The series of presidential primary elections and caucuses is one of the first steps in the process of electing the President of the United States of America. The primary elections are run by state and local governments, while caucuses are private events run by the political parties. A state primary election usually is an indirect election: instead of voters directly selecting a particular person running for president, it determines how many delegates to each party's national convention each candidate will receive from that state.
In recent elections, the eventual nominees were known well before the actual conventions took place. The last time a major party's nominee was not clear before the convention was in 1976, when incumbent president Gerald Ford narrowly defeated Ronald Reagan.
For 2008, both the Republicans and the Democrats moved their Nevada caucuses to January 19, which was an earlier date than past election cycles. In response, other states also changed their primary election dates for 2008, creating a cascade of changes in other states. The election dates for 2008, up to and including Super Tuesday were as follows.
The Republican National Committee, with the concurrence of chairman Mike Duncan on November 8, voted 121-9 to strip one-half of delegates from five States that violated the rules of having no primary before February 5. The States and their losses were: South Carolina, Florida (57), Michigan (30), Wyoming (14), and New Hampshire (12). The Democratic party has also voted to remove all of Florida and Michigan's delegates.
The first binding event, in which a candidate can secure convention delegates, is traditionally the Iowa caucus, held in early January of the presidential election year. It is followed by the New Hampshire primary, the first primary by tradition and New Hampshire state law.
Because these states are small, campaigning takes place on a much more personal scale. As a result, even a little-known, underfunded candidate can use "retail politics" to meet intimately with interested voters and perform better than expected. The Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary have produced a number of headline-making upsets in history.:
Iowa and New Hampshire set the tone for campaigns — and allow an outsider to topple the favorite. 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.
After Iowa and New Hampshire, primaries and caucuses are held in the other states, Puerto Rico, insular areas, and the District of Columbia. The front runners attempt to solidify their status, while the others fight to become #2. Each party sets its own calendar and rules and in some cases actually administers the election; however, in order to reduce expenses and encourage turnout, the major parties' primaries are usually held the same day and may be consolidated with other state elections. The primary election itself is administered by local governments according to state law. In some cases, state law determines how delegates will be awarded and who may participate in the primary; where it does not, party rules prevail.
In recent years states have been holding increasingly early primaries to maximize their leverage (see below). California moved its primary back to June in 2004, having moved it to March in 1996. However, California now has its presidential primary on the first Tuesday in February (February 5th 2008) as one of the 24 states holding primaries on Super Tuesday.
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. A handful of states practice a non-binding primary, which may select candidates to a state convention which then selects delegates. Both major parties have rules which designate superdelegates.
In many states, only voters registered with a party may vote in that party's primary, known as a closed primary. In some states, a semi-closed primary is practiced, in which voters unaffiliated with a party (independents) may choose a party primary in which to vote. In an open primary, any voter may vote in any party's primary. In all of these systems, a voter may participate in only one primary; that is, a voter who casts a vote for a candidate standing for the Republican nomination for president cannot cast a vote for a candidate standing for the Democratic nomination, or vice versa. A few states once staged a blanket primary, in which voters could vote for one candidate in multiple primaries, but the practice was struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court in the 2000 case of California Democratic Party v. Jones as violating the freedom of assembly guaranteed by the First Amendment.
Under the 2008 Democratic Party selection rules, adopted in 2006, delegates are selected under proportional representation, with a candidate requiring a minimum threshold of 15% in a state in order to receive delegates. In addition, the Democratic Party has the right to reject any candidate under their bylaws. Each state publishes a Delegate Selection Plan that notes the mechanics of calculating the number of delegates per congressional district, and how votes are transferred from local conventions to the state and national convention.
The Republican Party's 2008 rules leave more discretion to the states in choosing a method of allocating delegates. As a result, states variously apply the statewide winner-take-all method (e.g., New York), district- and state-level winner-take-all (e.g., California), or proportional allocation (e.g., Massachusetts).
Delegates to the national convention were usually selected at state conventions whose own delegates were chosen by district conventions. Sometimes they were dominated by intrigue between political bosses who controlled delegates; the national convention was far from democratic or transparent. Progressive Era reformers looked to the primary election as a way to measure popular opinion of candidates, as opposed to the opinion of the bosses. In 1910, Oregon became the first state to establish a presidential preference primary in which the delegates to the National Convention were required to support the winner of the primary at the convention. By 1912, twelve states either selected delegates in primaries, used a preferential primary, or both. By 1920 there were 20 states with primaries, but some went back and from 1936 to 1968,12 states used them. (Ware p 248)
The primary received its first major test in the 1912 election pitting incumbent President William Howard Taft against challengers Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson. Roosevelt proved the most popular candidate, but as most primaries were non-binding "preference" shows and held in only fourteen of the-then forty-eight states, the Republican nomination went to Taft, who controlled the convention.
Seeking to boost voter turnout, New Hampshire simplified its ballot access laws in 1949. In the ensuing "beauty contest" of 1952, Republican Dwight Eisenhower demonstrated his broad voter appeal by out polling the favored Robert A. Taft, "Mr. Republican." Also, Democrat Estes Kefauver defeated incumbent President Harry S. Truman, leading the latter to decide not to run for another term. The first-in-the-nation New Hampshire primary has since become a widely-observed test of candidates' viability.
