A Primer on the Primaries

With the 2016 election year almost upon us, it is time to review the election process that is about to unfold.  The three major political events of the 2016 election process will be:  the primaries (from February to June); the party conventions (in July), and the general election (in November).  The first two events (primaries and conventions) are party events, with Democratic and Republican party events taking place more or less separately; while the general election will of course be a contest between and involving both parties (and possibly smaller, “third” parties).

The primary process begins on February 1, and actually includes both party caucuses and party primaries, two different forms of decision-making.  Each state’s party engages in only one of the two types, for the purpose of selecting delegates to the conventions (each of whom will then, in turn, support one of the party’s candidates for the party’s nomination for president).  Caucuses are larger, more involved and complex activities than are primaries, and they typically include informal meetings, “town halls,” and other events, as well as formal party votes.  Because of the greater demand on time for participants, caucuses tend to involve smaller numbers of voters, and are therefore oriented more toward party activists and politicians.  Primaries, on the other hand, are generally just basic elections (in regular polling places); the voters come, vote, and leave, and they therefore also turn out in greater numbers than they do for caucuses.  Some states have “open” or “mixed” primaries or caucuses, that allow people to get involved regardless of their party registration status; while others have “closed” primaries or caucuses, in which voters may only participate in party activities if they are registered with that party.  Whichever system a particular state and its parties use, the primaries and caucuses will select delegates (and the delegates’ support to specific candidates) to the party conventions in July.

The two parties use this system slightly differently in allotting delegations and support to the candidates.  The Republican Party employs a more uniform system in assigning numbers of delegates to the states based on their electoral weight.  The Democrats, on the other hand, combine electoral weight with each state’s proportionate support to previous presidential candidates (in past general elections).  Those states that voted more heavily for the Democratic candidates get a greater delegation than those with the same electoral weight but which saw weaker Democratic votes in the previous general election.  In other words, states with strong Democratic parties get proportionally more weight at the conventions than do those with weaker Democratic parties.  Republicans and Democrats also differ in handing state delegations’ support over to the candidates.  Republicans use a combination of “winner takes all” in some states, and proportionate representation in others (so some states can support only a single Republican candidate; while others can support multiple candidates).  The Democrats more uniformly use only proportionate representation; each Democratic state delegation can in theory support multiple candidates.

A greater difference between the parties during the primary season is the Democratic Party’s use of “superdelegates,” a practice used to a much lesser extent by the Republican Party.  The Democratic National Committee (DNC) allots roughly one sixth of the delegates’ voting power at the convention to various individuals of importance within the party.  The superdelegates (selected by the DNC) include certain DNC members themselves; former presidents and vice-presidents; congressional leaders; and certain US Senators, US Congressmen, and state governors.  There are currently (for 2016) over 700 of them.  Unofficially, almost half of them (329) have already endorsed Hillary Clinton, and are therefore expected to vote for her at the convention; while only a handful support either Bernie Sanders (who has 7 endorsements) or Martin O’Malley (with only 3).  Although the entire primary process still lies yet before us, Clinton is already poised to jump out of the gate with an overwhelming advantage.

The first state caucus, on February 1, will be in Iowa, which since 1972 has kicked off every presidential election primary season.  Then, on February 9, New Hampshire will hold the first state primary, also considered a traditional beginning to each primary season.  Later in February, the Nevada state parties will caucus, and then the South Carolina voters will get to vote in their primary.  These first primaries and caucuses can play havoc with campaigns, until then only graded by public telephone polling which tends to record rather different results than do actual electoral events.  Strong campaigns, especially by insurgent candidates (like Trump and Sanders), can deflate rapidly, and be replaced by mainstream candidates (like Bush and Clinton), who are generally stronger in caucuses than in primaries (as the former are more based on career party activists and politicians), and who do much better in electoral events than in public opinion polling.

Then, on Tuesday, March 1, 2016, each party will hold caucuses and primaries in over ten states simultaneously, the largest electoral event of the primary season.  Until that day, called “Super Tuesday,” each state gets its primary or caucus to itself; and candidates usually visit each state during these vital first primaries and caucuses, talk to their voters, and speak on issues of particular importance to the voters of each of those states.  On Super Tuesday, candidates have to make priorities; usually “triaging” the states so that their limited time can be used to reap the greatest rewards.  Candidates may ignore states whose decision is not likely to change if they stay away, and focus on those states where they believe they can make a difference and change the voters’ minds.  They typically also spend more time in states with the most delegates (Texas and Georgia, in particular, among those states voting on Super Tuesday).

Two weeks later, on March 15, after numerous additional primaries and caucuses, comes a smaller version of Super Tuesday with five states voting at the same time, including the typically vital battleground states of Florida and Ohio (which usually see heavy campaign activity).  March 15 is  also a key date because with the states voting on that date, those states which have already voted have collectively, in both parties, over half of the weight of delegates to the conventions; and a good picture may finally have developed of which candidates look strong for the finish, and which candidates no longer have much hope for victory.  As weaker candidates drop out, their resources (remaining campaign funds, activists, and supporters) may be turned over to specific remaining candidates, endorsed by candidates suspending their campaign operations.

The primary process continues until June 7 or so (although some lesser primaries, like the Democratic primary in the District of Columbia, may take place after this date).  On June 7, the last five states (the massive state of California, the dominant New Jersey, as well as Montana, New Mexico, and South Dakota) hold their primaries.  This last, big Tuesday can still breathe life into a foundering campaign with California’s massive party delegations, or kill a campaign barely holding an edge over its competitors.  Once the smoke has cleared, a winner should have emerged; and at the very least only those candidates with strong, national bases and support should have survived.

In the following month, July, the parties will hold their conventions – first the Republicans in Cleveland, Ohio; and then the Democrats in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  A party convention can be a formality, if the winner is clear from the primaries, and the losing candidate(s) have conceded victory and endorsed the winner.  If doubt remains within either party whom their nominee will be, the delegates at the convention will have opportunities (possibly multiple such) to cast or recast (and change) their votes.  If a seemingly weaker candidate refuses to concede victory, and can still tie up enough delegates to keep a stronger candidate from getting the nomination, the process can draw out until one side or the other puts the interests of party over their personal ambitions and concedes.  Drawn-out convention fights can also erode independent voter support, and turn party voters against the party’s nominee if the final mud-slinging goes on too long and too far.  Ultimately, whether the nominee is decided before the convention, or during it, the party convention process is intended to finalize the selection within each party of that party’s nominee for the presidential campaign in the general election.  After the nomination, each party works to steer all of its support toward its nominee, including especially the candidates and supporters recently contesting the nomination.

After the party conventions and nominations in July, the two parties and their candidates concentrate on battling each other for the general election on Tuesday, November 8, 2016.  There will be more debates, between the presidential candidates; and between the vice-presidential candidates, generally also selected during the convention process.  Candidates will continue to visit those states seen as strategically vital and/or potentially undecided (the “battleground states”), and other states with something to offer one or both of the candidates.  Finally, in November, comes the general election to decide which candidate (and their party) deserves the chance to steer national policy for the next four years.  And then, we have but a mere two years until the so-called “mid-term” elections (to Congress and various state and local offices), and another two years until the next presidential election; and we begin the process all over again.

Headline image via PBS and Getty Images.


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