‘Primary election’ is the term used in America for the elections which will select the two parties presidential nomination. The primary elections start in January of election year in what is called the “primary season“. A good start to the primaries is considered vital if a candidate is to become his party’s presidential nomination – however, George W Bush bucked this trend in the 2000 primary season by making a poor start but ultimately winning the Republican Party’s nomination.

Since 1952 the first primary election has traditionally been in New Hampshire. It is the first real test of opinion and receives a great deal of publicity from the media. As a result a number of other states have tried to bring forward their primaries but the biggest contender to New Hampshire in terms of importance has been the decision by 21 mostly Southern states to hold their primaries on the same day in what has become known as “Super Tuesday“. Originally this was on March 8th 1988, but it is now usually held on the second Tuesday of March in election year.

There are a variety of ways in which the elections at a local level are held. These can almost be seen as the heats in an athletics meeting. If you win this you move on to the next one, the semi-finals (state party elections) and if you win this, on to the final itself. One is the caucus system. Others are the so-calledprimaries : closed primaries, open primaries and blanket primaries. 

Regardless of their title, the primaries are designed to give as much democracy as is deemed possible to local politics. This is not so true for the caucus system.




The word “caucus” itself comes from the Native People of America and means “to gather together andmake a great noise.” 

This seems rather appropriate but this system of electing a presidential nominee is becoming less and less popular as it puts a great deal of power in the hands of local party bosses and the fear is that the beliefs of the people themselves at a local level are not necessarily listened to. 

By 1980 only 25% of the delegates to the national conventions (coming from 18 states) were voted for in this way. In 1988, only 16% of the Democrats delegates were selected in this manner while just under 21% of Republicans were. The figure has continued to shrink with only 12 Republican state parties using the caucus system in 1996 with the Democrats using it in only 14 states.

What is a caucus?

A caucus is a series of party meetings at every level of party organisation within a state; wards, precincts, districts and counties. At each level, party members vote for delegates who will take their opinions on the choice of presidential candidate forward to the next level. Ultimately the state conventions choose the delegates to the national convention

Caucus meetings tend to be dominated by party activists who are sufficiently committed to the party’s cause to take part in each stage. Supporters of the caucus system believe that it leads to the best candidate being selected. However, meetings are closed (i.e. not opened up to anyone other than a party member) and historically they were linked to a small group of men in Congress and in state legislatures who selected party candidates for national and state office including presidential candidates. 

As a result of this apparent lack of a democratic approach, fewer and fewer states are using this type of selection. Many feel that the system allows the local ‘big-wigs’ in politics to dominate a ward, precinct etc. and that any final choice of presidential candidate is not really representative of those at the caucus but purely the views of such political figures who dominate at a local level.


What are primaries ?


This system allows a broader participation of voters to express their views on who should represent the party at the next election. In some primaries you do not have to be a party member to vote.

Closed primaries offer a greater degree of participation than caucuses in that voting is not confined to party members. Those voters who have declared an affiliation to a party are allowed to participate in that party’s primary. This declaration can literally be done as the voter enters the polling office with a statement that s/he voted for the Democrats at the last election and that they intend voting in this primary; assuming this was a Democrats primary !!

Open primaries allow even greater participation. The voters of a state, regardless of their party affiliation, can participate in either party’s primary but not both. The advantage of this system is that it allows the most popular candidate to be put forward and one who will have appeal across party lines. This, of course, is an advantage. But the purely democratic nature of this system is open to abuse as in the past there have been cases whereby Democrats, for example, have legally voted at a Republican primary, though not at their own, but have voted for what was the worst candidate. The Republicans have done likewise at Democratic primaries. Twenty nine states use this system of voting.

Blanket primaries offer the widest possible participation. Voters are allowed to vote in both primary elections of the parties – i.e. at both the Republican and Democrat primaries.

States also vary in the way they allocate delegates to the presidential candidates. Some primaries use the ‘winner-take-all’ system (WTA) whereby the candidate who wins the most votes at a primary gets all of the delegates.

The alternative system is the proportional representation primary (PR) which allocates delegates in proportion to the number of votes they received in the primary. The Democrats have used PR since 1969 in an effort to increase the voice of the minority groups and to broaden the appeal of the candidates. However in recent years the party has used WTA  in larger primaries and some of the larger states favour such a system as they feel that WTA  increases their political clout in the overall nomination process of the presidential candidate.

Some primaries are also called “advisory primaries” as the elected delegates to the national convention do not have to follow the views of the voters and they are free to follow their own preference for presidential candidate. However, the voters have expressed their advice – hence the title – on the ballot paper.

Other primaries are called “mandatory primaries” or “binding primaries” as the views of the voters with regards to the presidential candidate are binding on the delegates and the delegates at the national convention cast their votes accordingly. 

However, this was successfully challenged in 1982 when the Supreme Court declared that a state could not force a delegate to a national convention to support the winner of his/her state’s presidential primary (Democratic Party v La Follette).