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The series of presidential primary elections and caucuses held in each U.S. state and territory is part of the nominating process of United States presidential elections. This process was never included in the United States Constitution, and thus was created over time by the political parties. Some states only hold primary elections, some only hold caucuses, and others use a combination of both. These primaries and caucuses are staggered between January and June before the general election in November. The primary elections are run by state and local governments, while caucuses are private events that are directly run by the political parties themselves. A state's primary election or caucus usually is an indirect election: instead of voters directly selecting a particular person running for President, it determines how many delegates each party's national convention will receive from their respective state. These delegates then in turn select their party's presidential nominee.
Each party determines how many delegates are allocated to each state. Along with those delegates chosen during the primaries and caucuses, state delegations to both the Democratic and Republican conventions also include "unpledged" delegates, usually current and former elected officeholders and party leaders, who can vote for whomever they want.
This system of presidential primaries and caucuses is somewhat controversial because of its staggered nature. The major advantage is that candidates can concentrate their resources in each area of the country one at a time instead of campaigning in every state simultaneously. However, those states which traditionally hold their primaries and caucuses in the latter half of the primary season are normally at a tremendous disadvantage because the races are usually over by then. As a result, more states vie for earlier primaries to claim a greater influence in the process.
Both major political parties of the U.S.—the Democratic Party and the Republican Party—officially nominate their candidate for President at their respective national conventions. Each of these conventions is attended by a number of delegates selected in accordance with the given party's bylaws.
Both parties operate with two types of delegates: pledged and unpledged. The group of unpledged delegates, also known as superdelegates, generally comprising current and former elected officeholders and party leaders, are free to vote for any candidate they wish at the convention. The group of pledged delegates, comprising delegates representing the party committee of each state, are expected to vote in accordance with the rules of their state party.
Depending on state law and state party rules, when voters cast ballots for a candidate in a presidential caucus or primary, they may be voting to actually award delegates bound to vote for a particular candidate at the state or national convention, or they may simply be expressing an opinion that the state party is not bound to follow in selecting delegates to the national convention.
In recent elections, the eventual nominees were known well before the actual conventions took place. The last time a major party's nominee was not clear before the convention was in 1976, when incumbent president Gerald Ford narrowly defeated Ronald Reagan.
Franchise in a primary or caucus is governed by rules established by the state party, although the states may impose other regulations.
While most states hold primary elections, a handful of states hold caucuses. Instead of going to a polling place, voters attend local private events run by the political parties, and cast their selections there. The advantage of caucuses is that the state party runs the process directly instead of having the state and local governments run them. The disadvantage is that most election laws do not normally apply to caucuses.
Nearly all states have a binding primary or caucus, in which the results of the election legally bind some or all of the delegates to vote for a particular candidate at the national convention, for a certain number of ballots or until the candidate releases the delegates. Some binding primaries are winner-take-all contests, in which all of a state's delegates are required to vote for the same candidate. In a proportional vote, a state's delegation is allocated in proportion to the candidates' percent of the popular vote. In many of those states that have proportional vote primaries, a candidate must meet a certain threshold in the popular vote to be given delegates.
A handful of states practice non-binding primaries or caucuses, which may select candidates to a state convention, which then in turn selects delegates to the national convention. A couple of states like Iowa have an additional step in their non-binding primaries or caucuses where voters instead elect delegates to county conventions. The county conventions then in turn elect delegates to the state conventions, and so on.
In many states, only voters registered with a party may vote in that party's primary, known as a closed primary. In some states, a semi-closed primary is practiced, in which voters unaffiliated with a party (independents) may choose a party primary in which to vote. In an open primary, any voter may vote in any party's primary. In all of these systems, a voter may participate in only one primary; that is, a voter who casts a vote for a candidate standing for the Republican nomination for president cannot cast a vote for a candidate standing for the Democratic nomination, or vice versa. A few states once staged a blanket primary, in which voters could vote for one candidate in multiple primaries, but the practice was struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court in the 2000 case of California Democratic Party v. Jones as violating the freedom of assembly guaranteed by the First Amendment.
Both the Democratic Party and the Republican Party usually modify their delegate selection rules between presidential elections, including how delegates are allocated to each state and territory.
Under the 2008 Democratic Party selection rules, adopted in 2006, delegates are selected under proportional representation, which requires a candidate have a minimum of 15% of a state's popular vote to receive delegates. In addition, the Democratic Party may reject any candidate under their bylaws. Each state publishes a Delegate Selection Plan that notes the mechanics of calculating the number of delegates per congressional district, and how votes are transferred from local conventions to the state and national convention. For the 2012 Democratic primaries, the number of pledged delegates allocated to each of the 50 U.S. states and Washington, D.C. is based on two main factors: (1) the proportion of votes each state gave to the Democratic candidate in the last three presidential elections, and (2) the number of electoral votes each state has in the United States Electoral College. States who schedule their primary or caucus later in the primary season may also get additional bonus delegates.
