U.S. Election 2016: The Primary Process


Prepared by Don DeBats, Flinders University

I don’t care who does the electing, so long as I get to do the nominating.”

So said “Boss” William Tweed, the iconic (and audacious and arrogant) boss of New York City’s infamous Democratic political machine in the late nineteenth century. He spoke too soon (or too truthfully) for the arrogance of Tweed and his ilk provoked reformers to take away the nominating power of political machines and political parties and give that power to the voters. That is what primary elections are about.

Finally, the primary elections to choose the candidates for the next President of the United States are about to begin.

They begin, perversely, in two of the most out-of-the way places in the US: mid-western Iowa and north-eastern New Hampshire.

United by cold and snow, these are small states (combined population 4.4 million) with a small eligible voting population (3.3 million in 2012) and an even smaller number of primary participants (884,066 in 2008: 28% of the eligible voters). But they will have a large say in determining the Democratic and Republican candidates for the presidency of the United States.

After months of informed and uninformed punditry and a forest’s worth of guesses as to the opinion of “the public,” the first votes in the 2016 grand election saga will be cast in just a few days.

By then the Republicans’ throng of candidates will have had seven nationally televised debates while the far smaller field of Democratic candidates have had four. But there will be yet more: five yet to come on the Republican side and two more on the Democratic side. And then, once the presidential candidates have been determined (see below), there will be debates between the nominees of the two parties (plus any credible third party candidate).

The purpose of the primary elections is to choose delegates to go to the Republican and Democratic national nominating conventions committed to particular candidates seeking their party’s nomination.

Primary voting happens in different ways, illustrated by these two early primaries: Iowa by “caucus” (February 1) where there are few rules in common between the parties and the New Hampshire primary (February 9) where registration with a political party is hard to avoid. Each however will elect delegates to the nominating conventions to be held in July: Republicans first in Cleveland and the Democrats later in the month in Philadelphia.

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