A Primary Caucus Primer

By Nancy Salvato

While a great number of people do not see the value in the Electoral College (And "W" Takes the Series), it is possible an even greater number of people don’t fully comprehend how each political party selects their candidate for president. During the Iowa Caucus, after I heard several people draw a blank when asked to explain how a Caucus works, I decided it might be time to put together a primer on the nominating process. The Republican and Democratic political parties "officially nominate their candidate for President at their respective national conventions, usually held the summer before the election." In order to win the nomination, a Democrat must win 2,025 delegates out of 4,049 possible and a Republican must win 1,191 delegates out of 2,381 possible. Leading up to the national conventions, there are a series of presidential caucuses and primary elections which take place across the nation. Traditionally, this begins with the Iowa caucus, held in early January of the presidential election year, and is quickly followed by the New Hampshire primary."Most [Emphasis mine] of the delegates in each party are awarded based upon election results in any given state."

"Depending on state law and state party rules, when voters cast ballots for a candidate in a presidential caucus or primary, they may be actually voting to award delegates bound to vote for a candidate at the state or national convention or may simply be expressing an opinion that the state party is not bound to follow in selecting delegates to the national convention." [Emphasis mine]

Furthermore, "Not all of the delegates in either party are selected by voters in primaries or caucuses. There are quite a few delegates that automatically go to each convention. They might be a member of Congress, a governor, or even a party official. They get automatic berths to the convention, and can vote for whomever they choose. Already, some of those automatic delegates have pledged to the candidate they support. But, they can also change their minds at any point for any reason."

The format of the presidential caucuses and primary elections varies between the states.

Binding Primary

Nearly all states have a binding primary, in which the results of the election legally bind some or all of the delegates to vote for a particular candidate at the national convention, for a certain number of ballots or until the candidate releases the delegates.

Non-Binding Primary

A handful of states practice a non-binding primary, which may select candidates to a state convention which then selects delegates.

Closed Primary

In most states, only voters registered with a party may vote in that party’s primary.

Semi-Closed Primary

Voters unaffiliated with a party (independents) may choose a party primary in which to vote.

Blanket Primary

All registered voters can participate in all primaries.Presidential Preference Primary (Direct) The voter chooses the candidate by name from a list of candidates on the ballot.

Presidential Preference Primary (Indirect) The voter chooses among delegate names rather than candidate names. Delegates voice support for a particular candidate or remain uncommitted.

"In some states a combination of the primary and caucus systems are used. The primary serves as a measure of public opinion but is not necessarily binding in choosing delegates. Sometimes the Party does not recognize open primaries because members of other parties are permitted to vote."


"Generally any voter registered with the party may attend. At the caucus, delegates are chosen to represent the state’s interests at the national party convention. Prospective delegates are identified as favorable to a specific candidate or uncommitted. After discussion and debate an informal vote is taken to determine which delegates should be chosen."

Proportional Representation

Under Democratic Party selection rules, a candidate requires a minimum threshold of 15% in a state in order to receive delegates.


Superdelegates account for approximately one fifth (19.6%) of all votes at the Democratic National Convention. These delegates (elected officeholders and party officials) are not bound by the decisions of party primaries or caucuses. The 792 superdelegates include all Democratic members of the United States Congress, various additional elected officials, as well as members of the Democratic National Committee. The Republican Party does not have superdelegates, it has 463 unpledged delegates, 123 of whom are Republican National Committee members.

According to Brown University researchers Brian Knight and Nathan Schiff, "voters in early primary states have up to 20 times the influence of voters in later states in the selection of candidates." Some states scheduled their primaries early, in violation of the agreed upon date of February 5th for the first primary, and for this they have been penalized. "The Democratic Party is punishing Michigan and Florida by refusing to accept their delegates at the national convention. The Republican Party is penalizing Florida, Michigan, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Wyoming, by reducing their quota of delegates by half. BBC News Because of these sanctions, these early primaries are sometimes referred to as "beauty contests" because of their diminished impact on "the makeup of the state’s National Convention delegation" however, they still exert great influence on the candidates and voters. Regardless of who eventually wins the party nomination, the primaries help to influence and refine the candidates’ platforms as the process evolves. "In recent elections, the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary have garnered over half the national and international media attention paid to the entire selection process."

Professor Matthew Søberg Shugart explains in his Blog, Fruits and Votes, "there are usually three or more "viable" candidates and several stragglers at the start of the process, but by the end the race has narrowed to two major contenders." He is watching to see "whether the collapsed calendar means less time for the shakeout towards 2+ candidates to occur, and thus potentially the nomination of a non-consensus candidate." This year’s Democratic National Convention will be held in Denver, Colorado, from August 25-28 at the downtown Pepsi Center. The Republican National Convention will be held in Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minnesota, from September 1-4 at the RiverCentre / Xcel Energy Center.

For More Information about the status of the candidates in the state primaries:






Nancy Salvato is the President and Director of Education and the Constitutional Literacy Program for Basics Project, a non-profit, non-partisan 501 (C) (3) research and educational project whose mission is to re-introduce the American public to the basic elements of our constitutional heritage while providing non-partisan, fact-based information on relevant socio-political issues important to our country, specifically the threats of aggressive Islamofascism and the American Fifth Column. She serves as the Assistant Provost for the American College of Education and as a Senior Editor for The New Media Journal. She is also a staff writer, for the New Media Alliance, Inc., a non-profit (501c3) coalition of writers and grass-roots media outlets, and a frequent contributing writer to The World & I educational magazine.

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