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

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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.

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