The Republican Party's 2008 rules left more discretion to the states in choosing a method of allocating delegates. As a result, states variously applied the statewide winner-take-all method (e.g., New York), district- and state-level winner-take-all (e.g., California), or proportional allocation (e.g., Massachusetts). Changes in the rules for the 2012 Republican primaries will bring proportional representation to more states. Also in 2012, three delegates are allocated for each congressional district. For at-large ones elected statewide, each state gets at least 10, plus additional bonus delegates based on whether it has a Republican governor, it has GOP majorities in one or all chambers of its state legislature, and whether it has GOP majorities in its delegation to the U.S. Congress, among other factors.
Each party's bylaws also specify which current and former elected officeholders and party leaders qualify as unpledged delegates. Because of possible deaths, resignations, or the results of intervening or special elections, the final number of these superdelegates may not be known until the week of the convention.
For 2012, both the Republicans and the Democrats moved their Florida primary to January 31, which was an earlier date than past election cycles. In response, other states also changed their primary election dates for 2012, in order to claim a greater influence, creating a cascade of changes in other states. This follows what happened in 2008 when Nevada moved its caucuses to January, causing other states to also move its primaries to earlier dates.
The election dates for 2012, up to and including Super Tuesday are as follows:
The first binding event, in which a candidate can secure convention delegates, is traditionally the Iowa caucus, held in early January of the presidential election year. It is followed by the New Hampshire primary, the first primary by tradition since 1920 and by New Hampshire state law. New Hampshire law states the primary shall be held "on the Tuesday at least seven days immediately preceding the date on which any other state shall hold a similar election, whichever is earlier." Should any state move its primary too close to New Hampshire's, or before, the New Hampshire Secretary of State is required to reschedule the primary accordingly.
In recent elections, the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary have garnered over half the media attention paid to the entire selection process.
Because these states are small, campaigning takes place on a much more personal scale. As a result, even a little-known, underfunded candidate can use "retail politics" to meet intimately with interested voters and perform better than expected. The Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary have produced a number of headline-making upsets in history:
After Iowa and New Hampshire, primaries and caucuses are held in the other states, Puerto Rico, insular areas, and the District of Columbia. The front runners attempt to solidify their status, while the others fight to become #2.
For the Republicans, the South Carolina primary is considered a "firewall" to protect establishment favorites and frontrunners in the presidential nomination race, being designed to stop the momentum of insurgent candidates who could have received a boost from strong showings in Iowa and New Hampshire. From its inception in 1980 through the election of 2008, the winner of the South Carolina Republican presidential primary has gone on to win the nomination. In the 2012 Republican primaries, Newt Gingrich initially finished poorly in the early states, but then scored an upset victory in South Carolina over frontrunner Mitt Romney. However after suffering a decisive defeat to Romney in Florida, Gingrich's campaign was relegated back to third place and left Rick Santorum as the main challenger.
Each party sets its own calendar and rules, and in some cases actually administers the election. However, to reduce expenses and encourage turnout, the major parties' primaries are usually held the same day and may be consolidated with other state elections. The primary election itself is administered by local governments according to state law. In some cases, state law determines how delegates will be awarded and who may participate in the primary; where it does not, party rules prevail.
In recent years, states have been holding increasingly early primaries to maximize their leverage (see Front-loading and compression below). In reaction to these moves, both the Democratic and Republican National Committees have tried to impose a timing tier system of scheduling rules, stripping states of delegates if they move their primaries early. But this still did not prevent a few states from moving their primaries in both 2008 and 2012 anyway.
There is no provision for the role of political parties in the United States Constitution. Before 1820, Democratic-Republican members of Congress would nominate a single candidate from their party. That system collapsed in 1824, and since 1832 the preferred mechanism for nomination has been a national convention.
Delegates to the national convention were usually selected at state conventions whose own delegates were chosen by district conventions. Sometimes they were dominated by intrigue between political bosses who controlled delegates; the national convention was far from democratic or transparent. Progressive Era reformers looked to the primary election as a way to measure popular opinion of candidates, as opposed to the opinion of the bosses. In 1910, Oregon became the first state to establish a presidential preference primary, which requires delegates to the National Convention to support the winner of the primary at the convention. By 1912, twelve states either selected delegates in primaries, used a preferential primary, or both. By 1920 there were 20 states with primaries, but some went back, and from 1936 to 1968, 12 states used them. (Ware p 248)
The primary received its first major test in the 1912 election pitting incumbent President William Howard Taft against challengers Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson. Roosevelt proved the most popular candidate, but as most primaries were non-binding "preference" shows and held in only fourteen of the-then forty-eight states, the Republican nomination went to Taft, who controlled the convention.
