Presidential Primary Elections 101

On November 8, 2016 we will slowly walk into a church or gymnasium in single file, squeeze into a booth, and cast our vote for who should be the next President of the United States. The list of candidates will likely have six or seven names on it, but each of us will know there are only two names with any chance of actually winning: the Democrat and the Republican candidates.

I may write a post in the future about why having only two major parties is a very bad thing, and discuss ways we could reform to allow more parties to bloom. But for today, let’s just accept the reality we live in. There will be two candidates and only two candidates for President regardless of how many names we see on that list. Given this truth, the process by which those two names get selected by their respective parties is especially important.

Most people are vaguely aware that the process of getting a party’s nomination has something to do with primaries, caucuses, Iowa, New Hampshire, and debates. However, most people don’t really understand the details. Like a European watching an “American football” game, they can see that something exciting is happening but don’t really know the rules well enough to get into the game. This “primary election” process is beginning now, and it is likely going to be a very fun and interesting election cycle. So I thought I would give a quick breakdown of how the process of choosing the Democrat and Republican presidential candidates works so that you can jump in and enjoy the coming election with me.

Phase 1: The “background” primary

In the current election, this phase of the campaign is nearly over. In order to run a successful presidential campaign it takes lots and lots and lots of money. Just as an example, President Obama raised 726 million dollars in 2012 and 650 million in 2008. During the “background” phase candidates are trying to prove that they can compete on this level by getting as many big donors to commit to them as possible. There is also a big competition to get the best campaign workers to join their cause. Creating a campaign that stretches its wings across all 50 states is an organizational nightmare. It requires a lot of talent and experience to do it well. Therefore, candidates fight hard to get campaign staffers who already have experience to commit to them.

Almost all of this activity is going on in private offices, which is why this phase is often referred to as the “secret” campaign. We only get glimpses of the deals and dollars changing hands. But when you hear things like “Hillary Clinton has sucked all the air out of the room, making it almost impossible for another candidate to challenger her” what they mean is that she already has a majority of donors and a majority of staffers committed to her. If you wanted to run again Hillary Clinton, you would have to do it on a shoe-string budget and with an inexperienced staff. Good luck.

Similarly, you may have noticed that polls are being released showing support for Republican or Democrat candidates. But hardly any of the names on the list have announced they are running for president, so how did their name get on the poll? It is mostly because of activity in this background phase.

Phase 2: The Announcement

By the time candidates begin announcing formal campaigns for the presidency, the political media has worked itself into a frenzy with speculation on what is going on during the background primary. This means that making an announcement will get lots of press coverage; the candidate will probably get talked about most of the day, and clips from their speeches will be played over and over. The announcement sets the tone for the entire campaign moving forward. That much pressure makes these highly-controlled events; nothing is left to chance.

Watch these announcements to get a good idea of what messages each politician plans to focus on. Each person will tell you the niche they are hoping to fill. If you compare and contrast as the announcements come, you will start to see that some candidates are fighting each other over the same talking points.

Phase 3: Speeches, baby-kissing, and debates

Between announcements and the first state election, each candidate needs to make their case as to why they should be president, and get as many voters to support them as possible. Because The United States has 3.8 million square miles and nearly 320 million people, candidates with less money and less name recognition would be at a very obvious disadvantage. To try and give these underdogs a chance to get their message out, the order in which states are allowed to vote is staggered. Iowa and New Hampshire – in that order – are always given the first two elections. Most of the events being held in this period are in one of these two states. Each cycle, the other 48 states complain as loudly as possible that this system gives Iowa and New Hampshire way more political power than their population size justifies. To try and address this, both parties agreed to expand the “early voting” club to four. They added a western state, Nevada, as the third voting state, and South Carolina gets fourth to represent the southern states.

Often times the biggest movement in poll numbers during this period happens after debates. For underdog candidates, the debate is the chance to get free national coverage and attention, to stand on the same stage as the “big names” and sell themselves to a large pool of undecided voters. If you don’t have time to watch the detailed ground game going on during this phase, just tune into the debates and watch the polls the week before and after.

Phase 4: The Iowa Caucus

The Iowa Caucus should not be confused with the Caucasus. The Caucasus is a region on the border of Asia and Europe and the name means “white as snow.” The Caucus is the process by which Iowa and several other states vote for presidential candidates, and given the makeup of the voters involved, the name probably means the same thing as above (just kidding Iowa, we love you!).

