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Explainer: What You Should Know About Presidential Primaries

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voting-2-27How are presidential candidates chosen?

Political parties are independent organizations that choose who will be their candidate at a presidential nominating convention. (For the purpose of simplicity, this article will focus mainly on the two major U.S. political parties, the Democrats and Republicans).  While many different types of people attend the conventions, they are formally a gathering of “delegates” — political party members chosen as representatives. The delegates (collectively known as the “delegation”) vote on who should be the party’s candidate.

For example, the GOP convention this year will have 2,472 official delegates. To win the nomination a candidate needs to have the votes of 1,237 (50 percent + 1) delegates.

How are delegates chosen?

Each party has two types of delegates, pledged and unpledged (non-binding). Pledged delegates are representatives of the individual state’s political parties and must cast a vote at the convention for a particular candidate, while unpledged can vote for any candidate.

What is a “Superdelegate”?

Delegates that are unpledged and not chosen by the primary or caucus system are sometimes referred to by the unofficial moniker of “superdelegates.”

In the Democratic Party, current and former Democratic Presidents and Vice Presidents, every Democratic governor (currently, 20 total) and member of Congress (240 total) gets to be a superdelegate, as do former Democratic Majority and Minority Leaders of the U.S. Senate, former Democratic Speakers and Minority Leaders of the U.S. House, and former Chairs of the Democratic National Committee. Altogether the Democrats have 704 superdelegates.

This group, comprising about 15 percent of the total delegate count, are a way to provide a check on the popular vote.

The GOP has three types of delegates (At-Large Delegates, Congressional District Delegates, and Republican National Committee Members), but unlike the Democrats, these delegates are bound by the same rules as other delegates.

How are delegates allocated among candidates?

Each state assigns its delegates according to its own rules in consultation with their party. There are three main allocation methods are proportional (delegates are divided amongst candidates based on results of their primary vote), Winner-Take-All (the candidate that wins the highest percentage of the state’s primary votes gets all the delegates), and hybrid states that combine these methods (e.g., a candidate in a proportional state may get all the delegates if they pass the 50 percent mark).

What the difference between a primary and a caucus?

Each state holds either a primary or a caucus (or a mix of the two) in order to indirectly choose a presidential candidate.

In a primary state, people cast a ballot for a candidate. Primaries may be open (any registered voter may cast a ballot, regardless of party affiliation) or closed (only registered voters who are party members can cast a ballot). The voting is usually done in a specific time frame (e.g., 8 am to 7 pm) on a particular day.

In a caucus state, voters meet at a specific time and local location (e.g., school, church) to meet and discuss the candidates. Voters separate into groups to identify their support for a particular candidate, though sometimes they merely vote or raise their hands to be counted.

(The rules that govern primaries and caucuses are set by the individual states, so how they are run can vary considerably. But these are the main differences between the two types.)

What is “Super Tuesday”?

Super Tuesday is the day, either in February in March, when the largest numbers of states hold their primaries or caucuses. Most of the delegates are chosen on this day.

What is the “SEC Primary”?

In previous elections, Southern states tended to have their primary elections on different days, limiting the impact of the region. Because of this several Secretaries of States banded together to move the primary election dates of Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia to “Super Tuesday” (March 1, 2016).

This has been dubbed the “SEC Primary,” after the NCAA’s Southeastern Conference.

When are the remaining primaries and caucuses?

You can find a complete list here.

Joe Carter Joe Carter is a Senior Editor at the Acton Institute. Joe also serves as an editor at the The Gospel Coalition, a communications specialist for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and as an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. He is the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible and co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator (Crossway).


  • vijay

    So its party delegates or regular people who cast their vote for party
    presidential candidates? The first half of the article talked only about delegates as the deciding group but the last question turned around and brought regular voters in the picture. Are you saying voters elect delegates (who have pre-set allegiances) who then determine the candidate, a 3 stage process? I thought common people vote in the inter-party November elections only.

  • sramakri43

    After reading the article, i was a bit diappointed to learn that these parties does not follow the principle of “of the people, by the people and for the people” It appears that whole sham is for the party leaders and their cronies to hold on to their control. Worse than the horse trading of elected people in India

  • Leonard Haga

    The delegates are supposed to vote for the candidate that won the popular vote (legal US citizens).

  • Maryo

    This system is antiquated and needs to go. We the people are supposed to decide who gets nominated to run for office, not current or former political office holders wielding power by association but all of us who have the legal right to vote. But yet we ‘decide’ who should be in power (control) in other countries and create war to remove those we don’t want because they won’t go along with our agenda for their country.

    • Pat

      True, our country does seem arrogant in that respect, doesn’t it?