Presidential Primaries

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A presidential primary is an election to select a party’s candidate for the presidency. Some states with a small population spread over a large geographic area but are thinly populated often hold caucuses instead of primaries. A caucus is a meeting to select a party’s candidate for the presidency. The states that held Republican caucuses rather than a primary in 2012 included Iowa, Wyoming, North Dakota, Minnesota and Nevada. In 2012, 12 states held Republican caucuses. Turnout is generally lower in caucuses than in primaries, and those who do turnout are disproportionately more ideological than primary votes. They are run under state laws so many variation exist.

What are the primaries functions?

  • Show the popularity of presidential candidates
  • Choose delegates to go to the National Party Conventions

What are the timing of primaries?

Primaries tend to be held between January and June, but each state will decide exactly when within that 4-5 period to schedule their primary. In readiness for the 2012 primaries and caucuses, the Republican National Committee (RNC) rules for selection stated that only Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina could hold their delegate selection contests in February 2012. All other states were to keep to a window between 6 March and 12 June. States didn’t stick to this and so were stripped of some delegates. 

As primaries have become more and more important, states have tried to make their primary more prominent and influential by moving the date earlier in the year. This is called ‘Front Loading’. The number of states holding their primaries or caucuses before the end of March increases from 11 in 1980 to 42 by 2008. By February 2008, 55% of the delegates to the Democratic and Republican Conventions had already been chosen. But rule changes put in place by the Republicans mean that in 2012 only 30 states had held their contests by the end of March that year. Nevertheless front loading has clearly increased the importance of invisible primaries. 

Super Tuesday - A tuesday in early February when a number of states coincide their presidential primaries in order to try to gain influence for their region in the selection of major party presidential candidates (regional primary). E.G. In 2008 Super Tuesday was the earliest and biggest ever with 22 Democrat and 21 Republican contests being held on 5 February. 

How to hold a primary?

Recently, some states have experimented with postal voting and electronic voting via the internet.

Who can vote in the primaries?

Primaries can be divided into open and closed primaries. Any registered voter can vote in a primary, but in some state when you register, you are asked to declare your party affiliation.

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. 

Open primaries allow what is called ‘cross-over voting’, which means that Democrat voters can opt to…


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