Though it seems as if the 2016 Presidential election campaign has been going on for about a year already, we are now officially into the season of the Presidential primaries, the election preseason if you will. Many of us are aware that the Primaries are the process by which the nominees for the two major political parties are finally chosen from among the pigpen of candidates and then officially nominated at each party’s convention in July – it’s ok if you didn’t know that, there’s no judgement here. But nearly just as many of us don’t know how the process works or why we do it. Is it just a popularity contest? Are the primary results actually binding or are they simply recommendations to whomever picks the nominee at the convention? And who are those whomevers that choose the party nominee? To some this may seem like a series of extra, unnecessary steps to the election process – why do we do all this? Well, dear readers, put on your political party hats (haha, that’s punny) as we delve into our Nation’s primary process.
Presidential Primaries: From Whence Did They Come?
Let’s start with this fact: we didn’t always have a primary process. The Constitution, in fact, says nothing about political parties and it wasn’t until the Progressive Era (1890’s-early 1900’s) that the process took hold. In 1831 the Anti-Masonic Party held the first national convention to select a candidate, in 1899 Minnesota held the first statewide primary, in 1910 Oregon became the first to make a binding (or “preferential”) primary the official process for nomination, and by 1916 26 states were using some sort of primary process for their selections. The biggest reason for adopting a primary system was and is to combat the influence of party bigwigs on the election process, opening up the nomination process to allow the general electorate a role in choosing the candidates. Critics of the primary process make the case that a generally un(der)informed American electorate may not be best group for proposing candidates and that it is a task better suited to the parties themselves. Is there such thing as “too much democracy”? Critics would argue so and some states still employ caucuses, which are closed to the public and are run by the political parties themselves, as opposed to primaries which are managed by state and local governments. The following 13 states are using caucuses for 2016: Iowa, Nevada, Minnesota, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Idaho, Utah, Kansas, Wyoming, Alaska, Washington, and North Dakota. Kentucky is using a caucus for the Republican Party and a primary for the Democrats.
For both primaries and caucuses the process has evolved to the results now having a binding effect on the nomination. On the Democratic side, proportionality is required by all states while the Republicans still have some capacity for winner-take-all contests, governed by the “proportionality window” and other percentage thresholds. The exception to this is what are called “super-delegates”, mostly current and past elected officials in each state whom the party allows to vote however they choose at the national convention.
Presidential Primaries: The 1968 Democratic National Convention
Though changes to the process had been ongoing through the first half of the 20th century, the tumultuous 1968 DNC changed it forever. That year the Democratic Party, itself the champion of the people’s voice, nominated Vice President Hubert Humphrey, who had not entered a single primary, over the anti-Vietnam War candidate Eugene McCarthy. This divide in the party led to the formation of the McGovern-Fraser Commission, ushering in changes to the process at the state level, specifically with regard to mandatory binding and proportionality, which then affected both parties when voted into law.
Amidst the context of the modern rules, this historic example is especially interesting as the GOP faces the difficult possibility of a having to nominate a wildly popular Donald Trump, despite not wanting him as the face of their party. Bound by the results of the primaries, there is little the party can do to alter the nomination’s course, leading us back to the larger socio-political question of whether the party or the public is better suited to be deciding their nominee.
Presidential Primaries: Your Vote Actually Matters!
In the general election the results from many states are a foregone conclusion thanks to the Electoral College and tactics such as gerrymandering. Massachusetts won’t be turning red anytime soon, making my vote relatively worthless, regardless of my political affiliation. In the primary election, though the stakes are a rank lower, voting is actually representational.
Not sure if you’re able to vote in your state’s primary? There are two important factors in determining if and how you can. First, some states have “open” primaries and some have “closed” ones. In an open primary, one may cast their vote in either party’s primary (but not both), while in a closed one they are limited to voting for the party to which they are registered. In “semi-closed” primary states, such as Massachusetts, registered Dem’s or Rep’s may only vote in their party’s primary while Unregistered/Independent constituents may vote in either.
The second important factor is registration. If you’re unsure if you’re registered to vote you can visit CanIVote.org to check your status. For my fellow Massachusetts residents, you check your status by clicking here and though it’s too late to register for the March 1st primary, follow this link to register online for the general election.
Presidential Primaries: The Importance of Being Iowa (or If You’re Not First, You’re Last)
So what exactly is the big deal with Iowa? And New Hampshire too, for that matter. Why are they such big players on the primary circuit? The simple answer is that that’s how it’s been since the Progressive Era reforms and each state has worked to keep its early position, with NH going so far as to pass a state law requiring it be the first primary state. The reason for wanting to be first is simple: the earlier states have a greater effect on the nomination process, while states whose primaries fall in May or June are weighing in after the nomination is practically decided.
You may remember the issues in the past two election cycles about states (i.e. Florida) looking to move themselves earlier in the schedule. The parties then imposed loss of delegate penalties based on how early a state was looking to move, which did little to deter the practice. These calendar tactics, disruptive for the parties themselves, have seemingly been eliminated for 2016, partially due to a much steeper penalty that would knock down the delegates of any such states to a total number of just 12 (for reference, California has 159 Republican delegates this year).
The current schedule gives a pretty obvious preference to the four “carve-out” states – Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada – where candidates now focus a bulk of their campaigning resources. The latter two were added long after the originals for regional diversity, as well as racial to some extent. But doing so is a small step towards perfecting a clearly uneven process.
2016 Presidential Primaries: What’s Happened So Far
Now that we know how the primary process shapes the Presidential race, what’s happened so far here in 2016? As we mentioned above, only two states have cast their primary votes, Iowa and New Hampshire. South Carolina and Nevada will vote this weekend, and 12 states (including Massachusetts) will cast their votes on “Super Tuesday”, March 1st.
For the Democrats, there are 4763 total delegates available, making the magic number for victory 2382. On the Republican side, the total is 2472 with a magic number of 1237. Canadian Ted came away with a surprise victory in Iowa, garnering 27% of the vote, totaling 8 delegates. Trump and Rubio tied for second with 7 delegates apiece, Ben Carson came in third with 3, while the next four candidates tied with 1 delegate each. When the race swung to New Hampshire the results swung as well, with Trump landing dominantly on top with 35% and 10 delegates, John Kasich jumped up to second with 4, while Cruz, Bush, and Rubio all tied at 3.
Hillary Clinton narrowly edged out Bernie with a 23-21 candidate victory in Iowa but was then pummeled in New Hampshire 15-9.
This means there is still so much that can happen (The Donald is not the presumptive nominee yet). As the candidates now prepare for campaigning in geographically and socially diverse parts of the country, the capacity for uncertainty is high. Will a majority of the nation “Feel the Bern” on Super Tuesday or will Hillary lead the way as the establishment candidate? How will the Republicans’ positions on immigration reform affect their standings in the South Carolina and Nevada races?
No matter your political affiliation, your home state, or your social status, our election process binds us all as American citizens. You have to participate to make change so stand up and make your voice heard. And Lime On, my fellow Americans.