February 14, 2012 | BY Jake Michaels
The presidential primary season, during which potential candidates vie for their party’s nomination to be the next leader of the free world, is upon us once again. Candidates are bickering, politicking and mudslinging their way from state to state. The full spectacle is published, televised and tweeted into American homes, and those living in battleground states suddenly find themselves courted by a collection of presidential hopefuls vying for their support. Many are asking themselves, “How many times are we supposed to vote for the president, anyway?”
The purpose of primary elections is for citizens in each state to choose delegates for each political party’s national convention, during which the presidential nominee will be formally selected. Perhaps the most surprising fact about primary elections is that the process is not described in the U.S. Constitution or U.S. Code, but has developed solely to meet the needs of political parties. The assignment of delegates differs by state in accordance with each party’s bylaws, but the two most commonly used methods are the caucus and the primary election. Although the ultimate goal of both methods is the same in most cases, there are some significant differences between the two.
A caucus is simply a meeting of members or supporters of a political party. Caucuses are run by the political parties themselves and are restricted to supporters of each party. During these events, attendees cast unofficial “straw” ballots for their preferred presidential candidate. These ballots, which may simply be handwritten scraps of paper, are tallied at the end of the event. In addition, delegates are chosen to represent the state’s interests at the national party convention. Prospective delegates are identified as favorable to a specific candidate or uncommitted. After discussion and debate an informal vote is taken to determine which delegates should be chosen. States that generally hold caucuses include Iowa, Nevada, and Minnesota, among others.
Unlike a caucus, a primary election is carried out by state and local governments. Voters select their preferred candidate from an official, secret ballot that contains a list of all eligible candidates, and these ballots are collected and counted by state-supervised election officials. However, some states require voters to select the names of potential delegates to the national convention. As with the general election, voters must be registered in order to vote in the primary. States that hold primary elections include New Hampshire, New York, Montana, and the majority of other states.
During the primary process, voters select delegates who will be the ones actually responsible for choosing their party’s candidate for president. Through the series of caucuses and primaries that are held by states from January to June in an election year, delegates for the parties’ national conventions are selected. When these delegates meet at their respective party’s national convention to officially choose the presidential nominee, a simple majority of delegate support for a candidate is needed in order for that candidate to win the party’s nomination.
There are two types of delegates: pledged and unpledged. The difference between the two is simple. Pledged delegates openly indicate to voters which candidate they support, while unpledged delegates are not required to disclose their preferences. Unpledged delegates are often referred to as “super delegates” for their unusual power to swing the vote in one direction or another.
Both the Democratic and the Republican caucuses and primaries allocate delegates in one of the following ways: winner-take-all, proportional allocation, or via a convention. In a winner-take-all system, the candidate who receives the most votes is awarded all of that state’s delegates. In a proportional system, delegates are awarded to several candidates in proportion to the number of votes each candidate received. For example, imagine a state with 10 delegates and 3 candidates. If 60% of voters supported candidate X, 20% supported candidate Y, and 20% supported candidate Z, candidate X would receive 6 delegates and candidates Y and Z would each receive 2 delegates. The Republican Party gives states the choice of using either the winner-take-all or the proportional method. The Democratic Party, on the other hand, always uses the proportional method to assign delegates.
Conventions are larger meetings held after the statewide caucuses have been completed, during which the appointed delegates officially choose their party’s candidate. Delegates to the state convention are chosen at each local caucus meeting, and often must travel to the state convention site in order to represent their communities.
Although the objective of the primary election process is to give voters some input into the process of selecting a presidential nominee, there are certain restrictions on who can participate in caucuses or primaries. There are two types of primary elections: closed and open. In a closed primary election, only those voters who are officially registered with the party may vote in that party’s primary. Some states carry out open primary elections, in which voters are allowed to participate in either the Democratic or the Republican primary (but not both!) regardless of their party affiliation. Very rarely are voters allowed to vote in both the Republican and Democratic primaries; this is called a blanket primary.
The primary election process is complex and may vary from state to state, and from party to party. For more detailed information, contact your state’s board of elections. For specific questions regarding all 2012 presidential candidates, check out Project Vote Smart’s website.
About the Author
Jake Michaels: Jake Michaels is an intern with Project Vote Smart at the organization’s headquarters in Philipsburg, Mont. Project Vote Smart is a national non-profit, non-partisan political research and voter education organization dedicated to providing voters with spin-free facts so that they can make informed decisions at the ballot box. A native of Auburn, N.Y., Jake is a graduate of SUNY Fredonia and holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in History with a minor in International Studies.