What Is a Presidential Primary?

the "election before the election" explained by political science expert

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

Presidential primaries are run by state and local governments. Caucuses, which are less common, are led by the political parties themselves. What are presidential primaries and caucuses? How do they work?

Woman voting at US Primary election voting poll
The presidential election to be held Tuesday, November 5, 2024, will reflect the redistribution of electoral votes according to the 2020 census reapportionment. Photo by SeventyFour / Shutterstock

Presidential primaries and caucuses are two statewide processes that facilitate the choosing of a nominee for president by each major political party in the United States. For example, in the 2016 presidential election in the United States, Republican nominee Donald Trump faced off against Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. Each candidate started as one of many in each political party: Trump fended off opponents such as Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) for the Republican nomination, while Clinton ran against Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) for the Democratic nomination.

Primaries are held on various dates. For five decades, Iowa has been the first state to hold its caucuses. On Friday, December 2, President Joe Biden put forth his plan to change the presidential nominating calendar by having South Carolina take the lead in the 2024 presidential primaries and the Democratic National Committee’s (DNC) Rules and Bylaws Committee approved it, with the DNC to ratify it in early 2023. New Hampshire and Nevada would follow South Carolina’s primary by one week. Additionally, Georgia and Michigan would follow in subsequent weeks. All four states reflect a greater diversity among voters.

How do presidential primaries and caucuses work? In her video series Understanding the U.S. Government, Dr. Jennifer Nicoll Victor, Associate Professor of Political Science at George Mason University, dissects these electoral processes and their purposes.

What Is a Caucus and a Presidential Primary?

“When a state holds a caucus, it is basically a series of simultaneously occurring town meetings, where voters and candidate representatives come together to make their case, deliberate, and take a series of votes that result in a single nominee winning each meeting,” Dr. Victor said. “Generally, caucuses are open to all registered voters of the party of which they are caucusing. These votes are tallied across the state to declare the candidates from each party who won the most votes.”

However, caucuses are rare, being used in fewer than 10 states in the United States. By contrast, primaries are used much more regularly and are quite simple. A primary election is a standard election held the winter or spring before the general election. During a primary, qualified candidates compete against others in the same party to win each state’s party delegates.

“Often the Republican and Democratic parties will hold their primaries on the same day, but not always,” Dr. Victor said. “In addition, different states use different primary election rules.”

In a closed primary, the only people who may vote for a candidate of a certain party are pre-registered voters who have pre-identified their party registration aligned to that party. In open primary states, any registered voter can vote for a candidate in any party, though that voter can only vote in one party’s primary. In other words, if a voter in an open primary state first picked which candidate they wanted to be on the Democratic ticket, they couldn’t then vote for which candidate they want to be on the Republican ticket, and vice versa.

The votes are used to allocate each state party’s delegates to the nomination convention for each party. Democrats typically use proportional allocation, while Republicans use a “winner-takes-all” system in which the candidate who wins the most delegates in a state’s party receives all of the state’s delegates.

Understanding the U.S. Government is now available to stream on Wondrium.

Edited by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily