Selecting the US presidential candidates: a short guide to the primary system


The selection of the Republican and Democratic candidates for November’s US presidential election, beginning on Monday with the Iowa Caucus, will be followed with interest around the world. Daniel Goldstein and Jennifer vanHeerde-Hudson explain how an eclectic mix of caucuses, primaries and superdelegates will decide who gets to run for the White House.

Ten months out from the US presidential election and, amidst one of the most unpredictable presidential election campaigns in recent memory, the process of selecting the Democratic and Republican nominees via state-level primaries and caucuses will begin on February 1 with the Iowa Caucus. A splintered Republican Party currently has two frontrunners for the nomination, Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, both of whom lack support from current party leaders. Further, the seemingly inevitable nomination of Hillary Clinton looks less assured as younger Democrats are supporting the distinctly more liberal Bernie Sanders, with recent polls showing Sanders could win the first two contests (Iowa and New Hampshire). The nomination season will serve to gauge the legitimacy of candidates with the voting public.

The process of selecting the party’s nominee is relatively straightforward. The two major parties allocate a certain number of ‘delegates’ to each of the 50 states and territories in which there are contests. Delegates are then allocated to candidates based on the results of state-level voting.  Delegates cast their vote for a candidate during their party’s national convention where the official party nominee for president is selected. To win the nomination, a candidate must win a majority of delegates. In 2016, the Republican nominee will require 1,237 of 2,472 total delegates and the Democratic nominee will require 2,383 of 4,764 delegates. This year the Iowa Caucus will have 52 Democratic delegates and 30 Republican delegates at stake.  Should Clinton, for example, win Iowa she will receive a plurality of the 52 delegates (but almost certainly not all 52), who will then be ‘bound’ to vote for her at the Democratic National Convention held in July of this year.

In addition to pledged delegates there are also ad hoc delegates, often known as ‘superdelegates’, who are not bound by election results and have equal standing in the national convention’s nominating process. These individuals are often party leaders or those who hold significant stature in the party. While unpledged delegates frequently announce which candidate they intend to support before the convention they are permitted to switch their support at will until the final roll call at the convention.  With 213 currently unpledged Republican delegates and 713 currently unpledged Democratic delegates in 2016, superdelegates hold the potential to shift a close race.

Institutional structures

The final selection of the candidate may be relatively straightforward but the institutional designs of preliminary contests are eclectic. There are two types of competitions: caucuses and primaries. Primaries are organised and paid for by state governments, whereas caucuses are organised and paid for by the state-level organisation of the national party (e.g. the Iowan contingent of the Democratic Party). Caucuses consist of a number of meetings (referred to as ‘caucuses’) across a state where citizens vote, often openly, for their preferred candidate.

Primaries arose from the fear that state parties could manipulate the caucus process. Primaries are more transparent as voting is similar to a statewide election (e.g. secret ballots are used), and parties are required to conform to the state government’s preferred voting procedure. In contrast, the state-based party has control over the design of a caucus. Caucuses can also address state party business in addition to presidential nomination voting. The result is that caucuses frequently are longer events than primaries, involving lower turnout but more ideologically committed voters.

Party primaries vary by state in terms of voter access. Primaries are designated either as ‘open,’ where anyone can participate no matter their party affiliation or ‘closed,’ where only registered party members can vote. Other variations include ‘semi-closed primaries’ in which voters unaffiliated with a specific party are free to select the party with which they would like to vote. A potential danger of open primaries is that citizens vote strategically for an opposing party’s weaker candidates with the intention of hurting the more viable candidates.

Timing is also a critical consideration. Earlier contests often gain more media coverage and are considered to be more influential over the eventual nomination. Hence, a leading reason a state party may opt for a caucus is to gain greater control over the timing of a contest.  However, the ‘frontloading’ of contests can unfairly advantage wealthy frontrunners who have the resources to compete in a multitude of early contests. Instead, national parties aim for separation between contests to allow for a more gradual narrowing of the field. If a state party moves their contest forward against the national party’s wishes into a packed part of the calendar the state party can be penalised by having the number of allocated delegates temporarily reduced. These penalties were relatively light in 2012, causing many state parties to move their contests earlier in the 2012 cycle as Florida did. In response the national parties have increased the penalty against state parties for 2016, resulting in a more dispersed calendar of contests.

There is further variation among the mechanisms used to determine the number of delegates allocated to each candidate. First, national parties determine the number of delegates assigned to each state. Then, for all Democratic contests, candidates are allocated delegates according to their percentage of the overall vote in that state competition, as long as a candidate receives above 15 per cent of the total votes (e.g. if Clinton receives 55 per cent of votes in the Iowa Caucus, she will receive 55 per cent of delegates). However, Republican procedures vary. This year Republican contests only mandate use of the proportional rule before March 15. At all other times state parties are permitted to set their own rules. Procedures can include a higher minimum vote percentage to receive any delegates and/or establish a threshold for a candidate to receive all of a state’s delegates (e.g. if a candidate gains greater than 50% of votes).

Are early contests truly predictive or important?

The attempts by state parties to frontload the calendar are due in large part to the perception that earlier contests have more impact on the eventual nomination. Presidential candidates can often be found scurrying around the frozen tundra of Iowa in January to meet with a handful of potential supporters in a state that represents just one per cent of the total allocation of delegates. But while the Iowa caucus and the New Hampshire primary are undeniably well covered by the media they are not necessarily predictive of the party nominees selected. Previous Republican nominees, Mitt Romney in 2012 and John McCain in 2008, lost Iowa but won New Hampshire. In contrast, President Barack Obama won Iowa in 2008, but lost New Hampshire to Clinton. Perhaps what is most critical is receiving a percentage of votes that can help formulate a clear narrative for a candidate, thereby bolstering their campaign financially and motivating superdelegates to announce early support for the candidate. While demonstrating a credible showing in early contests is a necessity, more portentous victories may well come later in the calendar. For President Obama it was likely his resounding victory in the South Carolina Primary, the fourth contest held in 2008, that proved a bellwether for his nomination.

Worthy of greater attention are the several days in which a large number of delegates are allocated at once, most notably ‘Super Tuesday.’ In 2008 over 50 per cent of Democratic delegates were allocated on this one day alone during which 24 state Republican and Democratic primaries were held. While the eventual nominee may not win all of these contests, they often make the best showing on this day. Super Tuesday 2016 will be held on March 1, with approximately 565 (23 per cent) of Republican delegates and 1017 (21 per cent) of Democratic delegates at stake.

While many pieces will remain up in the air, the primary season will bring more definitive answers as to who will be candidates for the White House. The structural complexities of the primary system further demonstrate, once more, that it is truly a fascinating time to be an observer of American politics.

About the authors

 Daniel Goldstein was a Research Volunteer at The Constitution Unit from October to December 2015.

 Dr Jennifer vanHeerde-Hudson is Senior Lecturer in Political Behaviour at UCL.

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