The electoral process to nominate a candidate for a presidential election is usually called "the primaries," but there are two different systems that states use: caucus and primary.
Unlike a primary, where residents simply cast their ballots, a caucus is a local gathering where voters openly decide which candidate to support. The caucus format favors candidates who have a dedicated and organized following because a small band of devoted volunteers can exert an outsized influence in the open setting of a caucus.
States choose whether they want to hold primaries or caucuses. Most states hold primaries but states like Iowa, Louisiana, Minnesota and Maine use the caucus system.
Voting in a primary or caucus
At a caucus, members of a political party meet in person at an appointed time and location to discuss the candidates and debate their merits. The voting for candidates happens either by raising hands or by separating into groups, with the votes being counted manually by counting the number of supporters of each candidate.
The caucus system was the original way in which political parties chose candidates. However, people began to feel that the secret ballot was a fairer, more democratic system so in the beginning of the 20th century, states began to move to the primary system.
At the heart of the electoral process is the system of delegates. Each state has a certain number of delegates that represent the state at the National Convention of either political party (Democrat or Republican). It is at this event that the party's presidential nominee is chosen.
The delegates of each state are "awarded" to one of the presidential candidates and the candidate with the most number of delegates on his/her side wins the nomination. Some states use a winner-take-all approach and award all their delegates to the winner of the caucus or primary in that state. Some states award delegates in proportion to the percentage of votes the candidates receive.
In general, states decide whether to hold a primary or caucus and this decision applies to both parties. But in some cases (for example, Washington) there are variances between the process used by Republican and Democratic parties in the same state.
Another difference is that there are some delegates (called unpledged delegates in the Republican system and superdelegates in the Democratic system) who are not bound by the results of the caucus or primary in their state. They are free to vote for the candidate of their choosing.
Types of Primaries
- Closed Primary: People may vote in a party's primary only if they are registered members of that party. Independents cannot participate.
- Semi-closed: As in closed primaries, registered party members can vote only in their own party's primary. However it allows unaffiliated voters to participate as well. Depending on the state, independents either make their choice of party primary privately, inside the voting booth, or publicly, by registering with any party on Election Day.
- Open Primary: A registered voter may vote in any party primary regardless of his own party affiliation. When voters do not register with a party before the primary, it is called a pick-a-party primary because the voter can select which party's primary he or she wishes to vote in on Election Day. Because of the open nature of this system, a practice known as raiding may occur. Raiding consists of voters of one party crossing over and voting in the primary of another party, effectively allowing a party to help choose its opposition's candidate. The theory is that opposing party members vote for the weakest candidate of the opposite party in order to give their own party the advantage in the general election. An example of this can be seen in the 1998 Vermont senatorial primary with the nomination of Fred Tuttle as the Republican candidate in the general election.
- Semi-open: A registered voter need not publicly declare which political party's primary that they will vote in before entering the voting booth. When voters identify themselves to the election officials, they must request a party's specific ballot. Only one ballot is cast by each voter. In many states with semi-open primaries, election officials or poll workers from their respective parties record each voter's choice of party and provide access to this information. The primary difference between a semi-open and open primary system is the use of a party-specific ballot. In a semi-open primary, a public declaration in front of the election judges is made and a party-specific ballot given to the voter to cast. Certain states that use the open-primary format may print a single ballot and the voter must choose on the ballot itself which political party's candidates they will select for a contested office.
- Run-off: A primary in which the ballot is not restricted to one party and the top two candidates advance to the general election regardless of party affiliation. (A run-off differs from a primary in that a second round is only needed if no candidate attains a majority in the first round.)
- Mixed Systems: In West Virginia, where state law allows parties to determine whether primaries are open to independents, Republican primaries are open to independents, while Democratic primaries were closed. However, on April 1, 2007, West Virginia's Democratic Party opened its voting to allow "individuals who are not affiliated with any existing recognized party to participate in the election process".
Caucus and Primary Calendar for 2016
The dates for caucus and primary elections for the 2016 presidential race are as follows:
- February 1: Iowa caucuses (both Democratic and Republican parties)
- February 9: New Hampshire primary (both parties)
- February 20: Nevada (Democratic caucus); South Carolina (Republican primary)
- February 23: Nevada (Republican caucus)
- February 27: South Carolina Democratic primary
- March 1: Super Tuesday: Primaries and caucuses for both parties in several states, including Alabama, Alaska (Republican party), Arkansas, Colorado (caucuses), Georgia, Massachusetts, Minnesota (caucuses), Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, Vermont, Virginia and Wyoming (Republican caucus).
Iowa Caucus and New Hampshire Primary
The Primaries—the process of choosing a nominee, whether via a caucus or primary— begin with the Iowa caucuses; they are the first state to hold a caucus. New Hampshire is typically the second. Over the years, states have tried to move up the date on which they hold the caucus/primary in order to exert an outsize influence on the nominee selection. Candidates who win in early states gain momentum and credibility—both with voters in other states as well as wealthy donors—and for some candidates, a good showing in the early states may even prove their viability. For example, many regard Barack Obama's victory in the 2008 Iowa caucus as the turning point after which Hillary Clinton was no longer considered the inevitable Democratic choice.
On the flip side, Republican caucus-goers in Iowa chose Rick Santorum in 2012 and Mike Huckabee in 2008, both candidates who eventually went on to lose the battle for nomination. Similarly, Jon Huntsman and Rick Santorum were placed #1 and #2 respectively in the 2008 New Hampshire primaries for the GOP; neither won the Republican nomination.
State by state information
|District of Columbia||Primary|
|Nebraska||Caucuses (Democratic); Primary (GOP)|
|New Hampshire||Semi-Open Primary|
|New Mexico||Republican Primary; Democrat closed caucuses|
|New York||Closed Primary|
|North Carolina||Semi-Open Primary|
|North Dakota||Open Caucuses|
|South Carolina||Open Primary|
|South Dakota||Closed Primary|
|Texas||Semi-Open Primary & Closed Caucuses|
|West Virginia||Closed Primary|