The Primaries and Caucuses

It used to be that a political party’s nominee for president was selected by influential party members at the party’s national convention—generally after a lot of wheeling and dealing in smoke-filled rooms. Realizing that this was not a very democratic way to choose a major-party presidential candidate, the Democratic and Republican parties have over the last half century opened up the process to voters. The result is today’s often confusing schedule of primaries and caucuses which makes voters—and not party leaders—the VIPs in choosing the parties’ presidential nominees.

The series of Presidential primary elections and caucuses is a very important step in the long, complex process of electing the President of the United States of America. The primary elections are run by state and local governments in the states that do not have caucuses.

The goal of the primaries and caucuses are to choose delegates that have committed themselves to a particular candidate that they will represent at the party’s national convention. Although voters may see the candidate’s name at the primary poll, they are actually voting for delegates that will represent the candidate. Sometimes the delegates name and party is listed and shows the candidate they will represent.

A caucus is a meeting of members of a political party on the precinct level, the smallest election district. Thousands of caucuses occur at the same time and date throughout a state.

In most states, only voters registered with a party may vote in that party’s primary, known as a closed primary. In some states, a semi-closed primary is practiced, in which voters unaffiliated with a party (independents) may choose a party primary in which to vote. In an open primary, any voter may vote in any party’s primary. Also, there are presidential preference contests, which are merely “beauty contests” or straw polls that do not result in the selection of any delegates, which are instead chosen at caucuses.

Nearly all states have a binding primary, in which the results of the election legally bind some or all of the delegates to vote for a particular candidate at the national convention, for a certain number of ballots or until the candidate releases the delegates. A handful of states practice a non-binding primary, which may select candidates to a state convention, which then selects delegates.

Often less than 25 percent of eligible voters participate in the primaries and less than 10 percent for caucuses. These voters tend to be more partisan than general election voters. That means that Republican primary voters tend to be more conservative; Democrat voters more liberal.

Thus, to win over these voters during the primary campaign candidates often speak about issues that are more partisan and ideological.

To learn more about your state’s primary or caucus, visit their election site or your local/county election office.

The Early States: Iowa and New Hampshire

The Iowa caucus is the first major electoral event of the nominating process for President of the United States. The New Hampshire primary is the first primary election held in the United States.

These states have traditionally served as an early indication of which candidates might win their party’s nomination. Winning these two states has become so important that potential candidates start campaigning years in advance. Winners receive front-runner status and additional media exposure that may help them in the primaries that follow.

Super Tuesday, March 1, A Mega Primary for 2016

Super Tuesday is the day when the most states simultaneously hold their primary elections, and the single day when the most nominating delegates can be won. This is an incredibly influential primary day.

This year more states have moved their primaries forward and thus compressed the primary election season. States vie for earlier primaries in order to claim greater influence in the nomination process. The early primaries can act as a signal to the nation, showing which candidates are popular, giving those who perform well a major advantage. If a candidate seems likely to win after Super Tuesday, or at some later point, the party faithful will start to unify around the candidate as they prepare for the party convention.