become a presidential candidate.

As far as i understand:

  • usually presidential candidates have long histories in politics and have experience holding office on a regional or state level. They've worked their way up.

  • Donald Trump is a businessman with very little political experience.

  • It seems like there is a fair chance he could be president.

How is it that a businessman ended up becoming a presidential candidate?

  • I am not sure if i am using the term "presidential candidate" correctly. I understand that anyone can try run for president, but i am referring instead to someone who is representative of their party for president (which he is, i think?). I don't know if this is the correct term for that. Any corrections to anything I'm getting wrong are appreciated.
    – user1784
    Commented Aug 6, 2016 at 17:56
  • 2
    He had money and an inflated ego. That's about all it takes.
    – user1530
    Commented Aug 7, 2016 at 1:03
  • Related, possibly dupe: politics.stackexchange.com/questions/10508/…
    – Golden Cuy
    Commented Aug 7, 2016 at 3:28

3 Answers 3


The key difference between the US and most other countries is that the candidates for the Democratic and Republican parties are chosen by voting in "primary" elections, not only by active party members, but all registered members of that party or in some states even anyone that is eligible to vote in the real elections. This is not by law, but by internal party rules. The winning candidate then gets the full support of that party (Ok, normally, this year is not in any way normal), which counts for a lot in what is essentially a two-party system.

Usually, the candidates favored by the party leadership have such an overwhelming advantage in donations, publicity and recognition that one of them ends up winning the primary. Then it works just like you expect.

However, there is (as you have seen) no guarantee that this happens. This year suffered from a lack of a clear leading candidate on the Republican side, with the effect that many weak candidates decided to throw their towels in the ring. Trump took advantage of that, and then drowned out all their attempts to get some publicity with his outrageous behavior and statements.

Everybody expected him to run out of steam, but Trump used his salesman's skills to identify what he primary voters wanted and promise them that: A return to a more predictable and prosperous life. One where to be willing to work hard meant being able to live well. "Make America Great Again!"

To people that saw their factories and jobs shipped out of the country and then were forced to compete for very uncertain low-paid jobs, who had grown resentful of a party that promised more prosperity but never delivered (because their donors are the very factory owners shipping them overseas), Trump became not only their protest vote, but the dream they desperately want to believe in.

So, in primary after primary, Trump won and while the Republican party leadership could have changed the rules, they knew that making someone else the official Republican candidate would enrage their voting base to a point where that candidate was bound to lose terribly. It's quite likely that no other party member would risk burning their career by becoming the "rigged establishment candidate" that was guaranteed to lose in the general election.

In summary, you are seeing something quite rare happening, that would not have happened without either the growing resentment against globalization and its costs or this snake oil salesman candidate that knew exactly how to connect with that resentment and fear.

Note: The UK had their "Brexit" vote, caused by the same type of loud people riling up exactly the same underlying feelings. That "Leave" won would've been unimaginable a decade ago, but it shows how much people are willing to vote for nostalgia and a dream. Of course, within 3 days the leaders of the "Leave" campaign backed down on pretty much all of their promises of prosperity and "getting immigration under control", knowing they couldn't actually deliver, certainly not both.

  • What do you mean by "guaranteed to lose in the general election." Is that saying that you think Trump will lose? I'm not sure I understand the last paragraph. --actually, never mind. I just misread. Anyone else would be guaranteed to lose.
    – user1784
    Commented Aug 6, 2016 at 19:42
  • @stanri I've clarified that part. It does indeed say that if the party leadership somehow put Trump aside and chose someone else, that person would be doomed to lose.
    – Cyrus
    Commented Aug 6, 2016 at 19:58
  • @Cyrus - Not to mention that the party leadership couldn't agree on an anti-Trump candidate. Which goes back to what you said about why the field was open enough for him in the first place.
    – Bobson
    Commented Aug 7, 2016 at 4:08
  • @Cyrus: "Of course, within 3 days the leaders of the "Leave" campaign backed down on pretty much all of their promises of prosperity and "getting immigration under control", knowing they couldn't actually deliver, certainly not both." What did you mean by this? Could you point me somewhere where I can read more about it?
    – user17915
    Commented Feb 9, 2017 at 7:31
  • @user17915 Sure: washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2016/06/26/… or google "leave campaign walks back on promises" for many more similar results.
    – Cyrus
    Commented Feb 9, 2017 at 7:49

