Primary Focus: An Introduction

Posted by Molly Rockett, Demarquin Johnson on January 20, 2016

This is the first entry in a regular blog series covering the major parties’ 2016 presidential nomination process.

Zoom In: How Do Primaries and Caucuses Work?

Before Americans can elect a president, political parties must first nominate candidates. The nomination process is an extensive survey – theoretically nationally, but one where some states count much more than others – that grants major party backers in each state the ability to weigh in on who best should represent their party in the general election. Voters are technically electing delegates to the national convention, and each major party has rules for how convention delegates choose their presidential and vice-presidential nominees this summer.

State nomination contests can occur in either a primary or caucus. A primary is administered by the state government, and a caucus is organized by the state political party – sometimes with participants engaging in real discussion with others, sometimes just voting and leaving. Each party also determines whether the election will result in all of a state’s delegates being allocated to a single candidate, also known as a winner-take-all system, or allocated proportionally to multiple candidates based on their share of the vote. The results of these primaries or caucuses are used to decide how their state party delegates will vote at a national convention.* Each state’s delegates vote for one, or several, of the presidential nominees. The table below lists how each state’s nomination process is operated.  

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Zoom Out: Primary Change

The rules that govern how the major parties nominate their presidential candidates are always changing. In the past decade, both major political parties have implemented various modifications to reach the common goal of obtaining a consensus candidate. For example, both parties agreed to have Iowa and New Hampshire start the voting in February, rather than January, and there are various changes in the order of which states vote starting in March.

On the Democratic side, the Democratic National Committee limited the number of debates to only six for the entire cycle, as compared to twenty-six in 2008. The party’s stated rationale for this decision is to encourage more direct voter contact and campaigning, with President Barack Obama demonstrating the value of organizing young voters to participate in the electoral process to win in 2008. But they continue  to maintain their long-time requirement that all states allocate delegates according to a proportional rule, which makes a long Democratic contest – like the 2008 battle between Obama and Clinton – one that simulates a slowly unfolding national primary. 

On the GOP side, the Republicans are also altering their process to include changes they argue would better serve their voters and their eventual nominee. After the 2008 election, Republicans decided that John McCain had earned the nomination too quickly, with Barack Obama getting an advantage from Democrats dominating the media cycle as he and Hillary Clinton sought the nomination. The party changed the rules to require more use of proportional allocation rules until April 1st. But after the 2012 contest became a long drawn out process that some party activists believed badly bruised all candidates, including the future nominee Mitt Romney, party leaders moved that date for first use of winner-take-all to after March 14. With larger candidate fields and increased participation among youth and minorities, the 2016 election season will again test these changes.

Focus: A Structural Perspective

FairVote is eager to offer non-partisan commentary throughout the nomination process. Unlike most news sources, we will not focus on candidate speeches, endorsements, or generic results reporting. Instead, our Primary Focus series will assess the systemic components that benefit or harm the voices of Americans. We’re looking at these contests to ensure that more voters are able to fully engage with our electoral system. FairVote is committed to advancing voting systems that empower voters and make every vote count in this important nomination process.

As its name suggests, our Primary Focus blog series will center on the process in which Americans nominate a candidate to represent their party in November. These blogs will be published generally on a weekly basis and will include three basic elements. First, we will zoom in on a specific political development on the presidential campaign trail, including results and coverage of unfolding races. After providing details, we will zoom out to put these events in greater context. Lastly, we will focus on the structural elements of the process, and their advantages and/or disadvantages that impact voters. Each entry will evaluate the degree to which primaries and caucuses are empowering and accurately representing the will of voters during the nomination process.

Although we can’t predict the twists and turns of this year’s elections, we know our vision for a more representative democracy will be relevant at each juncture. The benefits of ranked choice voting in large fields, the drawbacks of winner-take-all systems, and the role of public polling are just a few of the subjects we will discuss.

With a contentious and exciting election season ahead, FairVote is your trusted source of consistent, unbiased commentary. If you are interested in actively improving our electoral process, join the national conversation by up-voting and commenting on our questions to the candidates at Change Politics.

*In a later blog, we will tackle the correlation between delegate votes and voter preferences.

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