Primaries and Caucuses

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Audio Guide Primaries and Caucuses

A primary is an election to choose a party’s candidate for an elective office. A caucus is a meeting for the selection of a party's candidate for an elective office. States that hold caucuses are usually geographically large but thinly populated, such as Iowa, North Dakota, and Nevada. In 2016, the Republicans held caucuses in 10 states and the Democrats held them in 14 states.

There are some similarities between candidates' selection in the US and in the UK. The Conservative Party has experimented with the use of primaries for selecting candidates in general elections but this has yet to achieve widespread use. The closest comparison that can be made therefore is the leadership elections for the major UK parties. Closed primaries might be similar to UK party leadership elections in which only registered members can vote. This means that leaders in both countries have to ensure they have policies that appeal to the widest party to gain support for their election. However, they are different because open primaries can be contrasted with UK party leader elections as they allow far more than just party members to participate.

In a caucus, participants must attend a meeting rather than go to a polling station. Turnout is generally lower in caucuses than in primaries and those who do turn out are disproportionately more ideological than primary voters. Hence, caucuses tend to favour more ideological candidates. In 2016, Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, who was on the liberal wing of his party, had some of his strongest showings in caucus states. For example, he won 68 % in the caucuses in Kansas and 82 % in Alaska. In all of the caucuses, Sanders averaged 66 % of the vote to Clinton’ s 33 %. Primaries have two specific functions: to show the popularity of presidential candidates ; and to choose delegates to go to the national party conventions. They are run under state law, which means that a great number of variations exist. The main rules of thumb are outlined below.

States must decide when to hold their primary or caucuses. The national parties usually lay down the earliest and latest possible dates — often mid-January to the beginning of June — but within that period each state can decide its own date. Some states, such as New Hampshire, schedule their contest early and on a day when no other primaries are being held, thereby hoping to give their primary a prominence that it would not otherwise have. Other states deliberately arrange their primaries to coincide with other, often neighbouring, states, thereby creating a regional primary. In 2016, the first Tuesday in March, when 11 states arranged their primaries and caucuses together, was dubbed Super Tuesday. The first Super Tuesday was held back in 1988 as an attempt by a block of southern states to increase their importance in the candidate selection process.

An increasing number of states like to schedule their primary early in election year, believing that the earlier primaries have more influence over candidate selection. This move to early scheduling is called front loading. The number of states holding their primaries or caucuses before the end of March increased from just 11 in 1980 to 42 in 2008, and those 42 states included the eight largest states — California, Texas, New York, Florida, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Michigan. California, for example, has moved from early June (1980) to early February (2008); New York moved from mid-April to early February. By 5 February 2008, 55 % of the delegates to the Democratic and Republican conventions had already been chosen. But both 2012 and 2016 saw some slippage in front loading with both parties encouraging a more extended, deliberative primary calendar. By the end of March 2016, 32 states had voted, but New York (19 April), Pennsylvania (26 April) and California (7 June) were still to come. Chapter 6 Elections 9 April), Pennsylvania (26 April) and California (7 June) were still to come.

There are a number of different ways of classifying primaries by type. Let us consider two: closed and open primaries ; and proportional and winner-take-all primaries. Closed and open primaries First, primaries can be divided into closed primaries and open primaries. It is important to understand that any registered voter can vote in a primary. But in some states, when you register, you are asked to declare your party affiliation — whether you consider yourself to be a Democrat or a Republican. In a closed primary, only registered Democrats can vote in the Democrat primary, and only registered Republicans can vote in the Republican primary. In an open primary, any registered voter can vote in either primary. You decide on the day of the primary. In some states, even those who describe themselves as independents are allowed to participate. Open primaries allow what is called cross-over voting, which means that Democrat voters can opt to participate in the Republican primary and vice versa. This became an important issue in the Democratic primaries in 2008 when, in open primary states, significant numbers of independents and Republicans opted to vote in the Democratic primary and voted for Senator Barack Obama. In the 2012 Wisconsin Republican open primary, 11 % of voters said they were Democrats. While Mitt Romney won the primary overall with 44 % of the vote to 37 % for Rick Santorum, among Democrats Santorum beat Romney by 20 percentage points. This suggests one of two things: either these were conservative Democrats who genuinely preferred Santorum’ s policies to 241 those of either President Obama or Mitt Romney; or they were mischievous Democrats deliberately casting a vote for someone they perceived as an ‘easier’ opponent for the President in November. Cross-over voting was not an issue in 2016 when both parties had competitive nomination races. Modified primaries are like closed primaries, in that only registered party voters can vote, but they also allow those who have registered as independents to vote in either party’s primary. So, for example, in the New Jersey primary in 2016, registered Republican voters could vote only in the Republican primary, registered Democrats could vote only in the Democratic primary, but independents could vote in either party’s primary.

