Presidential Primaries, Explained

Don't miss your chance to help decide the party nominee.
Democratic presidential hopefuls (fromL) US Senator from New Jersey Cory Booker looks on as former Vice President Joe Biden gestures next to US Senator from California Kamala Harris during the second round of the second Democratic primary debate of the 2020 presidential campaign season hosted by CNN at the Fox Theatre in Detroit, Michigan on July 31, 2019. (Photo by Jim WATSON / AFP) (Photo credit should read JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)

Democratic presidential hopefuls (fromL) US Senator from New Jersey Cory Booker looks on as former Vice President Joe Biden gestures next to US Senator from California Kamala Harris during the second round of the second Democratic primary debate of the 2020 presidential campaign season hosted by CNN at the Fox Theatre in Detroit, Michigan on July 31, 2019. (Photo by Jim WATSON / AFP) (Photo credit should read JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)

What Is a Presidential Primary?

A presidential primary, like a caucus or convention, is a process by which the political parties of each state select the delegates who go to each party’s national convention. At each national convention, the delegates then select the party’s presidential nominee. From that point on, it’s a battle between (usually) just two presidential candidates.

While some states hold a caucus or convention, the majority of delegates are chosen through presidential primaries, so voting for preferred candidates in the primaries is the average citizen’s opportunity to have a say in who will be nominated.

How Do The Presidential Primaries Work?

First, state governments choose the dates for their primary elections. Next, on the day of the primary, registered voters will select the candidate they believe their party should nominate. Delegates are then allocated among the candidates based on how many votes each candidate received (proportional allocation).

The primary season kicks off with the New Hampshire primary, which follows closely on the heels of the Iowa caucuses in February. The last primaries are held in June. Usually, both Democratic and Republican primaries are held on the same date, but not always.

In 2020, the Republican party in Arizona, Kansas, Nevada, and South Carolina have decided to forgo a primary—despite candidates like Bill Weld, Mark Sanford, and Joe Walsh having announced. By opting out of their traditional primary, the Republican parties in these states are pledging their delegates (a total of 172) to incumbent Donald Trump without a state vote. This could have the consequence of disenfranchising individual Republican voters in their states who may have preferred one of the alternative candidates to the incumbent.

The History Of Presidential Primaries

Up to approximately the turn of the 20th century, caucuses were the method relied upon to select national convention delegates. Unfortunately, those caucuses often included only party leaders and other insiders, with regular voters often being unaware that the caucuses were even being held. By the early 1900s, accusations of corruption and complaints that the state delegates did not actually represent the state voters’ will blazed into a conflagration. The national consensus was that reform was called for.

Some states reformed their caucus process to allow transparency and more participation by average voters. Increasing numbers of states, however, chose to hold secret-ballot primary elections, which permitted the majority of adult citizens to vote. The very first primary was held in New Hampshire in 1920. Currently, 48 states and U.S. territories hold presidential primaries.

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Do Democrats and Republicans Follow the Same Primary Process?

No. Democratic and Republican primaries can follow a very different process in how the selection of delegates representative of the state are chosen.

The Democratic Party always allocates delegates in proportion with the percentage of votes each candidate received. The Republican Party permits each state to decide whether to allocate its delegates in proportion with the percentage of votes each candidate received, or whether to take a “winner take all” approach—allocating all its delegates to the candidate who receives the most primary votes.

Both the Democratic and Republican parties have “superdelegates.” These are party leaders and elected officials who are automatically made delegates to the national conventions without being pledged to any candidate. As a result of controversy over the degree of influence the Democratic superdelegates exercised in 2016, Democratic superdelegates in 2020 will not be permitted to vote in the first convention ballot. The pledged delegates allocated through the primaries thus will be able to vote without superdelegates dominating the first ballot, and it is quite possible that a candidate may win the nomination on the first ballot.

Republican superdelegates have less influence to start with. Only three Republicans from each state are accorded superdelegate status, and that status doesn’t come with many advantages. In 2015, the Republican National Committee determined that superdelegates must vote for the candidate for which the majority of Republicans in the delegates’ states voted.

Understanding Open, Closed, And Mixed Primaries

Closed primaries allow only voters registered and affiliated with the political party holding the primary to vote in it. If an unaffiliated voter wishes to vote in the primary, they must register with the party.

Open primaries allow any voter, regardless of party affiliation, to vote in a political party’s primary. However, they can only vote in one primary. Concerns have been raised that open primaries may allow voters affiliated with one party to try to influence the result of the primary of the party with which they are not affiliated, by voting for either weaker or more conservative candidates.

Mixed primaries are hybrids. In a few states, political parties will allow voters registered with another party to change registration in order to be able to vote in that party’s primary. Another mixed primary approach is to allow only voters registered and affiliated with a political party to vote in that party’s primary, but allow unaffiliated voters or voters registered as “independent” to choose the presidential primary in which they wish to participate.

The Rantt Rundown

Presidential primaries are the process used by the majority of U.S. states and territories to allocate each political parties’ delegates for the party’s national convention. Because every voter cannot go to the party national conventions, presidential primaries are the one opportunity an individual voter gets to indicate candidate preference and have that preference count. Not exercising the right to vote is giving up participation in the democratic process we follow to select presidential nominees.

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Rantt 101 // Democratic Primary / Elections / Presidential Primaries / Republican Primary