The impetus for national adoption of the binding primary election was the chaotic 1968 Democratic National Convention. Vice President Hubert Humphrey secured the nomination despite primary victories and other shows of support for Senator Eugene McCarthy, running against Humphrey on a strong anti-Vietnam War platform. After this, a Democratic National Committee-commissioned panel led by Senator George McGovern recommended that states adopt new rules to assure wider participation. A large number of states, faced with the need to conform to more detailed rules for the selection of national delegates, chose a presidential primary as an easier way to come into compliance with the new national Democratic Party rules. The result was that many more future delegates would be selected by a state presidential primary. The Republicans also adopted many more state presidential primaries.
With the broadened use of the primary system, states have tried to increase their influence in the nomination process. One tactic has been to create geographic blocs to encourage candidates to spend time in a region. Vermont and Massachusetts attempted to stage a joint New England primary on the first Tuesday of March, but New Hampshire refused to participate so it could retain its traditional place as the first primary. The first successful regional primary was Super Tuesday of March 8, 1988, in which nine Southern states united in the hope that the Democrats would select a candidate in line with Southern interests.
Another trend is to stage earlier and earlier primaries, given impetus by Super Tuesday and the mid-1990s move (since repealed) of the California primary and its bloc of votes—the largest in the nation—from June to March. In order to retain its tradition as the first primary in the country (and adhere to a state law which requires it to be), New Hampshire's primary has moved forward steadily, from early March to early January.
Although the addition of Nevada to the early primaries in 2008 was done to equalize representativeness in the country, this change does little to represent the entire country.
In 2005, the primary commission of the Democratic National Committee began considering removing New Hampshire and Iowa from the top of the calendar. A revised system was supposed to take effect beginning in 2008; however, it has not received approval, so New Hampshire and Iowa are still the first primaries in 2008. New Hampshire is fighting back by obliging candidates who want to campaign in the state to pledge to uphold that primary as the first one.
In such a primary season, however, many primaries will fall on the same day, forcing candidates to choose where to spend their time and resources. Indeed, Super Tuesday was created deliberately to increase the influence of the South. When states cannot agree to coordinate primaries, however, attention flows to larger states with large numbers of delegates at the expense of smaller ones. Because the candidate's time is limited, paid advertising may play a greater role. Moreover, a compressed calendar limits the ability of lesser-known candidates to corral resources and raise their visibility among voters, especially when a better-known candidate enjoys the financial and institutional backing of the party establishment.
In an article from Detroit News, Tennessee Senator William (Bill) Brock said about front-running, "Today, too many people in too many states have no voice in the election of our major party nominees. For them, the nominations are over before they have begun."
One reform concept is the graduated random Presidential primary system, variations of which have been referred to as the American Plan or the California Plan. This plan starts with small primaries, and gradually moves up to larger ones, in 10 steps, with states chosen at random. The idea is that fewer initial primaries, typically in smaller states, would allow grassroots campaigns to score early successes and pick up steam. However, since states are chosen at random, travel costs may still be significant.
A commission empaneled by the Republican National Committee recommended the Delaware Plan in 2000. This plan had states grouped by size into four groups, with the smallest primaries first, then the next-smallest, and so on. Populous states objected to the plan, however, because it would have always scheduled their primaries at the end of the season. Other criticisms included the wide geographic range of the states, necessitating high travel costs. The Delaware Plan was put to vote at Republican National Convention of 2000 and rejected.
The National Association of Secretaries of State has endorsed a rotating regional primary system, with the country split into four regions: the West, the Midwest, the South, and the Northeast. Unlike the Delaware Plan and the American Plan, the Rotating Regional Primary System would lower campaigning costs by restricting groups of primaries to single, contiguous regions. Criticisms of the regional plan include the higher entry costs than the other plans (since 1/4 of the country would vote in the first regional), and the political bias of certain regions (the South or the Northeast) unduly influencing the selection of a nominee.
A national primary has been proposed, a single day on which all state primaries and caucuses would be held, with over 120 bills offered in Congress.
In the 2008 Republican primary, states that ran early primaries were punished by a reduction of 50% in the number of delegates they could send to the national convention. Extension of this idea would set timing tiers, under which states that ran earlier primaries would send proportionally less delegates to the national convention, and states that waited would get a higher proportional number of delegates to the convention.
For example, the party may allow primaries before March 1st to send 40% of delegates; those during March can send 60%; those during April can send 80%; those during May can send 100%; and those during June can send 120%.
The effect of such a plan would be clumping of primaries at the beginning of each month. It would still allow states to determine the timing of their own primaries, while giving them some incentive to hold primaries later. The disadvantage of the timing adjustment method is that it does not reduce travel time as the regional plans do.
A balanced primary system has been proposed. It seeks to improve on the current system, while avoiding the problems associated with other reform proposals. Under this plan, primary contests would be held during 13 out of the 18 weeks, starting in late January and ending in late May. California would vote about halfway through the process. Before California votes, each week’s contest would choose about 12% of the delegates necessary for the nomination, from a single state, or a group of contiguous states. After California votes, the contests would award more delegates in larger groups of states, since the positions of the hopefuls would be better known by then.
To provide balance, diversity in each contest would be maximized. Liberal states would be paired with conservative states; urban areas would be mixed with rural areas. The contests would move around so that each region of the country would award some delegates before California votes. In subsequent years, groups of states could trade off dates, so that the same states did not vote early in every election.
The advantages of this system include the feature that lesser known candidates could still have a chance by using retail politics in small states early, without giving those early small states too much influence. Travel time and advertising cost would be minimized by requiring that groups of states be contiguous, thus saving the hopefuls’ time and money. The disadvantage is that the careful balance would require the cooperation of the great majority of the states, making the plan more difficult to implement.