Front Range Community College Blog

Presidential Primaries and Caucuses Explained

The 2016 presidential campaign has been seriously underway for quite a while now. But what we’ve seen so far is just the preseason. In fact, the show is just about to get started, officially.

It begins Feb. 1

On Monday, Feb. 1, Iowa will hold its first-in-the-nation presidential caucuses; and on the following Tuesday, New Hampshire will hold the first presidential primary. Thus begins the festive season of state caucuses and primaries which bounces around the country and concludes with the California primary on June 7.

Why Iowa & New Hampshire?

Iowa and New Hampshire get to go first because of the quirky evolution of modern presidential campaigns. Because both states are predominantly white in terms of ethnicity, the parties have allowed Nevada, with a large Hispanic population, and South Carolina, with a large black population, to hold the next primaries and caucuses (this year in late February).

What is happening in these state contests?

The candidates will be racking up delegates to the national party conventions this summer, where each party will nominate their candidate to stand in the November election.

How delegates are tallied.

Say Hillary Clinton wins the Iowa Democratic caucuses with 50 percent of the vote. Clinton will then receive 50 percent of Iowa’s 52 delegates (26) to the Democratic National Convention. As the process continues in each state, the parties and media track who is ahead in terms of the numbers of delegates won. When one candidate wins a majority of the total delegates to a national party convention, then that candidate is declared the winner, that is, the party’s nominee for president. (The process is actually a bit more complicated than what I have described. If you are a real political junkie and want to know the finer points, there is an excellent article at https://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/R42533.pdf.)

What is a brokered convention?

It is possible, if the race is close and if there are many candidates, that no one will win a majority of delegates before the national convention. This would result in a “brokered convention” where the nominee will be decided through negotiations and compromises at the national meeting.

Super Tuesday is March 1

Each election season has a “Super Tuesday,” where lots of states hold primaries and caucuses on the same day. This year’s Super Tuesday is March 1, when 13 states hold their primaries and caucuses. Colorado is one of those states.

Colorado caucuses

In Colorado, we have caucuses. A primary is like a regular election, but a caucus is a meeting of party members from a neighborhood. During the meeting—which may include speeches, discussion, and other party business—a vote, called a presidential straw poll, is taken, and delegates to the party conventions are selected on the basis of that vote. Each state decides whether it wants to hold primaries or caucuses.

Those who attend the Democratic caucuses in Colorado will vote in the straw poll and select delegates based on the results. However, the Colorado Republican Party (for some complex reasons) has decided not to hold a presidential straw poll at the Republican caucuses. The caucuses will still take place, but the delegates elected will not be pledged or committed to any particular candidate.

To speak or vote at a party caucus, one needs to be a registered voter and registered as a member of the party. The registration deadline for the caucuses passed in early January. So, only those who were registered as Democrats by the deadline will be able to vote at the Colorado Democratic caucuses on Tuesday, March 1.

In my next blog, I’ll explain what exactly happens at a caucus and more about the Colorado caucuses in particular. But in the next month, we’ll begin to get an idea of how the race is shaping up.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jeff Borg is a Political Science faculty member at Front Range Community College-Larimer Campus. An avid hiker and an ordained minister, he teaches everything from American Government to International Relations.