The series of presidential primary elections and caucuses held in each U.S. state and territory is part of the nominating process of United States presidential elections. This process was never included in the United States Constitution; it was created over time by the political parties. Some states hold only primary elections, some hold only caucuses, and others use a combination of both. These primaries and caucuses are staggered generally between February and June before the general election in November.
Nomination procedures in the United States are unlike those of most other democratic systems. The primary election system in the strict sense, often called the direct primary election system, is used only in the U.S., and only in a few of the states. Primary elections are internal party processes that choose a political party’s candidate(s) for the next general election by holding an internal election. Through this primary election process, candidates for elective offices in the U.S. are selected by voters rather than by party leaders. Exactly how this is done depends on the legal framework, internal party rules, and informal practices. Since the primary election system operates under the laws of the federal states, there can be some important differences from state to state in the operation of primaries, such as “open” or “closed” primaries.
Each party determines how many delegates are allocated to each state. Along with those delegates chosen during the primaries and caucuses, state delegations to both the Democratic and Republican conventions also include “unpledged” delegates, usually current and former elected officeholders and party leaders, who can vote for whomever they want.
The primary election system in the USA emerged in the late 19th and early 20th century in an era of progressiveness as a reaction against strong party organizations and their control over nominations. Two major developments are said to have led to the emergence of statewide primary elections:
• the introduction of secret ballots that enabled free voting for party nominees
• the rejection of the party convention system for candidate selection
The evolution of primaries mirrors the wish to reduce control from the conservative organisations that dominated the Republican Party. Consequently, the growth of primaries in U.S. politics is considered to be rooted in the concern that party conventions (or caucuses) were controlled by the political machines.
The first statewide primary was held 1899 in Minnesota. Two years later, Minnesota instituted the first mandatory statewide primary system. The first presidential primary election was organised in 1901 in Florida. The importance of primaries in the US voting and candidate selection system has grown considerably in recent decades. As a result, voters have gained more influence over candidate selection while the power of party leaders and organisations has declined. However, primary elections are still not held in all US states. By 2004, Alaska, Colorado, Nevada, and Utah did not have some form of presidential primary. In these states, delegates are selected at caucuses and conventions by party activists and officials at each level of the party organisation within a state. Lastly, the state conventions choose the delegates to the national convention. Caucus meetings tend to be dominated by party activists who are sufficiently committed to the party’s cause to take part in each stage.
One reason that the process of campaigning is longer and more expensive is that primary elections now play such an important role in nominating candidates for office. Until the late 19th century, party activists generally selected candidates. Then primary elections were invented as part of a movement to democratize party nominations, and over the years, most states have adopted them. Direct primaries allow all party members to vote to choose the party’s candidate for the general election. Most states conduct closed primaries, in which only registered party members may vote for their party’s nomination. A few states allow voters to choose the party primary in which they want to vote on primary election day — a process known as open primaries. Primaries are usually held in the spring before the general election in the fall.
General Elections.By law, candidates for Congress must be selected on the Tuesday after the first Monday in November in even-numbered years. The President and Vice-President have four-year terms, so they are only selected in every other general congressional election. State and local elections can be held at the same time and on the same ballot with national candidates, but sometimes they are elected in odd-numbered years or at other times of the year. For most elected positions, 50% of the vote is not required, but candidates need to win more votes than anyone else.
Campaigns can be very simple or very complex. Running for the local school board is relatively simple. Candidates may just be required to file their names, answer a few questions from the local newspaper, and sit back and wait for the election. Running for President is altogether different. Today it is almost impossible to mount a campaign for the presidency in less than two years. How much money does it take? It certainly involves millions of dollars.
Even the decision to run can be an expensive process. Potential candidates typically launch “exploratory committees” that involve extensive polling and fund-raising activities. Once potential candidates announce their candidacy, they must campaign for the primaries. Because primaries are conducted by states over several months in the spring before the election, candidates must crisscross the country, spending lots of time and money in the process. By tradition, the first primaries (Republican and Democratic) are held in New Hampshire in February, and the winners usually get a great deal of attention. As they mount their next campaigns, the winners often get more contributions than the losers, and so a phenomenon known as front-loading is created. The candidates who win the first few primaries almost always tend to win the later ones.
Party activists gather at the party conventions held in the summer to nominate their candidates formally. In the days before primaries, the party’s selection was often uncertain going in to the convention. Today, however, the primaries make the decision. The candidates also announce their vice-presidential running mates at the summer conventions.
After the conventions, the race for the general election begins. Since most American voters identify themselves as moderates, candidates often shift their messages to “capture the middle.” Presidential and vice-presidential debates, usually held in October, have become an important part of recent campaigns.
