Patricia A. O'Malley
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Patricia A. O'Malley

Social Policy & Programs Consulting

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Caucuses and Primaries
What are they, and why does the process take so long?

January 25, 2016


Every four years, since 1788, America holds a presidential election.  Each time, the process gets longer and more complicated.  We are now in the midst of our 58th presidential election, spanning four centuries.  You’d think by now that Americans would know how this process works.  You would be wrong.

In his farewell address, George Washington advised us to avoid political parties.  However, Aristotle noted that humans are social animals with a natural tendency to align into various sorts of groups.  So, nature took its course and now we are mired in a partisan morass with little hope of extrication.  Our political parties are increasingly alienated, angry, and abusive.  And there’s still a long way to Election Day.

Our Constitution’s 22nd Amendment limits presidents to two four-year terms in office.  Despite what the internet trolls like to claim, President Obama can’t run again, can’t change the Constitution to permit it, and has no intention of using the U.S. military to keep himself in office. 

Each party’s candidates have debated among themselves several times already. 

Now it’s the public’s chance to speak.

Iowa will host the first 2016 presidential caucus on February 1.  The first primary will be in New Hampshire on February 9.  While they don’t have representatives in Congress, residents of American territories are U.S. citizens and can vote in presidential elections.  So they have caucuses and primaries, too. 

The Party Nomination Process
Contrary to popular belief, we do not have a two-party system.  The Constitution doesn’t mention political parties at all, and no candidate is required to belong to a party. However, parties are just one example of humans’ compulsion to arrange ourselves into groups. There are more than two dozen political parties in the U.S., but third party and independent candidates rarely win elections.

For Democrats and Republicans, seeking the party’s nomination is the first phase of a presidential campaign.  This happens through a demanding system of caucuses and primary elections running from early February to mid-June. Republicans compete against Republicans and Democrats compete against Democrats to see who will represent that party against the other party’s candidate in November’s general election.

The Candidates
Originally, 31 Republicans and 15 Democrats announced their candidacies.  That’s right.  There were 46 presidential candidates from the two major parties.  Most of them are minor political figures, or have no political experience at all.  The media doesn’t bother to cover their campaigns.

At this writing, 11 Republicans and three Democrats remain in the race.  There are also scores of independent and minor party candidates.  Some are running on only a single issue; some aren’t even on the ballots in all states.  Historically, they don’t make a difference in the results.

The parties and other interested organizations will organize televised debates among the groups of candidates so that the public can get to know them and begin to form opinions. Each debate’s sponsors will decide how many candidates it will permit in the debates.  They will ignore the rest of them. 

Primaries and Caucuses
The following information may be confusing at first.  Some states hold separate election/caucus days for each party.  Some parties hold a caucus for one party and a primary for the other.  It all depends on what the party leadership wants to do.

State voting requirements and registration deadlines vary widely. 

Check your state’s rules early to make sure you can vote.

In a caucus, voters from each voting district meet at local places – fire halls, schools, church basements, public libraries, etc.  They gather in party groups to discuss the merits of the various candidates. They try to convince each other to support their favorite candidates. Then they vote.

In 2012, six states held caucuses. 

This year, 15 states and five territories will hold them.
They are:

Alaska                                 American Samoa              Colorado                            District of Columbia (R)
Guam (D)                            Hawaii                             Idaho (D)                           Iowa
Kansas                                Kentucky (R)                    Maine                                 Minnesota                         
Nebraska (D)                       Nevada                            North Dakota                      Northern Marianas
Puerto Rico (D)                    Washington (D)                Wyoming                            Virgin Islands

The remaining states and territories hold primary elections in which the parties choose their candidates for the general election. Some states hold open primaries in which any voter can vote for any candidate, regardless of party. Others hold closed primaries in which voters can vote only for the candidates in their own parties. Each party’s rules allot a number of delegates to each state, based on its population and other factors. The candidates for delegate slots also run in the primary elections and the winning delegates vote at the parties’ conventions in late summer. 

There will be primaries in 39 states and three territories:

Alabama                           Arizona                            Arkansas                         California
Connecticut                       Delaware                         Democrats Abroad           District of Columbia (D)
Florida                              Georgia                           Guam                              Idaho (R)
Illinois                              Indiana                            Kentucky (D)                   Louisiana
Maryland                          Michigan                          Mississippi                       Missouri
Montana                           Nebraska (R)                    New Hampshire               New Mexico
New York                          North Carolina                  Ohio                               Oklahoma
Oregon                             Pennsylvania                    Puerto Rico (R)                Rhode Island
South Carolina                  South Dakota                   Tennessee                        Texas
Utah                                 Vermont                          Virginia                           Washington (R)
West Virginia                     Wisconsin

The Conventions
During the primary/caucus season, most of the candidates will leave the race when they find that they don’t have enough money or public support.

There is usually only one major candidate left standing by the time they get to the parties’ conventions in July or August. But sometimes public support is split among two or more candidates. At that time, the delegates vote for the nominee according to some very complex rules. At the end of the conventions, each party has chosen its presidential and vice presidential candidates.

Then the winning Democratic and Republican candidates compete against each other in the general election campaign. There are usually a few debates between them during this phase as well.

If you think it’s exhausting for us, imagine that you are a candidate, running from here to there, speaking at several events each day.  You’re not eating or sleeping well.  You miss your family.  You just want a day off.  Meanwhile, you’re just trying to remember a million details, and trying not to say anything dumb. 

Elections are important, and yes, they do matter.
You know what’s important to you.
You can research the candidate’s records and public statements before you decide.

Election Day is Tuesday, November 8, 2016.
Remember to VOTE.

For More Information
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Democratic National Committee
Republican National Committee
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