Aoife Gallagher discusses the U.S Primaries; the electing of U.S presidential candidates and the complexity surrounding this. 

Have you ever tried to truly understand how the process of electing a president in the US works?

Although the US is a country run by democrats, the mind boggling and complicated system that Americans use to elect their commander-in-chief is anything but democratic. With words like caucuses, primaries, electors and delegates being thrown around in the media, it is a wonder if US citizens themselves understand it all.

The 2016 election is sure to be an interesting watch with Donald Trump topping the latest opinion polls on the Republican side and Hillary Clinton marginally leading against Bernie Sanders. But how is it ultimately decided who will run in the presidential race? What is a caucus and is it different to a primary? Why does Iowa get to vote first?

In every state the local party leaders decide how to nominate their candidate using either caucuses or primary elections. The 2016 primary and caucus season began last Monday in Iowa and will continue throughout the states until June.

Primaries are like what we would recognise as elections: voters simply cast an anonymous vote at a local polling station. A caucus however, is a sort of public debate held by each of the political parties, where representatives of the candidates gather in a public place and try to win votes from the crowd. The votes are either counted by secret ballot or, in some cases, involve people physically taking sides in a room.

Here is where it starts to get complicated. Unlike the November presidential election where every US citizen over the age of 18 can vote, primary elections are governed by in-state regulations. In many states, you can only vote in the primaries if you are an official member of the political party. These are known as closed primaries as non-party-members do not get a say. Other states hold semi-closed primaries, where independent voters can choose to vote in one party’s election only. Open primaries allow all citizens to vote in whichever party-primary they prefer, no matter which party they are registered with.

The timing of the primary elections in each state plays a major role in determining the end results. For example, Iowa has maintained its first-in-the-nation status since 1972, holding its caucus before any other state. New Hampshire has it written in state law that it will always hold the first primary elections. Each political party then set the schedule for the rest of the primaries to occur, but states often choose to ignore this schedule and move their primaries to earlier dates to increase their media prominence.

In the past this has resulted in threats of lawsuits between offending states and the political parties. This frontloading of elections ultimately means that there is an unfair shift of power away from states that choose to hold their primaries at a later date. For example, by the time states such as California and New Jersey get to vote in early June, the party results are usually already more or less decided, and therefore these big-state votes are insignificant.

Does your brain hurt yet? Keep going, we’re nearly there! The last major complication in this system is the fact that votes do not go directly to the candidates: instead they get translated into delegates, sometimes on a proportional basis, sometimes not. The delegates selected by primaries and caucuses then meet at their party’s national convention. Here they are meant to be committed to vote for the candidate to whom they are pledged, at least on the first ballot. But the conventions are  also attended by ‘superdelegates’. These are former party leaders or elected officials who are not pledged to support any particular candidate and are free to vote as they please.

By the time the conventions take place most candidates except the front runner from the primaries has dropped out of the race and it is therefore simply a rubber stamp for the nominated candidate. However, if the fight between candidates is still ongoing, the decision comes down to votes from the delegates and superdelegates.

In summary, not only is the entire system extremely complicated but it is also tainted by unfair advantages that certain states have over others and the free votes of delegates and superdelegates. The power that the Democratic and Republican parties have in the US also means that independent or third party candidates have no chance of actually being elected president.

With Donald Trump losing to Ted Cruz in the Iowa caucus and Hillary Clinton winning in a photo-finish there over Bernie Sanders, this year’s primaries look set to be full of surprises. Watch this space for regular updates.


(Photo credit: DonkeyHotey. Image source: Flickr).