A Primer on the Primaries

  • Share
  • Read Later

This year, the process through which the major American political parties nominate their presidential candidates began earlier and will be resolved more quickly than ever before. What once was a six-month series of debates and votes has been condensed into a cross-country cacophony of sound bites and TV ads that began with the Iowa caucuses on January 24 and will probably be sewn up six weeks later, on March 7, when 16 states hold primaries.

Here is a TIME.com Q&A to help navigate this speeded-up system.

What are primaries and caucuses?

They're a 20th-century phenomenon in which the public has been given an increasing role in selecting the people who'll run on the major-party tickets.

Primaries use secret ballots, similar to those in general elections. Primary voters choose a slate of delegates who are affiliated with a particular candidate. In most states, those delegates sign a pledge to vote at the state convention for the candidate they represent.

Caucuses are less formal and take place in several stages. Instead of participating in a secret ballot, voters attend regional meetings, where over the course of several hours they listen to delegates stump for the various candidates. In some jurisdictions people still get up and stand single file behind the delegate they plan to support. In later stages of the nomination process, these delegates move on to county or regional caucuses, where they again seek support, and, after two to four lower caucuses, the winning delegates vote in a statewide convention.

Each state regulates its primaries or caucuses differently. In some, voters are required to stay within the party with which they're registered when selecting candidates. In others, they can cross party lines and independent voters can participate.

How has the primary/caucus season changed in recent years?

Until the 1980s, each party typically fielded five or six candidates, who, beginning with the Iowa caucuses, went local, campaigning in counties and townships across the land. But in today's shortened election cycle, a different campaign strategy has emerged: Start earlier, build a huge bankroll, and stick to a few simple issues that cut across geographic boundaries (mostly the old standbys — right to life, eliminating poverty, tax cuts, etc.).

Why does the primary/caucus/convention process keep on changing?

The Constitution contains no guidelines for the nomination process, so it's mostly regulated by the two major parties, which have adjusted the process over the years to both suit their interests and respond to public demands. The Reform party has a less formal process that operates on a different schedule than that of the big two.

Before 1905, party bosses in each state handpicked their choice of candidate, leaving the general population with no say in the electoral process until the general election. Over time, most states switched to the caucuses and primaries, although many of those remained virtually meaningless for decades, as local delegates weren't bound to nominate the candidates who received the most votes. Instead, they would head to state conventions where their votes were bartered among local power brokers, thus keeping the power in the hands of the small cadre of party bosses. State party heads would then show up at the national convention and barter their delegates for concessions from the party's choice of candidate.

Around the time of Watergate, when the American public was growing increasingly disenchanted with the insulated nature of party politics, states began adopting a more open primary system, with a more publicly accountable nominating process. Many states, for instance, began requiring delegates to sign pledges to nominate the candidates for whom they had been stumping. While nominees are still officially announced at the state party conventions, this is now a mere formality in the 48 states that hold primary and caucuses, as the candidates with the most selected delegates are automatically anointed.

The result of this reform was to reduce the importance of national political conventions. The national conventions are now basically spectacles at which the candidates who received the most popular votes are crowned and their running mates are announced.

Do the parties differ in the way candidates are selected?

Yes. The Democratic party has national guidelines, whereas the GOP lets each state run its own system. The Democrats require states to send delegates based on the votes gained by each candidate to the national Democratic convention, where the nominee is officially announced. On the Republican side, some states use a winner-take-all system in which the state's quota of delegates to the national convention is devoted entirely to the candidate who won the most votes in that state.

This year, much attention has been focused on the New York Republican party's nominating process. The New York GOP has an onerous process that requires a candidate to garner signatures in each voting district in order to get listed on a party ballot. This year John McCain, running a close second in the state behind George W. Bush — who has gotten vocal support from state GOP heads, including Governor George Pataki — petitioned a state court to add him to the ballots of more than a dozen upstate districts that left him off. At the same time Steve Forbes, who placed second in Iowa, has sued the Bush campaign in an attempt to get it kicked off the ballot in six congressional districts in New York city by alleging fraud and manipulation of the system.

What are the key dates of the primary/caucus season?

January 24: Iowa caucuses
February 1: New Hampshire primary
February 19: Republican South Carolina primary (seen as a must-win for McCain)
March 7: Fourteen states hold primaries and caucuses; a majority of the delegates will have been selected
March 14: Seven states hold primaries, 70 percent of the delegates will have been selected
June 6: Final primaries — Alabama, Montana, New Jersey and New Mexico
July 31: Republican National Convention in Philadelphia — nomination made official, vice presidential candidate announced August 14: Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles — nomination made official, vice presidential candidate announced
November 7: General presidential election

What should I be looking for as the primary season unfolds?