Seeking to boost voter turnout, New Hampshire simplified its ballot access laws in 1949. In the ensuing "beauty contest" of 1952, Republican Dwight Eisenhower demonstrated his broad voter appeal by out-polling the favored Robert A. Taft, "Mr. Republican." Also, Democrat Estes Kefauver defeated incumbent President Harry S. Truman, leading the latter to decide not to run for another term. The first-in-the-nation New Hampshire primary has since become a widely-observed test of candidates' viability.
The impetus for national adoption of the binding primary election was the chaotic 1968 Democratic National Convention. Vice President Hubert Humphrey secured the nomination despite primary victories and other shows of support for Senator Eugene McCarthy, running against Humphrey on a strong anti-Vietnam War platform. After this, a Democratic National Committee-commissioned panel led by Senator George McGovern – the McGovern–Fraser Commission – recommended that states adopt new rules to assure wider participation. A large number of states, faced with the need to conform to more detailed rules for the selection of national delegates, chose a presidential primary as an easier way to come into compliance with the new national Democratic Party rules. The result was that many more future delegates would be selected by a state presidential primary. The Republicans also adopted many more state presidential primaries.
With the broadened use of the primary system, states have tried to increase their influence in the nomination process. One tactic has been to create geographic blocs to encourage candidates to spend time in a region. Vermont and Massachusetts attempted to stage a joint New England primary on the first Tuesday of March, but New Hampshire refused to participate so it could retain its traditional place as the first primary. The first successful regional primary was Super Tuesday of March 8, 1988, in which nine Southern states united in the hope that the Democrats would select a candidate in line with Southern interests.
Another trend is to stage earlier and earlier primaries, given impetus by Super Tuesday and the mid-1990s move (since repealed) of the California primary and its bloc of votes—the largest in the nation—from June to March. To retain its tradition as the first primary in the country (and adhere to a state law which requires it to be), New Hampshire moved their primary forward, from early March to early January.
A major reason why states try to increase their influence, and vie for earlier primaries, is because in recent years the races were usually over before the primary season ended in June. For example, John McCain officially clinched the 2008 Republican presidential nomination in March, while during that same month Barack Obama held an insurmountable lead in pledged delegates in the Democratic Party primaries. In 2012, Obama faced no major challenger in the Democratic Party primaries since he had the advantage of incumbency (see below), while Mitt Romney gained enough delegates to be declared the presumptive Republican nominee by late April.
The primary and caucus system is the only method in which voters in Puerto Rico, Guam, and other U.S. territories can have a say in the presidential race. Under the U.S. Constitution, U.S. territories are not represented in the Electoral College, and thus voters residing in those areas are basically ineligible to vote in the general election. On the other hand, as stated above, the primaries and caucuses were largely created by the political parties. Both the Democratic and Republican parties, as well as other third parties, eventually agreed to let these territories participate in the presidential nomination process.
An incumbent President seeking re-election usually faces no major opposition during his respective party's primaries, especially if he is still popular within his own party. Like Bill Clinton during the 1996 Democratic primaries and George W. Bush during the 2004 Republican primaries, their respective paths to nomination became uneventful and the races become merely pro forma. The last time a Democratic incumbent was seriously challenged was during the 1980 Democratic primaries when Senator Ted Kennedy carried 12 states while running against President Jimmy Carter. The last time a Republican incumbent was seriously challenged was during the 1976 primaries, when former California Governor Ronald Reagan carried 23 states while running against President Gerald Ford. There have been other primary challengers like Pat Buchanan during the 1992 Republican primaries that do capture a small percentage of the national popular vote, but only receive either a handful of delegates or none at all.
Because they are the states that traditionally hold their respective contests first, the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary usually attract the most media attention; however, critics, such as Mississippi Secretary of State Eric Clark and Tennessee Senator William Brock, point out that these states are not representative of the United States as a whole: they are overwhelmingly white, more rural, and wealthier than the national average, and neither is in the fast-growing West or South.
Conversely, states that traditionally hold their primaries in June, like California (the most populous state overall) and New Jersey (the most densely populated state), usually end up having no say in who the presidential candidate will be. For example, New Jersey's June 2004 primary was held 13 weeks after Senator John Kerry became unopposed. California and New Jersey moved their primaries to February for the 2008 election, but in 2012 both states ended up moving them back to June.
In 2005, the primary commission of the Democratic National Committee began considering removing New Hampshire and Iowa from the top of the calendar, but this proposal never gained approval, so those two states remain as the first primaries. New Hampshire also fought back by obliging candidates who wanted to campaign in the state to pledge to uphold that primary as the first one.
