Understanding the Presidential Primaries

With only a handful of states left to vote in the Presidential Primaries and Caucuses, the path to the nomination at both conventions is in sight. In June, seven states will hold primaries to vote on their preferred Democratic candidate and five states will vote on the Republican side. As each party’s national convention comes closer, the race to the Oval office is just starting to heat up.

Those who don’t follow the election process closely might ask about the importance of the primaries and how they work. As the primaries wrap up in the first few weeks of the month, understanding what the results of each party’s primary will mean for the nomination process is important to understand as we head into the 2016 election.

The History

The question of how to decide who each party’s nominee would be has been posed by politicians for hundreds of years; people have been trying to figure out the best way to pick a nominee since George Washington left office. For many years, when the country was still new, members of Congress nominated their respective parties’ candidates for president. But by 1832, national conventions were put in place to nominate the presidential candidates for each party. By 1840, conventions were the standard.

As the United States continued to grow, many of the states wanted more of a say in who was chosen to represent their party at the national convention. In the early 20th Century, lawmakers began putting laws into place that allowed citizens to vote for their preferred candidate before each party’s national convention. By 1916, at least 25 states had passed laws regarding primaries for each party. And after many years of trial and error, the current systems that each party uses were set in place.

The Breakdown

Although the primary processes for each party are different, there are many similarities in how they operate within each state. There are two main types of primaries, closed and open, and each state decides which type it will use. In a closed primary, registered voters can only vote for candidates in the party that they are affiliated with. In an open primary, registered voters can vote in either primary, regardless of their party affiliation. For example, Michigan, which held its primaries at the beginning of March, uses an open primary system and voters are not required to affiliate themselves with either major party.

From here, the processes begin to vary. On the Democratic side, each candidate gets a percentage of the delegates allotted by each state based on their performance in that particular state. For example, in Michigan 147 delegates represent the state at the national convention and vote for who will be the party’s nominee. Of those 147 delegates, 17 of them are not pledged to any candidate and can vote freely at the convention. These are called superdelegates, and while the candidate they vote for is often speculated, their votes are not cast until July.

The other 130 are divided up between the candidates based on the number of votes they receive. In this election, because Senator Bernie Sanders won 49.8 percent of the Democratic vote in Michigan, 67 pledged delegates from the state will vote for him at the convention in July and the remaining 63 pledged delegates go to former Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton.

In states that vote between March 1 and March 14, the Republican primaries work the same way; however, according to the Republican National Committee’s rules on the nomination process, states that vote after March 14 have the option to award delegates to a candidate on a “winner-take-all” basis, meaning that the candidate with the highest percentage of votes is awarded all of that state’s delegates. Only a handful of states choose to run their primaries in this way.

Unlike the Democratic side of the race, the Republican Party does not use superdelegates. Because of this, all delegates are pledged to a specific candidate going into the national convention.

The Magic Numbers

On both sides of the race, a specific number of delegates are needed to win the party’s nomination: 2,383 delegate votes are needed at the Democratic Convention and 1,237 votes are needed at the Republican Convention.

Because superdelegates don’t vote on a candidate until the convention and one can only speculate about whom they will vote for, it can be more difficult to decipher who the nominee will be. Currently, Clinton leads with 1,716 pledged delegates, while Sanders trails her with 1,433 pledged delegates. If the 524 superdelegates, who many assume will vote for Clinton, are added, her lead is far more substantial. But as previously stated, the final results won’t be known until voting is cast at the convention in July.

Because superdelegates are not used by the Republican Party, who the nominee will be is much more clear, especially in this year’s race. With 1,134 pledged delegates and all other candidates having suspended their campaigns, billionaire and real estate mogul Donald Trump is the likely nominee for the Republican Party. Even though he is the only remaining candidate in the race, the last five states to hold Republican primaries will still have the opportunity to vote.

The primaries are an important part of the election process, and understanding how they affect who is nominated for each party is a crucial step in understanding how leaders are chosen in the United States.

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