Making a President: How the Primary Process Works

Colton Williams

If you’ve watched cable news since… well, around this time last year… you’ve likely been hearing about the 2016 Presidential Election. More recently, you’ve probably heard the words ‘primary’ and ‘caucus’ along with Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina. Besides inflating Iowans’ sense of self-importance by an exponential factor every election cycle, these primaries and caucuses serve as the first real votes of the election. But just how does that work?

A caucus is essentially a meeting of members of a community where they make their pitch for a certain candidate. However, this happens differently for both factions of our ever-efficient two-party system.

For Democrats, supporters make speeches in favor of their preferred candidate, and then the caucus-goers split up and go into different parts of the room that represent each person running. Then, the elected chair of the caucus adds up the number of ‘voters’ in support of each candidate. There is also a ‘viability threshold’ of 15%, which means that if at least 15% of the people in a precinct don’t vote for a certain person, that candidate’s supporters have to re-caucus for another candidate (see: Martin O’Malley). When all the supporters are counted, candidates are awarded delegates proportional to the percentage of the vote they take in. In the case of Iowa, Senator Bernie Sanders and Fmr. Secretary Hillary Clinton split at roughly 50/50. This means that they will each take about half of the total delegates. These delegates will go to county conventions and will eventually be filtered down to the delegates who will appear at the Democratic National Convention, when the Democratic Nominee is announced.

For Republicans, there is a somewhat different (and somewhat simpler) caucus protocol. Just like the Democrats, representatives make speeches at precincts all across the state in support of their candidate. The difference is that Republicans get to vote on a paper ballot – a marked technological improvement over herding people into corners. The ballot is turned in, and then the votes are tallied by a newly developed Microsoft app that both parties are using. The votes are used to assign delegates that will attend the county, state, and eventually national conventions. For example, in Iowa, Senator Ted Cruz won eight delegates, Donald Trump and Senator Marco Rubio won seven, Dr. Ben Carson won three, and so on.

Primaries are different from caucuses in that they are run by the individual state governments, as opposed to the state parties. Primaries are what we’re used to here in Kentucky, where you go in, cast your vote, and leave. States can either have open or closed primaries. ‘Open’ means that no matter what your party affiliation, you can vote in either party’s primary. ‘Closed’ means you can only vote in the primary of the party to which you belong. As in the caucuses, delegates will be awarded to the candidates. For Democrats, these delegates are awarded proportionally to the number of votes they receive. In Republican primaries, states holding their primaries between March 1st and 14th will award delegates proportionally. After that date, primaries will be winner-take-all, meaning the winner of the primary will receive all of the state’s delegates.

Does all of this democracy just make you swell up with pride in the American way?

Well, it shouldn’t.

Even though Bernie Sanders crushed Hillary Clinton in the New Hampshire Primary, winning the popular vote 60% to 38%, as of the New Hampshire primary, he’s behind in the total delegate count. This is because the Democratic Party uses a system of ‘superdelegates.’ New Hampshire has 24 ‘pledged’ delegates, who are beholden to the popular vote, and eight superdelegates, who are party officials and can support any candidate regardless of the vote of the citizens. Because of these this undemocratic and elitist system, Clinton walks away victorious despite getting completely destroyed in the popular vote. Maybe now we know why Bernie’s always been an Independent.

Eventually, when it’s all said and done, both parties will have a nominee based on the number of delegates the candidates accrue throughout the primary process (however it is they accrue them). Then, it’s on to the general election, where the next President of the United States will be chosen by you, the American citizen.

Or maybe not, who knows?


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