I like the below explanation as stated in Presidential Eligibility since it gets straight to the point as for the how anyone can run for POTUS. These same rules apply to Donald Trump as well so really it comes down to the person being eligible first, and then comes all the other hoops to jump through but technically per this, that is all it really takes to be eligibile for anyone.

Presidential Eligibility

"No Person except a natural born Citizen, or a Citizen of the United States, at the time of the Adoption of this Constitution, shall be eligible to the Office of President; neither shall any Person be eligible to that Office who shall not have attained to the Age of thirty five Years, and been fourteen Years a Resident within the United States."


The Constitution imposes three eligibility requirements on the Presidency—based on the officeholder's age, residency, and citizenship—that must be satisfied at the time of taking office. By virtue of the Twelfth Amendment, the qualifications for Vice President are the same. The Framers established these qualifications in order to increase the chances of electing a person of patriotism, judgment, and civic virtue.

First, Presidents must be thirty-five years of age or older. In contrast, Senators must be at least thirty years old, and Representatives no less than twenty-five years old. As Justice Joseph Story has noted, the "character and talent" of a man in the middle age of life is "fully developed," and he has had the opportunity "for public service and for experience in the public councils."

Second, the President must have been a "Resident" of the United States for fourteen years. By contrast, to be a Member of Congress, one must be an "Inhabitant" of the State one is representing. During the Constitutional Convention, James Madison contended that "both [terms] were vague, but the latter [‘Inhabitant'] least so in common acceptation, and would not exclude persons absent occasionally for a considerable time on public or private business." Then as now, inhabitant meant being a legal domiciliary, but resident could mean either a domiciliary or a physical presence. Perhaps the Framers desired a person as President who had actually been present in the United States for the required period and had developed an attachment to and understanding of the country, rather than one who was legally an inhabitant, but who may have lived abroad for most of his life. On the other hand, the distinction may have been one of style rather than substance. As Justice Story later noted, "by ‘residence,' in the constitution, is to be understood, not an absolute inhabitancy within the United States during the whole period; but such an inhabitancy, as includes a permanent domicil in the United States."

There is some evidence that the Framers believed the fourteen-year residency requirement could be satisfied cumulatively, rather than consecutively. An earlier version of the clause excluded individuals who have "not been in the whole, at least fourteen years a resident within the U.S." (emphasis added), and historical evidence suggests that deletion of the phrase "in the whole" was not intended to alter the provision's meaning. This might explain the election of Herbert Hoover, whose successful 1928 campaign for President came less than fourteen years after his return to the United States in 1917. Others may argue that Hoover had simply maintained a United States domicile throughout his tenure abroad.

The third qualification to be President is that one must be a "natural born Citizen" (or a citizen at the time of the adoption of the Constitution). Although any citizen may become a Member of Congress so long as he has held citizenship for the requisite time period, to be President, one must be "a natural born Citizen." Undivided loyalty to the United States was a prime concern. During the Constitutional Convention, John Jay wrote to George Washington, urging "a strong check to the admission of Foreigners into the administration of our national Government; and to declare expressly that the Commander in Chief of the American army shall not be given to nor devolve on, any but a natural born Citizen." Justice Story later noted that the natural-born–citizenship requirement "cuts off all chances for ambitious foreigners, who might otherwise be intriguing for the office."

