Election 2008: Primaries and Caucuses


The 2008 Presidential Primaries and Caucuses Map

2008 Presidential Primary Calendar Map


Primaries and Caucuses

Presidential elections in the United States consist of a two-phase process: primary elections and the general election, but  the process is much more complex than that. Each of the two major political parties in the United States must determine who of their candidates will be the party's nominee. This process is achieved through a series of preliminary elections called primary elections (also called direct primaries). Some states have preliminary elections called caucuses. These are meetings of the party membership in public places such as schools, town halls and private homes. Voters demonstrate who their first choice for president is. If that candidate gets at least 15% of the vote, then he or she is still "viable" and can be assigned a proportionate number of delegates to the party's convention. If the candidate failed to achieve "viability," his or her supporters are persuaded to join the camp of another candidate. The final tally is then taken. The caucus system can be confusing and has a tendency to eliminate candidates who come to the election with minimal support. In primaries, by contrast, a candidate can continue to run as long as he or she has the funds to sustain the campaign. The first state to reveal its choice is that of Iowa, which has a  caucus that is seen as a critical part in any candidate's campaign because it points to whom the party's voters see as their front runner. 

Primary elections can also be subject to rules assigned to them by state legislatures. In some states, voters can only vote for candidates of the party to which they belong. This type of primary is called a closed primary. Other states allow voters of different parties to vote for candidates outside of their own party. These types of elections are called open primaries. Open primaries are less of an accurate portrayal of how a given party feels about its potential nominee because it involves voters from other parties involved in cross-party voting, an action that could be used as a strategy for electing the less desirable candidate in the other party. 

The Campaign Begins

The primary election cycle of this presidential election started in early January, 2008, but some of the candidates declared their intention to run as early as 2006. Candidates often form exploratory committees to see what sort of funding it would take to launch a campaign and to gauge how much support there is for their candidacy. Primary elections take place on a state-by-state basis throughout what seems to be the first half of the election year. The New Hampshire primary is always seen as a critical event in the selection process because it gives further definition to the way that each party is leaning regarding its candidates. States that follow may be influenced by New Hampshire's voters in its primary.  A large number of states cast their primary votes on what is called "Super Tuesday." After Super Tuesday, a winner for each party's nomination tends to emerge, but the process is not quite over after that important day.

Each party started out with about ten candidates, from which the field had to be narrowed. To see how the election cycle started, visit the American presidency project website.

Making the Delegates Count

Once each state's party membership has determined its favorites, the candidates are given a number of delegates that will vote for their declared winner at their party's convention. Each party determines the number of delegates needed to win the nomination. The Democrats assigned delegates on a proportional basis, which led to a close contest between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. In the end, Obama had the 2,118 delegates needed to win with 2,201, while Hillary Clinton came in a close second with 1,891. The Republican Party assigned its delegates on a winner-take-all system much like the one that shapes the Electoral College in the general election. John McCain clinched his nomination in April because he had reached the magic number of 1,191 much sooner than did either of his Democratic rivals.

Do you understand?

1. What is the main purpose of the primary elections?

2. Using the map above, during which month are most of the delegates decided?

3. How do primaries and caucuses differ? How are they similar?

4. Which primary election day seems to be the most important when deciding which candidate will represent each party?

5. Some critics of this system say the states that go earlier in the schedule get too much attention and set the tone for the campaign. Should all the states decide who their candidates will be on one national primary day? Why or why not?

To Election Central 2008

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