The expense and length of modern American elections and campaigns has become one of the biggest issues in politics today. Some recommend that political party spending be more closely monitored, and others believe that overall spending caps must be set. Still others advocate national, not state, control of the primary process in order to reduce the length and expense of campaigns. Whatever the criticisms, American elections and campaigns represent a dynamic and vital link between citizen and government.
Common features of US primary elections
Variations in direct primary elections are characterized by which voters are eligible to vote in the party’s primary. One can distinguish between closed, open, blanket (crossover), and nonpartisan primaries. However, there are some general features that all primaries have in common in the US.
At first, a person who seeks a party’s nomination for a particular elective office makes an application for nomination. This petition has to be signed by a legally stipulated number of voters in the jurisdiction. All candidates for each party’s nomination to each office appear on ballot papers. Voters mark their ballots in (governmentally supervised) primary elections, registering their preferences for one nominee for each office. Thereafter, the person with the most votes (for each office in each party’s primary) is confirmed as that party’s nominee. The nominees’ names and party affiliations are printed on the ballot for the general election, when voters choose among candidates of various parties to fill offices.
The candidates in a presidential primary (or the state caucuses) are in fact delegates, who will themselves vote for presidential nominees at the national party conventions. Most delegates are committed to support a specific party candidate. The allocation of delegates to the presidential candidates varies considerably between the primaries in the U.S. states. How the allocation takes place can be of great importance, because a majority of the delegates’ votes at the national party convention is needed for a presidential candidate to receive the party’s nomination. There are three methods of candidate allocation:
One possible system applied is the winner-take-all system (WTA). All delegates from a state go to the candidate who wins the most votes in the state’s primary election. Another system is used in Louisiana for all state, local, and congressional elections, the run-off (two-round) system, where a run-off-election is held if no candidate receives a majority of votes. The proportional representation primary (PR) allocates delegates in proportion to the number of votes each candidate received in the primary. The PR system is said to increase the voice of minorities, while the WTA system may raise the political influence of the candidate in the further nomination process.
Types of primary elections
As mentioned above, the primary election system varies between the US states in terms of who is entitled to vote in the party’s primary election.
In open primaries, voters of the state can participate in one of the primary elections, irrespective of their party affiliation. Thus, voters usually don’t have to make a public statement of party choices as in the closed primaries mentioned above. But still they have to decide in which primary election they want to vote in that particular election. This system allows the most popular candidate to be put forward regardless of his or her party affiliation. Although it is claimed to be a very democratic method, there is some space for abuse of the open primary method. For example, it has happened that strongly dedicated party members intentionally voted for the worst candidate in another party’s primary election. The open primary system was by 2005 employed in 20 U.S. states. Half of them require public declaration of party affiliation, the other half permit private declaration. In semi-open primaries, registered party voters may only vote in the primary of the party that they are registered in. Independents in some states can choose in which primary they prefer to vote. In a few U.S. states, parties are able to determine whether independent voters can vote in their primaries or not. For instance, in West Virginia, Republican primaries are open to independents, but Democratic primaries are closed. In some states, a voter registered as an independent who decides to vote in a party primary is then automatically registered as a member of that party and must affirmatively re-register if they wish to retain their independent status.
In crossover or blanket primaries, all voters can vote in the primary elections of any party they publicly choose. Today, these kinds of primary elections are not in use anymore (see below). They allowed voters to vote in either primary at both the Republican and Democrat primaries and to switch party primaries with each office. The only restriction was that voting was only allowed in one’s party primary for each office. Blanket primaries thus offered the widest possible participation to the voters. The state of Washington employed a crossover primary system until 2003, in which voters could vote irrespective of party membership. In 2003, however, the US Supreme Court handed down a judgment that outlawed this kind of election system, because it infringed upon the rights of the political parties to select the candidates. The United States Supreme Court also struck down the blanket primary system in California in the case California Democratic Party v. Jones, decided in June 2000.
To examine the difference these primary types make on voting behavior and electoral results, if any, one most look carefully at each case. There is some evidence that in states with closed primaries, voters tend to identify more with one party, and in states with open primaries, voters tend to vote in a more candidate-oriented manner.
Candidate selection through primary elections can take place for both legislative candidates as well as for presidential candidates.
