Picking a presidential nominee may seem simple: Voters pick the candidate they like best, just like they elect presidential candidates in the fall, right? Nope!
Nominating a presidential candidate is actually a whole lot more complicated. The candidates compete in a series of state primaries and caucuses where voters make their candidate choices, and those choices determine how many delegates are allocated to each candidate for the party’s summertime convention. It’s delegates, not voters, who officially elect their party's presidential nominee every four years.
So how does this all work? Let’s dig in.
What are caucuses?
A caucus is a community meeting where members of a party come together to make their candidate preferences known and select delegates for the nominating convention. Held in school gymnasiums, senior centers, and other community spaces, caucuses are run by the state's political parties and they usually let voters talk about their candidate of choice.
In some states, they can be downright raucous affairs. In the famous Iowa caucuses, voters give speeches about why they’re supporting a candidate and try to sway undecided voters. Each party has different rules, but in the Democratic caucuses voters physically group together around the room to show their support for a candidate. Caucuses can get heated, too! One young Iowa Democrat even swore on national television during a heated debate about veteran’s affairs in 2016.
This year’s Iowa caucus made headlines after a new cell phone app, which was designed to report results from the individual caucus sites to the state party officials in real time, failed. Results of the contest were announced piecemeal over several days, and numerous reporting errors called into question the accuracy of the results. Many Democrats have called for Iowa to lose its first-contest status, something that would surely be a blow in a state that cherishes its quirky process.
Other states and U.S. territories that use the caucus system include Nevada, North Dakota, Wyoming, Guam, American Samoa, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and, interestingly, the Kentucky GOP (Kentucky's Democrats hold a primary).
How primaries work
Primaries are the most common kind of nominating contest: typically, the state arranges a state-wide vote and voters cast ballots in the privacy of a voting booth, just like they do in a general election. Some primaries are open, meaning any registered voter can cast a ballot in that party’s primary; others are closed, requiring voters to be a registered member of the party to cast a ballot. (For example, if a voter is registered as an independent in a state with a closed primary, they are not allowed to vote in either the Democratic or Republican primaries.) Most primaries are run by the states, but a couple are run by state parties.
The state then translates vote totals into delegate allocation. Democrats allocate delegates proportionally — mostly based on both statewide results and the results inside individual Congressional districts — while Republicans have a few different ways of doling out delegates. Some GOP primaries give all their delegates to one state — a winner-takes-all style — while other states dole them out proportionally. Some mix the two methods, with a chunk going to the winner and the rest being doled out proportionately.
When it comes to presidential elections, New Hampshire always hosts the first primary — state law requires their state primary be held seven days before anyone else’s primary! But, of course, New Hampshire can’t stop another state from caucusing earlier, which is why Iowa has held the first contest in the country for many years.
How do states choose which contest to hold?
The practice of caucusing dates back to the 1800s and was popular for many years, but the modern primary came into style in the early 1970s, after Democrats got frustrated with a system (and they lost two big presidential races, too.)
In the decades since, most states — and both parties — transitioned from caucuses to primaries. Advocates of primaries say they make democracy better by allowing more voters to cast their ballots whenever is convenient to them. And it’s clear that primaries give more voters a chance to participate in the process: Colorado saw record-breaking turnout in their primary this year, with 15 times more voters than they had in 2016 when they held a caucus.
Taking several hours to caucus at night can be challenging to attend if you work a nontraditional schedule or have young children at home, and they tend to favor diehard activists’ choices over those of rank-and-file voters. Still, others say that caucuses offer a unique kind of political engagement: people coming together to discuss the issues and candidates publicly, in a regular and hotly anticipated community event.
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