By the time the United States presidential election is upon us towards the end of 2016, everything ought to seem very simple, a straightforward slugfest between a Democrat and a Republican with the prize the occupancy of the White House and leadership of what is still the most powerful nation in the world. But the nominating process ahead of presidential elections is an exceedingly, sometimes bewilderingly complex affair, which will progress through primaries and caucuses from February until June, before the country collectively goes to the polls on 8 November. The United States Constitution pays no mind to this nominating process, which differs significantly from state to state, and challenges concepts of democracy at every junction.
Open primaries accept voters of any affiliation. This allows those sympathetic to the Democratic Party to vote for a Republican candidate in a Republican primary and vice versa, making sabotage an enticing prospect in some states. The only caveat is that voters are expected to vote in only one primary. Closed primaries by contrast are limited to registered party members. And in several states with semi-closed primaries, registered party members are restricted to their own party’s primary, while unaffiliated voters are allowed to pick a side and make their choice.
The situation is different again in Washington and California, and in Louisiana it shifts further still. Eschewing party-specific primaries, in these states candidates from across the political spectrum all run on the same ballot, with the top two in the vote meeting head-to-head to contest November’s presidential election.
Open, closed, or semi-closed, primaries are organised by state and local governments. On the other hand caucuses are often organised by local party members. Held instead of primaries in a few states, caucuses forego statewide polling booths for small gatherings of people, who show their support for candidates by raising their hands or splintering into groups. In the Iowa caucuses on 1 February – the first event on the primary and caucus calendar, which despite its size plays an important role in shaping the rest of the race – a handful of precincts resorted to the toss of a coin to separate Democratic candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, after sixty caucus attendees went missing and left neither candidate with an overall majority.
In most cases a primary or caucus is an indirect election. Instead of voting directly for a candidate, voters attempt to bind the delegates apportioned to their state to vote for their preferred candidate at national convention. It is only at these national conventions that each party’s presidential candidate is confirmed. The type of voting system used in primaries and caucuses – and the manner in which delegates are bound – varies from proportional systems with thresholds to formulations on first-past-the-post or winner-takes-all. This means that delegates from a state might arrive at their party’s national convention split proportionally between several candidates, or collectively behind one candidate.
The parties determine how many delegates they will apportion to each state. And beyond bound or ‘pledged’ delegates, both the Democratic and the Republican national conventions incorporate unbound or ‘unpledged’ delegates who are free to vote however they wish. The number of unpledged Republican delegates is fairly small, but there are 522 unpledged Democratic superdelegates, a considerable group given that a successful Democratic candidate will need 2,383 delegates in total to become the party’s presidential nominee. Meanwhile a Republican candidate will need to secure 1,237 delegates if they are to avoid a contested convention, which would allow delegates to effectively unbind themselves from the results of primaries and caucuses and cut deals in the second and third round of convention votes.
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On the Democratic side, in a two-horse race, February saw wins for Hillary Clinton in Iowa, Nevada, and South Carolina, while Bernie Sanders took New Hampshire. For the Republicans, after stuttering to second place behind Ted Cruz in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada were all won by Donald Trump, with Jeb Bush the most notable among a flurry of early withdrawals. So the remaining candidates headed into March and what is being billed this year as the first of as many as three Super Tuesdays, with lesser iterations due to take place on 15 March and 26 April.
For both parties primaries were held in Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Massachusetts, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, Vermont, and Virginia, and caucuses in Colorado and Minnesota. In addition, Republican caucuses took place in Alaska, North Dakota, and Wyoming, and a Democratic caucuses commenced in the territory of American Samoa. With Texas the big prize, in all almost half of the 1,237 delegates required by successful Republican candidates were up for grabs, while 880 delegates were on offer for the Democratic candidates, more than one-third of those needed if they are to become their party’s nominee.
In the Democratic contest Hillary Clinton dominated the south, winning in Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia. Only Oklahoma was left to Bernie Sanders, who in the north took Colorado, Minnesota, and Vermont, with Massachusetts and American Samoa falling to Clinton. This gave Clinton 518 pledged delegates on the day and Sanders 347, bolstering Clinton’s lead but leaving Sanders steadily in the race.
The Republican primaries and caucuses concluded with wins for Donald Trump in Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Massachusetts, Tennessee, Vermont and Virginia, for Ted Cruz in Alaska, Oklahoma, and Texas, and for Marco Rubio in Minnesota, leaving John Kasich and Ben Carson with no states, although Kasich finished second in Vermont and Massachusetts. The caucuses in North Dakota and Wyoming are little more than local gatherings, with no binding polls or votes, delegates from these states officially sent to national convention unpledged and free to settle on any candidate. As a result on Tuesday, Trump gained 254 delegates, with 218 for Cruz, 96 for Rubio, 21 for Kasich, and just 3 for Carson, leaving his campaign in a perilous position.