Primary elections are how political parties in the United States pick their strongest candidate to run for president.
The parties do this by holding mini-elections in each of the states and the candidates with the most votes from these elections becomes the parties’ official nominees; these nominees then face each other in the national election for president.
But this isn’t the whole story. There are five things that make it a bit more complicated than that…
Complication #1: Primaries vs Caucuses
In every state, the local party leaders decide how to run their elections. The two most common choices are primaries and caucuses.
A Caucus, however, is a public vote.
People gather in groups wherever space is available then literally take sides in the room with everyone else who likes the same candidate.
The groups debate each other and, if people change their minds, they need to physically switch sides.
At the end of the debates party representatives count the number of people in each group. If you leave too early, you don’t count.
This description of primaries and caucuses is really all you need to know but the specifics can vary wildly.
That’s because there are fifty states all of which hold at least two primaries and caucuses for the big parties, and possibly more for the small parties.
Covering all the local variants would take a tediously long time which your short attention span for boring political videos wouldn’t tolerate – And you need to stay focused because there are four more things to cover.
Complication #2: Who can vote?
In the National Presidential election all American citizens over the age of 18 can vote, with two exceptions, you can’t live here or here.
But primaries are in-state elections with lots of different rules.
Most states and parties will only let you vote in the primary if you are an official member of the party. This is called a closed primary because the voting is closed to non-party members.
But some citizens are independents – and are not registered with any party. If you’re an independent and live in a state with closed-party elections, tough luck. No voting for you.
Some states, however, have ‘semi-closed’ primaries. Where independents can pick one, and only one, primary to vote in. Parties allow this because the presidential election is often determined by independents so knowing which candidates they like is useful.
Finally a few states and parties really play it fast and lose with open primaries. Here any citizen, no matter which party they’re registered with, can pick a primary to vote in.
But it’s not just the states that have primaries, they’re also held in the District of Columbia and the oft-forgotten territories – holding primaries here is a bit odd though considering that territorial residents can’t vote in the actual presidential election.
Lastly are the Americans living abroad who, depending on the party, vote in a bloc as though they all lived together in one a big, extra state.
When all these elections take place depends on…
Complication #3 Who Votes When?
Primaries aren’t conducted all at once but are spread out over a year. This leads to fights between the states about who gets to be at the head of the line and who is stuck at the back. Inevitably, last minute leap-frogging of dates happens – even though the parties often take away votes from these uncivil states.
When it comes to being #1, nobody beats New Hampshire who wrote it into state law that their primary will always be at least a week ahead of everyone else’s.
Which isn’t a problem until some other state gets the bright idea to do the same and then we have an infinite loop in our system and have to force-quit the law.
But wait, you say, doesn’t Iowa already go first? Yes, but New Hampshire lets them get away with it for two reasons:
1) Iowa’s election is a caucus and so New Hampshire is still technically the first primary.
2) New Hampshire thinks that Iowa is stupid and doesn’t matter.
Other states try to boost their influence not by cutting in line but by forming an alliance and holding their primaries at the same time.
The biggest alliance of the election cycle is called Super Tuesday where – depending on how many states can agree with each other – around half of them might participate, giving out a whole pile of votes.
Which brings us to:
Complication #4: Votes That Aren’t Votes.
So this whole time you’re were probably thinking that citizens give votes straight to the candidates, but no.
Instead, the votes are given to a bunch of guys, called delegates, who in turn will give them to candidates as requested to. Maybe.
Depending on the state, delegates might be required to vote as the citizens did, or they might be completely free to ignore the citizens and vote for whomever they want.
Who are these people? The delegates are local party VIPs, such as state reps and officials. The more citizens who live in a state, the more delegates that state gets.
Later in the year, when all the states have finished their primaries, the delegates travel to a huge gathering for their party called the National Convention.
It’s here that the official vote to select the party’s nominee for president happens.
But it’s not just these delegates who do the voting.
Complication #5 Super Delegates
Super delegates are the top members of the party such as congressmen and former presidents. They go to the National Convention, not to represent the people, but to represent the current party establishment and can vote for whomever they want.
Depending on the party, the super delegates might be up to 20% of the voters at the National Convention.
Usually by the time the national convention happens all the candidates save one have dropped out of the race so the convention is just a rubber stamp and a big party. But if the fight between candidates is still ongoing, the delegates and super delegates are the ones with the final decision.
Over the course of a year the states, plus, DC plus the territories, and the Americans Abroad hold their primaries, or caucuses. When finished the delegates representing the citizens who voted in those elections travel to the national convention. Most of the delegates are forced to vote as the citizens of their state wanted them to, but some of them are free to vote as they like.
At the national convention the delegates meet up with the super delegates who represent the best interests of the party and together they make the final decision on who will be the nominee for president.
Tired? Don’t be, because now the race for the presidency begins.
Of course, you can skip all that and jump straight into the election as an independent, the only downside to this strategy is near-certain defeat.