It can be hard to find satisfactory descriptions of how the Iowa Caucus works, and this is because the process differs depending on the party involved. The main idea is the same though. Voters show up and listen to a campaign pitch by volunteers from each candidate describing what their candidate believes in and why he or she deserves a vote. After everyone has had their say, the vote is counted. This process can take several hours, and the vote isn’t counted until the end so each person must participate in the entire process. Generally only those who are especially excited about a particular candidate or politics in general are willing to take the time to participate. The idea is that this process will weed out all of the uninformed voters, putting each candidate on an equal plane. Having the last name Clinton, Bush, or Kennedy isn’t enough to win a caucus!

The winner of the Iowa caucus gets a lot of press coverage, a lot of donor attention, and importantly a big boost of momentum in the polls.

Phase 5: The New Hampshire Primary

New Hampshire comes next with a more traditional primary election. The event usually occurs about a week after the Iowa Caucus. The exact date changes year to year. Recently, both Iowa and New Hampshire have been casting their ballots in early January to ensure they are still first in the nation. For this election cycle though, it looks like all four early voting states are set to make their choices in February.

The New Hampshire primary represents the best chance to stop the momentum of the Iowa winner. Ever since the parties decided to hold elections instead of the previous method (which was party bosses sitting in smoke-filled rooms making deals), every single presidential nominee from both parties has won in Iowa or New Hampshire. The only exception to this rule was in 1992, when Bill Clinton performed a political coup by declaring that his second-place finish in New Hampshire made him the “come-back kid.” Generally speaking, if you want to be the party’s nominee for president you better win Iowa or New Hampshire.

Phase 6: Nevada and South Carolina

After New Hampshire, attention moves to Nevada’s “first in the west” election. Nevada is another caucus state, and the process of voting is similar to Iowa. It is hard to judge how much momentum a candidate gets from winning in Nevada since their status as an early voting state started in 2008.

Next up is South Carolina’s “first in the south primary.” Although momentum usually favors the winners of the previous three elections, South Carolina shouldn’t be counted out. The state had an unbroken record of selecting the eventual Republican nominee from 1980 until 2008. Last election the cycle was broken when Newt Gingrich won South Carolina but went on to lose the nomination to Mitt Romney. On the Democrat side, the state has done pretty well too. Five out of the last seven democrat winners in South Carolina have gone on to win their nomination.

Phase 7: Super Tuesday

In order to ensure that the four states discussed above really are the early voting states, the two parties set rules on the earliest date any other state may hold a primary or caucus. Most states traditionally hold their election process on whatever this earliest date is, for fear that if they wait any longer someone will have already locked the nomination up and all of those campaign dollars will never come to their state.

This date always falls on a Tuesday hence the name “Super Tuesday”. Usually about 25 states cast their votes on this day. Because so many votes are up for grabs in so much territory, the importance of getting attention in the four early states is obvious. Momentum is everything. This represents the first chance the nominees have at demonstrating their viability as a  nation-wide candidate. A good showing here is crucial.

For 2016, Super Tuesday will most likely occur on March 1.

Phase 8: Winning the nomination

We’ve discussed when and how each state has their say in whom the party should choose as their presidential nominee, but how does someone actually win? When each state votes, they are actually voting to send delegates to the National Convention of their respective party. Those delegates are technically the ones selecting the presidential nominee. Therefore, to win your party’s nomination you simply need to win a majority of the delegates. The number of delegates can fluctuate a bit for each party and each year. Last year Republican candidates needed 1,144 delegates to win and Democrats needed 2,778.

Phase 9: Conventions

The National Conventions of each party officially signal the end of the primary phase and the start of the general election. By the time it starts the winning candidate is already known. Although, there are scenarios in which the delegates are split between three or more candidates such that no one can claim a majority. Each year political junkies salivate at the thought of this happening and how it would be resolved, but so far it has never happened in the modern era of delegate selection.

Now that you have a general idea of how the primary election process works and what to look for, I hope you can enjoy the political drama with me! There are many fantastic political websites to feed you your daily dose of elections such as RealClearPolitics, Politico, and FiveThirtyEight.

You can visit this blog to keep up on political happenings as well. I will be posting as often as possible on the coming election. Feel free to leave any questions or thoughts in the comments section, and I look forward to sharing this election with you!

Politicus Cerebri


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