Public interest in the primary elections is usually very high, and this has contributed to so called front-loading, a process of shifting the primary elections to the beginning of the election year. The huge media coverage of primary elections forces the candidates to enter the race early to gain publicity. The first primary was held in late January in New Hampshire, with the Iowa caucuses held slightly earlier. These traditionally mark the starting points of the so called primary season that begins in January and ends with the parties’ summer conventions. The candidates have to spend a lot of time on their electoral campaign in these two states, even though they are not considered to be representative of the whole country .The results of these early elections receive a lot of media attention, and the winner is considered the front-runner candidate for that party. In February, 16 more states hold primaries and caucuses, and on the first Tuesday in March, so called Super Tuesday, 13 states hold primaries, among them the largest and most important states like California and New York. The party’s nominee is virtually decided after Super Tuesday. (This information is correct as of the 2004 presidential elections.)
The primary season furnishes the candidates with a forum to gain publicity, to debate policy issues, to criticise one another, and to disseminate their campaign platform to the wider electorate.
The front-loading process increases the advantages of a candidate who can win most of the early primaries and can gather momentum. So, a good start to the primaries is considered important. George W. Bush, however, made a poor start in primary elections but ultimately won the Republican Party’s nomination in 2000.
The most commonly mentioned critiques against the presidential primary front-loading process are
• that the frontloading process reinforces candidate-centred campaigns throughout the whole election process
• that it places high demands upon the candidates, such as:
o Front-loading leads to a compressed campaign schedule, which can be overwhelming for the candidates
o Candidates have to spend large amounts of money for primary election campaigns before the general election campaign starts. This means that candidates who can raise great amounts of money very early in the process have an advantage
o Candidates need to plan carefully for the whole primary season
o Candidates must win favour with the media very early to obtain a positive media image
o Candidates have to network early with party members to gain support for the primary elections
o Candidates must communicate their political ideas very carefully to satisfy both primary voters and the general electorate (see below)
Reform proposals for presidential candidate selection mostly concern the shortening of the campaign season to balance advantages that may arise from the frontloading process.
Having said that, proponents of the front-loading process claim that
• The compressed election campaign during the “primary season” prepares the candidates for the real battle with their opponent(s) in the general election campaign
• Competition is generally encouraging candidates to reach out and mobilize new supporters during the primary process and that front-loading intensifies this process due to the limited time-frame Effects of primary election system
Candidate with the largest pre-primary vote may gain top position on the primary ballot.
Hence, benefits of pre-primary elections will occur only if the party endorsee actually wins the primary. In that case, this may help unify the party and may reduce the impact of campaign financing on the outcome of the primary. By that, party responsibilities are combined with the final decision of the voters (see Peirce 2005).
However, the pre-primary system leads to the absurd result of another extension of the election campaign in addition to the front-loading process.
The primary election process also has caused detrimental effects that have to be stressed. Due to the primary election process, the election campaign starts a couple of months before the election takes place. This produces unnecessarily high costs. Another aspect is that all the “hand-shaking tours” (Pitts 2002) on the primary election arrangements may lead to exhaustion of the candidates. On the other hand, we could say that it allows time for a wide range of issues to be discussed. In general, it is sometimes said that the whole process of primary elections and front-loading places too much emphasis on media image and leads to an oversimplification of the political process. Policy programmes of the political parties take a back seat since the candidates and campaign events become more and more important. Candidates prefer to focus on a good media image and performance than a substantial political debate.
Another argument against primaries would be that voters lack in-depth knowledge and experience to choose the most competent candidate. Party leaders and office-holders might have more insight into the technical qualities candidates need.
On the other hand, there are a lot of positive effects of the US primary election system compared to all other candidate selection systems.
The primary election system privileges American voters compared to voters in other democracies: Voters have both the right to vote for one political party over another in the general election as well as the right to decide who their party’s nominees should be. Furthermore, voters enjoy the power to vote without assuming any obligation to the party. They neither have to pay party dues nor to subscribe to the party’s principles, nor do they have to vote for the party’s candidates in the general election.
The case of US presidential primary elections shows that voter turnout is far lower in primaries than the turnout in the ensuing general elections. This is due to the fact that it is mainly only the most dedicated and strongly committed party members who are interested in voting in primary elections. The low turnout in the US primary elections thus leads to an exaggerated influence of a small group of ideological voters. This then puts pressures on the party candidates to cater to the often more ideological and extreme positions of primary voters during the primary season and then emphasize more moderate positions to appeal to the more centrist general electorate during the election campaign following the party convention.
Furthermore, voter turnout is generally higher in primaries for the majority party, because the winner of that primary is said to have a better chance to win the general election. Hence, one can observe tactical voting tendencies to achieve the desired result for the political party preferred. Especially in states where the open primary system is applied, voters decide tactically in what primary election to vote to strengthen the position of their favorite candidate. For example, in southern states, one can note high voter turnout including conservative “Republican” votes in Democratic primaries. As a result, a conservative Democrat has been selected several times.