States vie for earlier primaries to claim greater influence in the nomination process, as the early primaries can act as a signal to the nation, showing which candidates are popular and giving those who perform well early on the advantage of the bandwagon effect. Also, candidates can ignore primaries that fall after the nomination has already been secured, and would owe less to those states politically. As a result, rather than stretching from March to July, most primaries take place in a compressed time frame in February and March. National party leaders also have an interest in compressing the primary calendar, as it enables the party to reduce the chance of a bruising internecine battle and to preserve resources for the general campaign.
In such a primary season, however, many primaries will fall on the same day, forcing candidates to choose where to spend their time and resources. Indeed, Super Tuesday was created deliberately to increase the influence of the South. When states cannot agree to coordinate primaries, however, attention flows to larger states with large numbers of delegates at the expense of smaller ones. Because the candidate's time is limited, paid advertising may play a greater role. Moreover, a compressed calendar limits the ability of lesser-known candidates to corral resources and raise their visibility among voters, especially when a better-known candidate enjoys the financial and institutional backing of the party establishment.
In an article from Detroit News, Tennessee Senator William (Bill) Brock said about front-loading, "Today, too many people in too many states have no voice in the election of our major party nominees. For them, the nominations are over before they have begun."
There are several proposals for reforming the primary system. Some have called for a single nationwide primary to be held on one day. Others point out that requiring candidates to campaign in every state simultaneously would exacerbate the purported problem of campaigns being dominated by the candidates who raise the most money. The following proposals attempt to return the primary system to a more relaxed schedule, and would help less-funded candidates by lowering the cost of entry.
One reform concept is the graduated random presidential primary system, variations of which have been referred to as the American Plan or the California Plan. This plan starts with small primaries, and gradually moves up to larger ones, in 10 steps, with states chosen at random. The idea is that fewer initial primaries, typically in smaller states, would allow grassroots campaigns to score early successes and pick up steam. However, since states are chosen at random, travel costs may still be significant.
A commission empaneled by the Republican National Committee recommended the Delaware Plan in 2000. This plan had states grouped by size into four groups, with the smallest primaries first, then the next-smallest, and so on. Populous states objected to the plan, however, because it would have always scheduled their primaries at the end of the season. Other criticisms included the wide geographic range of the states, necessitating high travel costs. The Delaware Plan was put to vote at Republican National Convention of 2000 and rejected.
The National Association of Secretaries of State has endorsed a rotating regional primary system, with the country split into four regions: the West, the Midwest, the South, and the Northeast. Unlike the Delaware Plan and the American Plan, the Rotating Regional Primary System would lower campaigning costs by restricting groups of primaries to single, contiguous regions.
Author and political scientist Larry J. Sabato is also a proponent of this plan, but his proposal would have the order of regional primaries determined by lottery on January 1 of each presidential election year instead of on a rotating basis. In addition, his plan would allow for a few small population states to hold their primaries in advance of the first region to allow for some of the benefits of the current system such as Iowa and New Hampshire voters closely vetting each candidate.
Criticisms of the regional plan include the higher entry costs than the other plans (since 1/4 of the country would vote in the first regional), and the political bias of certain regions (the South or the Northeast) unduly influencing the selection of a nominee.
In the interregional primary plan the country is divided into geographical regions. On each primary date from March to June, one state from each of six regions votes. Each election date would contain a wide variety of perspectives. The order of the states in each region is set by a lottery. In a 24-year cycle, every state would have a chance to be among the first primary states. The primary criticism of this plan is that travel costs would be quite high: in each round, candidates would essentially have to cover the entire country to campaign effectively. Contrary to most reform plans, this would reduce the ability of lesser-funded candidates to build up from small contests to large ones.
In the 2008 Republican primary, states that ran early primaries were punished by a reduction of 50% in the number of delegates they could send to the national convention. Extension of this idea would set timing tiers, under which states that ran earlier primaries would send proportionally fewer delegates to the national convention, and states that waited would get a higher proportional number of delegates to the convention.
For example, the party may allow primaries before March 1 to send 40% of delegates; those during March can send 60%; those during April can send 80%; those during May can send 100%; and those during June can send 120%.
The effect of such a plan would be clumping of primaries at the beginning of each month. It would still allow states to determine the timing of their own primaries, while giving them some incentive to hold primaries later. The disadvantage of the timing adjustment method is that it does not reduce travel time as the regional plans do, although it does permit regional groups of states to voluntarily clump together in a single superprimary as they have done in the past.
In practice, however, this timing tier system has not prevented states from moving their primaries. During the 2012 Republican primary, Florida and several other states still moved their primaries to earlier dates despite being penalized delegates.