Republican presidential candidates Rick Santorum, Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul appeared in Florida last week to talk about why they want to be president. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

You may have heard your parents talking about the elections that are going on now, but it’s a little strange because no one around here seems to be voting.

Don’t worry, they soon will be!

What’s going on is the earliest stage of the presidential election campaign, when individual states help choose the final candidates to run for president. The presidential election will be held November 6, and the process leading up to that is pretty long and complicated.

There are two main political groups in this country, Republicans and Democrats, who tend to have different ideas about how to fix the nation’s biggest problems. Each of these political parties, as they are known, needs to nominate someone to run for president. (You may see the Republican Party referred to as the GOP; that’s short for its nickname, the Grand Old Party.)This year Republicans are choosing a candidate to run against President Obama, who is a Democrat. Because he plans to run for a second four-year term as president, he will be the candidate for the Democrats.

Obama is what’s known as an incumbent — that is, a person who currently holds an elected position. The incumbent president is almost always chosen as the candidate of his political party. Rarely, if the incumbent is unpopular, someone of his (or her) party may challenge him for the party’s nomination.

President Obama is running for reelection this year. He will be the Democratic candidate. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

Here’s how the process of choosing and electing a president works:

State-by-state voting

Early in a presidential election year, the party that is running against the incumbent president (in this case, the Republicans) starts holding elections in each state to choose a presidential candidate. (If the incumbent president isn’t running again, both parties hold these elections.) These elections are called either primaries or caucuses.

So far, Republican voters in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina have cast their votes, and Floridians will vote Tuesday. By the end of June, every state, U.S. territory and the District of Columbia will have held these elections. Virginia’s primary is March 6. Maryland and the District hold theirs on April 3.

The first few states to vote are considered the most important, because if one candidate wins most or all of the early contests, that person has a big advantage over his competitors. It’s a little like a lopsided football game: Once a team is up by 15 or 20 points, it’s extremely hard for the other team to catch up. But that is not the case this year, as a different Republican candidate has won each of the first three elections.

Who is running?

There are four remaining candidates competing to be the Republican presidential nominee. Mitt Romney, a former Massachusetts governor, whose father was governor of Michigan, won the New Hampshire primary. The winner in South Carolina was Newt Gingrich, who was once the speaker of the House of Representatives, a position that put him second in line to succeed the president (behind the vice president). Rick Santorum, a former Pennsylvania senator, won in Iowa. The fourth candidate is Ron Paul, a doctor who is now a congressman from Texas.

What does the winner get?

Based on how many votes they get in these state elections, the candidates are awarded delegates, people who represent groups of voters. When a candidate has won 1,144 delegates, he will be named the Republican Party’s candidate, or nominee, for president.

The Republican and Democratic delegates make their choices official at huge gatherings in late summer called conventions, which are like big parties.

What are the issues?

A major issue is the weak economy, which is making it difficult for people to find jobs; voters want to know what the politicians are going to do about that. People also are concerned that the government needs to borrow money because it spends more than it takes in. (This is called the deficit.) And many voters have strong feelings about whether the United States should get involved in conflicts in foreign countries.

How do the parties differ?

A 2010 poll of voters found that 31 percent of Americans call themselves Democrats; 29 percent call themselves Republicans and 38 percent call themselves independents. While many states do not allow independents to vote in party primaries, they are free to vote for candidates from either party in the November elections. And there’s no rule against a member of the Democratic Party voting for a Republican candidate or the other way around.

Even people who say they belong to a party may not agree with everything that party stands for. Think of it this way: If you were to divide the kids in your school into two groups, those who like Mexican food and those who don’t, where would you put the kids who love nachos but hate all other Mexican food?

Generally speaking, though, Republicans believe that the federal government should be smaller and less active than Democrats think it should be. A lot of other issues flow from that. A smaller government, for example, would need to raise less money, so people would not have to pay as much of their money to the government in taxes. That should mean that people would have more money to take care of themselves. Republicans often say that the government doesn’t spend tax money wisely. Democrats often argue that it’s the job of the government to spend money to take care of the people who are too old, too poor or too disabled to take care of themselves. Republicans also tend to believe that more laws, such as those protecting the environment, should be decided by individual state governments, while Democrats tend to favor a more national approach to such issues.

Margaret Webb Pressler