Learn with the Intern: The Inner Workings of a Presidential Primary - Open Primaries
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Posted by Samantha Serrano on July 09, 2015 at 11:47 AM

Learn with the Intern: The Inner Workings of a Presidential Primary

primariesstatebystate.jpgWhile working on developing a Presidential Primaries data base for Open Primaries Inc., I have come to the realization that fully understanding the presidential election process is not as simple as one might believe. Paying attention to the media helps, but to comprehend the inner workings of how a candidate gets a party’s nomination to run for President of the United States, I recommend that the average American do some research on how the process works. Here is what I have found out thus far:

With the 2016 election right around the corner, it is a good time to review the important features of the formal presidential nomination process and the changes the national parties have made over the years to fit each election. An article in the Washington Post briefly discusses how the Democratic and Republican parties formally select their presidential nominees.  

Josh Putnam, Assistant Professor of Political Science at Appalachian State University explains that, “After the 1968 election, the McGovern-Fraser Commission ushered in the modern presidential nomination process by removing the nominating decision from the smoke-filled rooms of the parties’ conventions”. The Commission sought to make the results of primaries and caucuses more decisive. To do this, the Commission established a direct link between the votes cast in primaries and caucuses and the delegates selected to attend the national convention. The results of the primaries and caucuses therefore bind convention delegates to specific candidates. At the convention, there is a roll call vote that formally nominates a presidential candidate.

The process of choosing delegates to the national convention is undertaken at the state level, which means that there are significant differences from state to state and sometimes year to year. The two methods for choosing delegates to the national convention are the caucus and the primary.

The main difference between a primary election and a caucus is who is working behind the scenes. State governments conduct primaries, but state parties are behind caucuses. Each has different goals.

Caucuses were the original method for selecting candidates but have decreased in number since the primary was introduced in the early 1900's. In states that hold caucuses a political party announces the date, time, and location of the meeting. Generally, any voter registered with the party may attend. At the caucus, delegates are chosen to represent the state's interests at the national party convention.  

Prospective delegates are identified as favorable to a specific candidate or uncommitted. After discussion and debate, an informal vote is taken to determine which delegates should be chosen. Party business is time consuming and requires participants to show up for long meetings on a weeknight. As a result, then, caucuses attract fewer voters than primaries, and these voters tend to be politically engaged and stronger ideologues.

State governments fund and run primary elections in much the same way they do the general election in the fall. The primary election was a Progressive-era reform intended to reduce the potential for mischief in a nomination system controlled by the parties. There was a movement to give more power to citizens in the selection of candidates for the party's nomination. In a primary election, registered voters may participate in choosing the candidate for the party's nomination by voting through secret ballot, as in a general election.

Some states have primaries while others have caucuses due mainly to the trade-offs between state governments or state parties conducting the overall process, along with what are now long standing traditions within individual states. Choosing to be a part of the state-run primary, however, means agreeing with the state laws that govern the primary process. Most consequentially, this includes the date of the primary and who can participate in that election. A state party that prefers another date (which may be an earlier and more influential date) would have to hold a caucus on its own expenses.

Voter participation is also dependent upon state primary laws. In a “closed” primary, only registered party voters can participate.  In an “open” primary, unaffiliated voters can participate. There are other variations (mixed primaries) in between. If a party in an open primary state wants only party members to vote, it may choose to conduct a caucus instead, where the party will have more control over its participants.

Interestingly enough, the Democratic and Republican parties both have different rules in each state as to whether they will conduct an open or closed primary for the election. For example, in South Dakota, the Democratic primary is considered open while the Republican primary is closed. As the parties are in control of the nomination process, these differences usually appear when a party either wants and expects more voter turnout from conducting an open primary, or is trying to avoid swing voters by conducting a closed primary.

For example, back in the 2008 Democratic presidential primary election process, the full effect of the independent, or swing, part of the electorate (36% at the time) could be felt with the competition between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. Independent activist and author Jacqueline Salit wrote that in the 33 states where independents were permitted to vote in the presidential primaries and caucuses, 65% of those participating chose to vote on the Democratic side, and nearly 60% of them cast ballots for Obama. A close examination of those numbers reveals that if those contests had been limited to Democrats, Hillary Clinton would have been the party’s nominee.

Lastly, The DNC and RNC also have different ways of allocating delegates to a candidate for their national convention. The Democratic Party always uses a proportional method for awarding delegates. The percentage of delegates each candidate is awarded (or the number of undecided delegates) is representative of the mood of the caucus-goers or the number of primary votes for the candidate. The Republican Party, unlike the Democratic Party, allows each state to decide whether to use the winner-take-all method or the proportional method. In the winner-take-all method the candidate whom the majority of caucus participants or voters support receives all the delegates for the state. States may vary by instituting a proportional rule, a winner-take-all rule, or some hybrid.


With all of this information in mind, it is essential for the American people to take advantage of as many voter education tools as possible. You might want to click here and read through this resource before you head over to vote in your state’s presidential primary in 2016.

See how primaries are conducted in your state


Originally from New Jersey, Samantha Serrano is currently a rising sophomore at The George Washington University located in Washington, DC.  Samantha has had a passion for government and politics throughout her educational journey, which sparked her interest to intern at Open Primaries Inc. in Manhattan.  In high school, Samantha was very actively involved in extracurricular activities as the Student Government President, Class Council Secretary, and Treasurer of the New Jersey Assoc. of Student Councils while maintaining her GPA to graduate in the top 2% of her class.  Now attending one of the most politically active schools in the country, Samantha plans to take the experience she gains from interning at Open Primaries Inc. and apply it to her future endeavors at school as well as her future career.

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published this page in Blog 2015-07-09 11:47:03 -0400