You’ve probably heard all about the presidential primaries and caucuses this election season, but how much of this process do you understand? We are here to help! A presidential campaign all starts with a candidate announcing he or she is running for president, seeking the nomination of a specific political party (typically either Democrat or Republican). This year, Hilary Clinton announced she was running for president through a Tweet, seeking the nomination from the Democratic Party. Ted Cruz announced his decision to run for president during a speech at Liberty University, seeking the nomination from the Republican Party.
Of course, anyone can announce they are running for president, so why do so few names stick out to us? The answer is that only one candidate can represent a political party in the presidential election (i.e. there can be only one person running for President as a Democrat and only one as a Republican). Therefore, each candidate runs a campaign to demonstrate why they are the best candidate to represent their political party in the presidential election.
At present, Hilary and Bernie are running against each other for the Democratic Party nomination for President, and Cruz, Trump, and Kasich are running against each other for the Republican Party nomination. These “pre-elections” can be referred to as primaries or caucuses and are spread out across a roughly five month period, starting in February. In the beginning, each side (the Democrats and Republicans) typically have several candidates vying for the party’s nomination, but as time passes and the public begins to show support for just a few candidates, those who are not gaining large percentages of the vote in each state typically drop out.
So what is the difference between a primary and a caucus?
HERE is a website that lays out the timeline of all the primaries and caucuses.
A primary is funded, organized, and run by a state government. Voters have from 7:00am to 7:00pm to go to their designated polling place (oftentimes a church, car dealership, or other designated location where residents of specific geographic boundaries are assigned), vote, and then are free to go about their day. A caucus on the other hand is run by a political party and is more like a meeting of party members. A caucus takes place at a specific time, often in the evening, and all voters attend at the same time. While a primary is a secret ballot (no one knows who you voted for), voting at a caucus is done by raising hands or breaking into groups to show support of a candidate. It is up to the political party in each state to decide whether to hold a primary or a caucus.
Who am I actually voting for in the primaries?
But wait, what happens after I vote in the primary? The candidate with the most votes from each state wins, right? Well, it’s a bit more complicated than that. When you vote for a candidate at a primary or caucus, what you are actually voting for is a political party delegate to vote for your preferred candidate. Each state has a different number of delegates according to their population (along with a few complicated measurements that we won’t go in to). Let’s look at the Democratic primary in California, which will take place on June 7. The total number of available delegates in California is 548. However, 73 of those delegates are what are known as “superdelegates” or “unpledged delegates”, meaning that they are able to vote for any Democratic nominee regardless of the outcome of the primary. If Hilary Clinton wins 60% of the vote and Bernie Sanders wins 40%, 285 delegates from California will vote for Hilary, 190 will vote for Sanders, and 73 will vote for whichever candidate they personally support. In the 2008 California primary, 5,091,104 votes were cast for Democratic candidates. Assuming turnout is the same for this year’s California’s primary, for every 10,718 votes for a Democratic candidate, he or she will receive support from 1 delegate.
So where and when do these delegates cast their vote? All of the delegates from each state will attend their party’s national nominating convention (i.e. the Democratic National Convention and the Republican National Convention), at which time they will cast their votes and an official presidential nominee will be selected for each political party. In 2008, Barack Obama received the official nomination from the Democratic Party, and John McCain received the nomination for the Republican Party.
As mentioned above, a candidate needs more than just the most delegates to win—he or she must win more than 50% of the total number of the delegates from all 50 states. This year, a Democratic Party candidate must win at least 2,383 delegates to receive the official status of Democratic nominee for President. That number for the Republican Party is 1,237. But what happens if no single candidate receives this many delegates? This outcome results in what is known as a “brokered convention”, and there has been a lot of speculation that this might happen in the case of the Republican Party this election. In a brokered convention, attending delegates are released from their obligation to vote for the candidate they were sent to the national convention to support in the hope that a re-vote, in which delegates vote for whoever they not without regard for the outcome of the primary or caucus, will yield a clear majority of delegates for a single candidate. This won’t necessarily happen after a single vote, but likely across multiple votes where support for some candidates begins to lessen while another candidate’s support grows.
In the end, one candidate for the Republican Party and one candidate for the Democratic Party will be nominated and go on to run for President against one another. What happens to the other candidates you ask? Well, they typically show their support for the candidate their party ended up nominating, and many go on to run for other political offices, even trying a second, third, or even fourth time to run for President. Harold Stassen ran for the Republican nomination for President a record twelve times between 1944 and 2000, never winning the nomination.
Now that you have a clear understanding, don’t forget to do your civic duty and cast your vote! To find your polling place (i.e. where you go to cast your vote) click HERE. The California Republican and Democratic presidential primaries are on June 7, and in order to vote you must register no later than May 23. If you are an American citizen and you will be 18 or older on or before June 7, click HERE to register to vote.