The thing to watch for this year is what the condensed primary season bodes for the underdog candidates. As recently as the early '80s, the New Hampshire primary — the nation's first — took place the third week in February, and the majority of delegates weren't selected until late May. This year, the New Hampshire primary is February 1, and 70 percent of the delegates will be appointed by "Fat Tuesday," March 14. Most pollsters expect the race to be over by March 7, when 14 states vote, including delegate-heavy California and New York. Also take note of how the GOP primary plays out in the Empire State — with much negative publicity about the nominating process, there will surely be wide-scale calls for reform after the elections.

Why did the primaries and caucuses get so bunched up?

This condensed schedule, known as "front-loading", was initiated by party leaders in states that hosted primaries toward the end of primary season. Most notably, California has jumped from June to early March. Party heads in the later states were complaining that their local issues were ignored by candidates since the campaigns were over by the time their states' turns came up. As a result of the front-loading, however, instead of paying attention to a wider range of states, candidates appear to have no time to hear any local issues after New Hampshire.

What are the arguments for and against front-loading?

Proponents of the condensed schedule say it favors upstart campaigns, allowing underdog candidates who score surprise hits in the early primaries to ride a wave of attention through early March, and maybe sneak away with a win. But critics argue that the shortened season actually deprives upstart campaigns of the chance to build momentum. In years past, a handful of candidates parlayed surprise showings in the early primaries into a sustained accumulation of press coverage, allowing them to build war chests that rivaled the front-runners'. But now there's little time to accumulate contributions once February rolls around. So even though John McCain, for example, scored an impressive win in New Hampshire, he stands a good chance of getting spent into defeat by March by the virtually unlimited resources of George W. Bush. In other words, whoever raises more money before the election (i.e., the party establishment's choice) wins.

What other effects has this shortened season had on the campaign?

To accommodate the shortened nomination cycle, the campaign season has started much earlier — George W. Bush's campaign had raised more money by last July than any previous candidate had ever accumulated in an entire preelection year. "The candidates know they have to make a strong impression early," says TIME chief political correspondent Eric Pooley. "That's why we've seen an almost complete focus on New Hampshire and Iowa. On the Republican side there's also been some focus on South Carolina, where there's a Republican, but not a Democratic, primary on Feb. 19. It's always been the case that the two sides focused on these states early. The difference this year is that local issues in other states won't, for the most part, be important after New Hampshire."

What happens after New Hampshire?

Following the New Hampshire primary, the candidates will have five weeks to gear up for the March 7 14-state torrent. According to Pooley, that's plenty of time for a campaign to regroup from a poor showing in Iowa and/or New Hampshire. But, he says, due to the condensed schedule, after New Hampshire campaigns are now faced with "some tough decisions" about where to allocate their time and money, whereas candidates used to have time to campaign in most states. Democratic hopeful Bill Bradley, for example, is trailing Al Gore in most parts of the country. During the primary hiatus, his camp will have to choose between going on the offensive in the parts of the country where he's trailing or to defend the parts where he's doing well. The March 7 vote includes most of New England, where the ex-senator has some of his strongest support, and a large chunk of the Midwest, a Gore stronghold. Based on Iowa and New Hampshire, the Bradley camp will have to decide whether their man should spend his scarce time shaking hands in Rhode Island and Massachusetts or making up ground by kissing babies in Ohio and Missouri.

What do early wins mean for the candidates?

Few would argue that Bill Bradley and John McCain (and the rest of the GOP crew) need wins in the early primaries to have any realistic shot at sneaking by the party front-runners. While this has always been the case for underdogs, there's probably less room for sneak attacks now than ever before. Bill Bradley's poor showing in Iowa was seen by most as a wake-up call — the ex-Knick needs to either campaign more aggressively or wave good-bye to any chance for the party nod.

What changes could be expected in coming years?

Critics argue that the condensed schedule forces a disproportionate emphasis on Iowa and New Hampshire, while de-emphasizing states that vote later in the process. As a remedy, there've been widespread calls to either prolong the season or to rotate the states that come first, so more regions will be able to reach out and touch future presidents.

Any other factors?

There are some other potential novelties of the shortened primary season that you should be on the lookout for. If George W. can seal up a GOP nod by early March, he'll be able to devote his gargantuan war chest to the general election. In years past, even virtually locked-in candidates have spent their campaign chests in intra-party races. Further, if both party nominations are resolved early, we'll probably be in for the spectacle of four months of campaign coverage devoted primarily to the Trump-Buchanan race for the Reform party nomination, a dialogue that could have a substantial effect on the overall election.