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A Primary Primer


What better day to talk about US Presidential primaries than Super Tuesday? “Literally any day before Super Tuesday,” the crowd shouts back.

Too bad; I’m doing it today.

In truth, I’m writing this because somebody asked for it. How primaries work is like second nature to me at this point, but it is probably a bizarre, senseless rituals to others. This is a good opportunity to demystify it.

What is a primary, anyway?

The short answer is that it’s the election before the election. The longer answer is that the political parties–the Democrats and the Republicans–have to determine their candidates somehow, and this is done via a primary system. In addition to primaries, there are gatherings called caucuses which are less formal but no less important. It is difficult to be more specific without talking about particular states, because every state in the country does things its own way. But ultimately, the purpose of each primary and caucus is to assign delegates. It is these delegates who will cast the final votes that determine each party’s Presidential candidate.

What’s so Super about Super Tuesday?

Just the number of states holding their primaries/caucuses today. Thirteen states and one territory (American Samoa) are holding primaries today. Two states–Wyoming and Alaska–are only having Republican caucuses today. Likewise, American Samoa is only voting for a Democratic candidate. The other 11 states are making their choices for both parties today.

The other states are spread out. A few of them are done before the first Tuesday in March; most are done after. New Hampshire is always the first primary because, amusingly enough, it has a state law mandating that it must hold its primary at least 7 days prior to any other state holding a “similar election.” Oddly, the Iowa caucuses are actually before the New Hampshire primary, because they aren’t considered a “similar election” under New Hampshire law. That’s just comparing two states. Things only get weirder the more you dig into each state’s rules.

What’s this delegate stuff about? Superdelegates?

Do you remember how the Electoral College works? You go to the polls, you vote for President, and then whoever a majority of people in your state voted for gets all the electoral votes for your state (usually; a couple states split them). Those electoral votes aren’t abstract. They are cast by real people: the Electoral College. These are usually party officials and other individuals who can be counted on to cast the final vote as instructed.

Delegates work very similarly. Instead of your primary vote being counted directly, the total counts are used to determine how many delegates each candidate gets. The delegates are, again, party officials and other volunteers who will vote appropriately. But there are a couple wrinkles. One is that, while the Presidential election has a few hundred electors, there are thousands of primary delegates. The other is that, in addition to delegates assigned based on primary and caucus voting returns, there are superdelegates. Here, the parties diverge noticeably. For the Democratic Party, superdelegates are the party elites: current and past Presidents, state governors, Senators, Representatives, and members of the party’s national committee. They are relatively powerful in that they can vote for anyone they want. Even so, it would be unusual for them to go against the trend displayed by the pledged delegates chosen by the primaries. Such a move would fracture the party and so it is rarely contemplated. This means that if one candidate has a strong lead in delegates, they will likely receive the bulk of the superdelegates, too. Superdelegates can change their minds right up until they cast their final vote at the party convention, which will be held July 25-28 this year.

Republicans do things a little differently. For one thing, while Democratic superdelegates represent about a sixth of the delegate total, Republican superdelegates are much smaller in number–only 7 percent of the total. This means Republican superdelegates can only be the deciding factor if primary voters have failed to push a single candidate ahead of the rest.

In any case, when each party holds its national convention this summer, all the delegates and superdelegates get together and cast their final, actual votes. These votes will determine which candidate from each party is the nominee for the general election. Then, those two people (plus assorted third-party candidates nobody really knows exist; sorry) will duke it out until the first Tuesday in November, at which point all voting Americans will make their choice for President.

But why is this so complicated?

Unlike the general election, which is defined by the Constitution and organized at a federal level but implemented by the states themselves, there is no federal oversight to the primaries and caucuses at all. Because they are for the benefit only of the parties themselves and are not Constitutionally-mandated elections, each state is free to do things pretty much however it wants, and within a particular state the parties may do things quite differently, and not even hold their primaries/caucuses on the same day. Some may award delegates proportionally to votes, others may be winner-take-all, meaning a simple majority gets all the delegates. It varies dramatically from state to state and between the parties.

The complexity also has a lot to do with various traditions and historical occurrences. When and how each state holds its primary/caucus is often the result of party machinations, particular historical upsets, political back-scratching, and other considerations. One could surely write a sizable book tracing the origins and histories of each state’s primary system, as well as why and how the parties differ in how they are conducted.

Does my primary vote matter? What if I live in a state dominated by a party I don’t like?

Yes, your vote matters! One could argue that a primary vote is more valuable than a general election vote, because if you are in a state that only goes 49% for your choice in the general election, your vote didn’t get you anything. But in a primary, you pick which party you are voting for, and which candidate. Your vote usually goes directly toward apportioning delegates for that candidate, which means you are helping to nominate that candidate. This doesn’t necessarily mean your preferred candidate will be the nominee, but your vote has more of an impact because comparatively few people vote in primaries.

If you live in a state dominated by a party you don’t approve of, consider that candidates running for the opposition party still have to come down to your state and perform what’s called “retail politics” to secure your primary vote in order to be nominated. This is perhaps one of the most important features of the primary system, since while states that are solidly red or blue may be ignored in favor of swing states during a general election, virtually all states are critical to a candidate who hopes to win their party’s nomination.

Where can I find out when my state’s primary (or caucus) is?

There’s a good schedule here. Note that “open” primaries are those in which you need not be registered for a particular party to vote in its primary (though you can still only pick one party). Closed primaries require you to already be registered with the party for which you intend to vote. Mixed primaries have their own rules that will vary by state.

Now get out there and vote!

Photo by kristin_a (Meringue Bake Shop)