October 2007
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Primaries and caucuses

Primaries and caucuses

The presidential primaries have become a well-known process in the U.S. In fact, many U.S. citizens may not know that before presidential primaries existed, presidential nominees were originally chosen by Congress. As the political process evolved, it created a system where delegates from different political parties would attend the parties' nominating conventions and vote for a candidate to become a presidential nominee. The candidate with the majority of the votes would become the party's nominee.

However, this was not a perfect system. The delegates often would switch their support to a different candidate, and delegates would have to cast ballots several times before a candidate won. In fact, during the Democratic convention of 1924, delegates cast their ballots 103 times before a winner was determined. And when a clear majority was not possible, a compromise was reached by the political bosses of the party—sometimes resulting in a well-known candidate and sometimes resulting in a candidate no one had heard of.

Although conventions worked well if there were only two candidates, the political primary system emerged as a solution to the problem of having more than two candidates; with this system, states would hold primary elections on designated dates. Voters nominate their candidate, or in some states register their preferences among presidential candidates and select state delegates to nominating conventions of the national parties.

The beginning

The first presidential primary was held in Florida in 1904 and created a "preference" primary where voters could choose delegates and express a preference for their party's nomination. The first state law that created a delegate-selection primary was passed in Wisconsin in 1905. Oregon adopted a "first ballot" primary that year that bound the state delegation to vote for the winner of the primary on the first convention ballot, and various other states followed.

Although about a dozen states had primaries by 1912, many were preference primaries and could produce strange results. For example, Massachusetts voters selected delegates who supported Theodore Roosevelt to go to the convention, but the voters expressed their "preference" for William Howard Taft. This showed that a candidate could lose a majority of primaries and still win the party's nomination. As a result, Roosevelt advocated a national primary that would end the confusion and allow voters to choose nominees without the convention.

During the 1920s, because of low voter participation and high costs, eight of the 20 states that held primaries returned to caucuses; only 12 to 17 states held primaries while the rest held caucuses until the 1970s. Then, in 1972, six states adopted primaries and eight more states in 1976. By 2000, 39 states held primaries.

Currently, preference primaries have been eliminated, and voters' preferences are translated directly into election of delegates. Between two-thirds and three-quarters of each party's convention delegates are chosen in primaries. A string of primary victories results in large numbers of convention delegates supporting a candidate and provides momentum, campaign contributions and positive media exposure for the primary winner.

Since 1972, any front-runner who has come out of the primary season with more than 41 percent of the delegates has been nominated.

Caucuses

Nominating caucuses are another method used to select delegates to presidential nominating conventions. Originally, members of local political party organizations met in caucuses to choose delegates by majority vote to county or congressional conventions. Those conventions then chose delegates to a state convention, which would choose delegates to the national nominating convention. Because the delegates were not pledged to a certain candidate, the system resulted in delegations that would vote the way political party bosses told them to.

However, in 1972, the Democratic Party changed the caucus procedures by requiring that precinct meetings be open to all registered Democrats, and Republicans followed suit. Caucuses are now contests between presidential candidates; delegates chosen to the national convention from caucus-convention states are supporters of certain candidates.

These delegates represent in proportion to the precincts' votes. For example, if 75 percent of precincts vote for one candidate and 25 percent vote for the other, then 75 percent of delegates will cast their convention ballot for the first candidate and 25 percent for the second candidate. The Republican Party often follows a winner-take-all method, so if a candidate receives 75 percent of the precincts' votes, all state delegates would vote for that candidate.

The Iowa caucuses have taken on a role of great significance in the presidential elections because they usually occur during the first week of February and are the first contest for convention delegates. In fact, under state law, the Iowa caucus is sanctioned to be the first caucus held in the U.S. during an election year. The results in Iowa often are said to affect the election, with the Iowa winner gaining media coverage and campaign contributions, and candidates who perform badly in Iowa sometimes are forced to drop out of the race.

However, Hugh Winebrenner, author of The Iowa Precinct Caucuses: The Making of a Media Event, says in his book that caucuses are not a reliable indication of a candidate's strength because of the negotiations and changes of support involved. Democratic caucus participants in Iowa gather with others to support a certain candidate. But if the candidate doesn't receive 15 percent of the vote, he or she is not considered viable, and participants throw their support to another candidate. This can lead to supporters bargaining for the support of participants who back a non-viable candidate. Republican caucus participants cast a secret ballot for their candidates, and delegates for the candidates are chosen proportional to number of votes, which eliminates the bargaining issue. However, delegates may change their minds between the caucus and future conventions.

Still, there are some statistics involving the Iowa caucus that cannot be so readily dismissed. For example, since 1972, one of the top three contenders in Iowa has always become the party's presidential nominee. In addition, in the 40 elections that have taken place since 1848, Iowa has voted for the winning presidential candidate 29 times; this means it has given its electoral votes to the winning president about 70 percent of the time. So although the Iowa caucus may not always be reliable, it has a decent average when choosing the candidate who would go on to win each party's nomination.

Preparing for 2008

Primaries and caucuses are already a hot topic as the U.S. prepares for a presidential election in 2008. The primaries and caucuses have been moved even earlier this year, with the Iowa caucus being the first to be held on Jan. 14, 2008. Adding to the chaos are states such as California, Florida and Michigan pushing to have their primaries take place earlier in the year and as close as possible to New Hampshire's primary, which is established as the first primary in the U.S. Only a few select states are allowed to hold their primaries before early February, and the fight for these spots is causing anger and confusion for political parties and candidates as states continue to move their dates for the primaries and caucuses. So though we do not know what is in store for the presidential election, the political arena in 2008 is most likely not going to be boring.


This Web exclusive information is a supplement to What's next for Congress.

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