In case you don’t own a television, it’s an election year. Conversely, if you happen to own a television, and reside in a swing state, then let me express my sincere condolences. Yes, U.S. elections have become an increasingly drawn-out process; a veritable money-fueled marathon complete with a deluge of ad spending that would make the Super Bowl blush.
As crazy as it has gotten, we still recognize our political process. The procedures themselves, however, do have a few idiosyncrasies. As a result, most of us still harbor some questions: How do parties nominate a candidate? What the heck is a caucus? Why is Iowa “first in the nation?”
The good news is that there are answers. The better news is that 2016 is a great time to learn. So, let’s take a look at our primary system.
What is the nomination process?
First of all, each political party has their own nomination process, although the basics are similar. The general idea is for one candidate to amass a majority of delegates in order to earn their party’s nomination. The delegate pool is comprised of established party members, notable supporters, and those voted to become delegates. They represent the voters during each party’s national convention and, as you may have guessed by now, are awarded through primary elections. Once a candidate has a majority of the possible delegates, they win the nomination.
That’s the basic idea. However, there are some unique aspects to each party’s process.
The Republican Party:
The Republican Party has a very straightforward nomination process. Delegates come from three different pools: state residents, residents in specific congressional districts, and RNC members. All delegates are equal and follow the will of the primary voters unless the candidate that they’ve pledged to drops out of the race. As a note, however, delegates can choose to change their support, although this is relatively uncommon.
Delegates are awarded to a primary candidate in specific ways. First, is a proportional allocation method. This is simply means that candidates receive a number of delegates equal to their portion of the primary vote–assuming they meet a minimum threshold (usually 15%.) The RNC mandates that all primary elections between March 1 and March 14 award their delegates in this manner.
After proportional, there is the winner-take-all method. This method awards all of the state’s delegates to whichever candidate received the largest number of votes. The RNC allows winner-take-all elections after March 14.
Finally, there are hybrid methods which combine the two.
As previously stated, once all states and U.S. territories have had their primaries the RNC hosts its convention. At the convention, the previously awarded delegates will support the candidate that their voters have chosen. In the event that no candidate has a majority of delegates, multiple rounds of voting may take place or competing candidates may broker a deal between themselves to combine support.
The Democratic Party:
On the other side, the Democratic Party primary process is more complicated. The Democrats follow a similar system as the Republicans, although they only award delegates proportionally. In addition, Democrats also add so-called superdelegates into the mix. Superdelegates are unpledged delegates. This means they are allowed to cast a vote in favor of any candidate at the Democratic National Convention regardless of of the popular vote.
Third Party Primaries
Don’t think I’ve forgotten you, Jill Stein and Gary Johnson fans. Yes it’s true, the United States of America has more than two political parties. The more prominent among them include the Green Party, the Libertarian Party, and the Constitution Party. Conveniently, all these political parties run their primary process similar to the Republican Party; complete with delegates and conventions and sans any superdelegates.
In addition to third party runs, anyone who legally qualifies to be President can run as an independent. Ross Perot is likely the most well known and recent example.
What is a caucus?
If you’ve been following the election you’ve probably heard the term “caucus states.” This simply means that the state handles its primary election through a caucus rather than straight primary vote. So what is a caucus? Unlike a secret ballot, a caucus is a series of state- and county-wide events where people meet to openly argue the merits of their desired candidate. In this way, a caucus can be thought of as more of a debate.
At the end of the day, a consensus will be reached and representatives will ultimately cast votes symbolic of the individuals at each caucus—which is why you may see extremely low vote totals for these states. If a consensus is not reached between the caucus goers each state has tie breaking procedures, such as flipping a coin or drawing cards. Democracy at work.
What determines the order in which states vote?
Admittedly, there’s no real rhyme or reason behind this. States themselves have had a role in determining their order. Iowa, in particular, became “first in the nation” when it moved to it’s more complicated caucus process in 1968. The more complicated process necessitates more time and so its primary date was pushed up.
While the national parties can exert influence on each state, it is generally the responsibility of the individual state and its Secretary of State to handle when elections are scheduled.
Who can vote in primaries?
Who can vote in presidential primaries varies by state to state. If your state runs an “open” primary then any registered voter can choose one, and only one, primary to vote in—regardless of party affiliation. In “closed” primaries, only voters registered with the party can vote in their primary. Finally, many states also hold mixed primaries. This final rule set allows unaffiliated voters or independents to vote in either party’s primary.
One last note: many states will allow those younger than 18 to vote in primaries if they will be 18 in time to vote in the general election. So, as always, vote early, vote often, and don’t forget to review the dates for your state’s primary and/or voter registration deadlines.