Proportional and winner-take-all primaries Primaries can also be classified according to how delegates to the national party conventions are won. In most primaries, candidates are awarded delegates in proportion to the votes they get. These are known as proportional primaries. Most states set a threshold — a minimum percentage of votes that a candidate must receive to get any of that state’s delegates, usually 10 or 15 % of the vote. All Democrat and most Republican primaries are now proportional primaries. However, some Republican primaries are winner-take-all primaries, in which whoever gets the most votes wins all that state’s delegates. So in winning the Arizona Republican primary in 2016, Donald Trump received all 58 delegates to the party’s national convention because it was a winner-take-all contest. But in winning the New Hampshire primary — a proportional primary — Trump won just 11 delegates, with the remaining 12 delegates shared among four other candidates.

Changes in 2020

There were three significant changes in 2020. The first is that Super Tuesday — traditionally the first Tuesday in March — is even more ‘super’ than it was in 2016. In 2016, 11 states held their contests on that day. In 2020, there were 14 state contests — including California, which moved its primary from the first Monday of March in 2016. That means that five of the largest state delegations were chosen on Super Tuesday.

The second significant change is that on the second Tuesday in March, there was a ‘fairly super Tuesday’ event with six states holding their primaries on that day. In 2016, only two states voted in the week after Super Tuesday. This ‘fairly super’ Tuesday sees another two large state delegations chosen — in Michigan (147) and Washington (107). So altogether on those first two Tuesdays in March, 20 states voted in the Democratic primaries. That means that by that time, almost half the states (24) will already have voted. That is more evidence of ‘front loading’

The third significant change was in the process. In 2019 the Democrats the Unity Reform Commission (URC) set up by the Democratic Party ‘to study and address concerns that arose regarding the presidential nominating process’ in 2016. The commission was tasked with ‘ensuring that the process is accessible, transparent and inclusive. One thing it was particularly concerned with was the use of caucuses in many states. The critics of caucuses argue that they attract an even smaller and more unrepresentative group of voters than primaries. Caucuses — which are meetings held across the state — attract the more politically and ideologically committed. They also discourage participation among those who cannot, for reasons of work, infirmity, disability, age, or family commitments, attend the meeting. Whereas in a primary, one merely has to call into the voting station for a few minutes at any time during a (usually) 10 – 11-hour opening time, caucuses are held in the evening and often last for 2 or 3 hours. The URC report, therefore, stated: At a time when voting rights are under attack … many are concerned that caucuses disenfranchise voters, such as seniors, members of the military, working families, students, and parents of young children, who are not able to attend a caucus meeting or spend hours while internal meeting processes continue in order to exercise their right to participate in the presidential nominating process. The commission instructed its state parties that use caucuses to ‘find new and better ways to ensure broad participation.

The result was, in 2020 there was a very significant decline in the use of caucuses in the Democrats’ presidential nominating process. in 2016, 14 states held Democratic caucuses rather than primaries, in 2020 that figure fell to just three. Among the states switching from caucuses to a primary for the Democrats are Colorado, Minnesota and Washington. The three state Democratic parties sticking with caucuses are Iowa, Nevada and Wyoming.