Three months later, Republicans have settled on their candidate, Senator John McCain of Arizona, but the Democrats are still at it, with Senators Barack Obama of Illinois and Hillary Clinton of New York trying to win enough delegates to put them over the top. (As of mid-April, Obama had 1,600+ and Clinton had 1,500+ of the 2,025 delegates needed.)
This year's election has generated more enthusiasm than any in decadesespecially among young people. "In the primaries, youth turnout has been through the roof," says Adam Fogel of FairVote, a voter-education organization. "In some places, it's doubled. In other places, it's tripled or quadrupled." Here's a guide to help you make sense of the action over the summer.
Seven more states are holding Democratic primaries: Indiana, North Carolina, West Virginia, Kentucky, Oregon, Montana, and South Dakota, plus Guam and Puerto Rico, with a total of 355 delegates.
Superdelegates to The Rescue?
The 794 Democratic superdelegates are mostly party officials or elected representatives who can back whichever candidate they like. Most years, you don't hear much about them since the winning candidate has already wrapped up the nomination long before the conventionbut not this year. That's why both Obama and Clinton are furiously lobbying the superdelegates to support them. They could end up deciding who the nominee is.
Michigan and Florida
To punish Florida and Michigan for holding their primaries earlier than party rules allowed, the Democratic National Committee has been saying it will not seat either state's delegates (156 for Michigan, 210 for Florida) at the convention.
Clinton, who won both primaries, now says it would be undemocratic not to count those votes. Obama, whose name did not even appear on the Michigan ballot, says it's unfair to change the rules in the middle of the game. But because both states are significant swing states (meaning they sometimes vote Democratic and sometimes vote Republican), the party is trying to come up with a compromise to allow the states to be represented in some fashion at the convention.
Who's No. 2?
While the Democratic contenders are still slugging it out, McCain has been focusing on consolidating his support and considering running mates. Names reported to be on his list for Vice President include Governor Charlie Crist of Florida; two of his former rivals, former Governors Mike Huckabee of Arkansas and Mitt Romney of Massachusetts; and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
"I'm aware of the enhanced importance of this issue, given my age," says the 71-year-old Senator.
Balloons or Substance
The Democratic convention will be held from August 25 to 28 in Denver; the Republicans follow in Minneapolis from September 1 to 4.
For the last few decades, both parties' nominees have generally been decided long before the conventions, turning them into public-relations spectacles where not much of substance takes place. (The last time a convention needed more than one ballot to pick the nominee was 1952, when the Democrats chose Senator Adlai Stevenson of Illinois, who ended up losing to the Republican, World War II General Dwight D. Eisenhower.)
But with Clinton and Obama so close, anything could happen, and the Democratic convention could be long and nasty. Commentators are already talking about the 1924 convention, when it took 16 days and 103 ballots to finally select John W. Davis of West Virginia, who was then trounced by President Calvin Coolidge.
Iraq, The Economy, or ...
All three candidates are trying to gauge what the key issue for voters will be in the fall: Iraq or the U.S. economy?
For a while it looked like the Iraq war would dominate the election. Polls indicate that most Americans think the war was a mistake, and they'd like U.S. troops to come home. McCain has been a staunch defender of the recent troop "surge," which seems to have improved the security situation in Iraq, at least for now. Clinton and Obama have focused their comments on timetables for withdrawing American forces.
But with the economy getting worse, and concern about housing foreclosures rising, voters may be focusing more on pocketbook issues.
And it's always possible that some other issue will grab the spotlight in the months ahead. Stay tuned: There are still six months until the nation actually gets to vote in November.