Understanding the U.S. Primaries

  • Copy by: Kate Dinota

Today is the official start of primary election season in the U.S. You have probably heard about the Iowa caucus and the New Hampshire primary, and may be wondering: What’s all the hype about?

Listen, I get it. Sometimes watching the U.S. election process play out can be about as confusing as watching season two of True Detective. Who are all these characters? Who is connected to who? Why is it so long? Over 30 Republicans and Democrats announced a run for the presidency and from the first announcement for president (Ted Cruz in April 2015) to Election Day (November 2016), we are looking at 18 months of election analysis to sift through. So if you are feeling overwhelmed, don’t fret—you’re in good company. 

No matter who you are supporting this election season, I hope this primer will help you better understand the electoral process.

Source: Vox

Key Words to Know

Caucus: Organized by a political party. A gathering of party members, where a more informal voting system occurs, usually by raising of hands or gathering in small groups in support of a particular candidate (or sometimes by ballot).
Primary election: Organized by the state. Citizens vote for the candidate of their choice by secret ballot.
Delegate: A person who represents the views of a group of voters. 
Primaries: As used in this article to refer to both primary elections and caucuses. 

Why are there primaries?

In short, primaries exist to allow the citizenry to choose which candidate their party should mobilize around for the national election.

When political parties started organizing in the 1820s, they held caucuses where local leaders of the party gathered and decided among themselves who they thought the candidate should be. After discussion and debate, the party’s nomination would be chosen. In the early twentieth century there was a movement to bring this decision making power to the people, and primary elections were born. The primary election is now the preferred method of voting and only 12 of the 50 states still have caucuses (Nevada, Alaska, Colorado, Minnesota, North Dakota, Wyoming, Kansas, Kentucky, Maine, Hawaii, Idaho, and of course, Iowa). 

Primaries take place in the U.S. between February and June, leading up to the Democratic and Republic National Conventions in July. It’s at the national conventions where parties announce who will appear on the ballot in the national election. And here’s where it gets a bit tricky: In primaries, citizens are not actually voting directly for the candidate of their choice for the national elections. They are voting for the convention delegates who will vote for their candidate of choice at the national conventions. 

To help tie this all together, let’s dive deeper into each of these parts that determine the party candidate.

Source: Iowa Caucus

The Caucuses

Since the Iowa caucus is the first to occur, the state receives a significant amount of both media attention and candidate visits. The Iowa caucus is significant because it kicks off primary season, but a candidate’s success (or failure) in Iowa by no means guarantees continued performance throughout primary season. 

The caucus is distinct from the primary election in one crucial way: It involves discussion, debate, and interaction among voters. It is often referred to as a “gathering among neighbors.” Organized by political parties rather than the local governments, caucuses occur in community centers, churches, libraries restaurants, gymnasiums, and sometimes even in people’s homes. In most cases, you must be a registered member of the party and an eligible voter (18 years of age, U.S. citizen, never committed a felony, etc.) to be able to actively participate. Most caucuses allow observers such as the media, independents, and non-registered voters, to watch but not participate.

Caucus rules vary depending on the state and party in which you are participating. In Iowa, the Republic and Democratic caucuses operate differently.

The Republican Caucus

The Republican caucus is pretty straightforward. Voters show up to the caucus site and hear final pitches from representatives or supporters of each campaign. They then cast a secret ballot, which is counted by local GOP headquarters. (This is a new more streamlined process as of 2016. In years past the process was more complicated and, of course, the caucus process can vary drastically from state to state). The Republican Party allows states to choose to employ either a “winner take all” strategy for convention delegates or base delegates on proportionality (more on this soon).

The Democratic Caucus

The Democratic caucus is slightly more complicated. After debate and discussion, participants can indicate support for a particular candidate by standing in a designated area. Supporters of one candidate can try to convince voters from other groups, including undecided voters and participants currently supporting a different candidate to join their candidate’s area. After a set amount of time, organizers count to see which candidates have at least 15% of participant support. Any candidate with less than that threshold is not eligible, and supports of ineligible candidates can then choose to stand with a different candidate—their second choice candidate, so to speak.

After this realignment, a second poll is taken to determine which candidates have the most support. In all Democratic caucuses, the candidates with the most support get the corresponding number of delegates in proportion to their support. For example, let’s say a certain county in Iowa has 10 delegates. Let’s also suppose that Bernie Sanders gets 50% of voter support, Hillary Clinton gets 40%, and Martin O’Malley gets 10%. In this case, Sanders would get 5 delegates, Clinton would get 4, and O’Malley would get 1. 

The Primary Election

Congratulations! If you made it through the caucus description, your reading material is about to get a whole lot easier! 

The primary election is pretty straightforward. Voters show up to traditional polling locations and vote for the candidate they want to win the party nomination via secret ballot. 

Of course, primary election rules vary state to state as well. Some states have closed primaries where voters can only participate in the election of the party with which they are affiliated. In states with closed primaries, only registered Democrats can vote in the Democratic primary, only registered Republicans can vote in the Republican primary, and registered Independents typically can’t vote in either. Some states have open primaries where anyone can vote in either election, but all voters can only vote in one election. A few states have blanket primaries where voters can vote in any and all primary elections. 

Some states, like New York, have a “winner take all” primary election, and the candidate with the largest percentage of voter support gets all the convention delegate votes. Other states, like Massachusetts, use proportionality and candidates get the number of convention delegate votes in proportion to the support they receive in the primary election. Some states have ballots that list the presidential candidates and voters can check the box for a certain candidate therefore indicating there support—but some states have voters choose the convention delegates they want to attend the national convention and list those names on the ballot. 

Source: How Stuff Works

The Convention Delegates

But who are these mysterious convention delegates, exactly? This won’t surprise you, but convention delegate selection varies state to state (and county to county, and district to district). Without getting too much in the weeds, here are some of the ways you can become a convention delegate:

Voters can elect you on a primary ballot.

Party leadership can appoint you.

Local party conventions can elect you.

You can become your state’s party chair. 

Essentially, delegates are citizens who are actively involved in their party’s activities. They must be registered voters and more often than not must vote in the primaries. Depending on the state and on their party, delegates may be bound to vote for the candidate who won the primaries or they may be free to vote for the candidate of their choice.

The National Conventions

The national conventions take place in July, about four months before the national election in November. The convention delegates (who were chosen by the primaries) gather together with party members, congressmen, and sometimes celebrities, and announce who will be the party’s nomination for president. Since states announce convention delegates throughout the spring as results from the primaries come in, it is not a surprise which candidate will be announced at the national convention. 

To check out when the primaries are happening your state, look here

Sources: Vote Smart || Bustle || Vox || Leadership Institute

Did this article help you understand the primaries? What other election topics would you like us to cover? Tell us in the comments section!