Under the longstanding English common-law principle of jus soli, persons born within the territory of the sovereign (other than children of enemy aliens or foreign diplomats) are citizens from birth. Thus, those persons born within the United States are "natural born citizens" and eligible to be President. Much less certain, however, is whether children born abroad of United States citizens are "natural born citizens" eligible to serve as President. As early as 1350, the British Parliament approved statutes recognizing the rule of jus sanguinis, under which citizens may pass their citizenship by descent to their children at birth, regardless of place. Similarly, in its first naturalization statute, Congress declared that "the children of citizens of the United States, that may be born beyond the sea, or out of the limits of the United States, shall be considered as natural born citizens." 1 Stat. 104 (1790). The "natural born" terminology was dropped shortly thereafter. See, e.g., 8 U.S.C. § 1401(c). But the question remains whether the term "natural born Citizen" used in Article II includes the parliamentary rule of jus sanguinis in addition to the common law principle of jus soli. In United States v. Wong Kim Ark (1898), the Supreme Court relied on English common law regarding jus soli to inform the meaning of "citizen" in the Fourteenth Amendment as well as the natural-born–citizenship requirement of Article II, and noted that any right to citizenship though jus sanguinis was available only by statute, and not through the Constitution. Notwithstanding the Supreme Court's discussion in Wong Kim Ark, a majority of commentators today argue that the Presidential Eligibility Clause incorporates both the common-law and English statutory principles, and that therefore, Michigan Governor George Romney, who was born to American parents outside of the United States, was eligible to seek the Presidency in 1968.

The Presidential Eligibility Clause does not explicitly cover those who serve merely as Acting President, a constitutionally distinct office. Although Congress has imposed by statute, 3 U.S.C. § 19(e), the same eligibility requirements for service as Acting President, that provision may not be required as a constitutional matter.

James C. Ho

  • 1
    I understand that the technical criteria for being president are quite simple. The average American 35 year old meets these criteria and could try and run for President, but they probably wouldn't be successful. The jump between this and president is still enormous.
    – user1784
    Commented Aug 7, 2016 at 6:45
  • I actually hate the fact that WESTERN outsiders that come live in the US can't be president, but alot of Americans don't see the difference between an western Europeaan or an American 'Depends on which country'
    – Rootel
    Commented Aug 7, 2016 at 7:52
  • @Rootel are you thinking about the "natural born citizen" clause?
    – A. Darwin
    Commented Aug 9, 2016 at 10:34
  • Nah, just the Westen community.
    – Rootel
    Commented Aug 9, 2016 at 21:14
  • First of all, this is not common in recent years (unfortunately) but not exactly unprecedented.

    Even limiting ourselves to elected Presidents (which is much smaller field compared to candidates), 4 Presidents had never been elected to public office before becoming President: Zachary Taylor, Ulysses S. Grant, Herbert Hoover, and Dwight D. Eisenhower.

    For candidates, there are far more (and far more recent, for example Ross Perot or - ironically - Ralph Nader, who never held an elected office despite being involved in politics seemingly since elementary school).

    If you include people who ran in but didn't win the (R) or (D) primaries, we have even more examples, including 2016's Ben Carson and 2012 Herman Cain on Republican side (i'll let you draw your own conclusion from the fact that there seem to be no non-career-politicans even running on Democrat side).

  • Second, it fits in with the general ideas espoused by US founders, especially the anti-Federalist faction.

    Admittedly, those ideas were a bit more talk than practice, but the general concept for many was the idea of citizen-statesman, with the most famous model figure being Roman Cincinnatus (although, ironically, while he's indeed a model for a citizen who retires from political power and has no ambitions, he's absolutely NOT nearly a model of a citizen who arises to power without prior political experience).

  • Thirdly, it fits with a general populist mood of US population.

    There is a widely held view that career politicians only care about their careers (getting elected, re-elected, or pleasing their donors to ensure post-political career, ala Hillary and Bill Clinton getting paid millions for "lectures").

    That's not a US-only sentiment; but it is very strong in the USA. As such, not having been a politician in the past is an attractive quality to many voters.

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