The Dummies’ Guide to US Presidential Elections

11:41 pm General

The US presidential primaries

For those following the US presidential primaries from a distance, and wondering what is happening, here’s a brief dummies’ guide to the US presidential primaries and general election. It’s too early to say that Trump has won the Republican primary yet, even though (given his results and the media narrative) he is a strong favourite. To learn more than you will ever need to know about US presidential primaries, read on.

Primaries elect delegates

The presidential candidates are elected by the major parties at their party conventions, held during the Summer before the election. The primary elections are one way that the parties decide who gets to vote in the convention, and who they vote for.

Both parties have the concept of pledged and unpledged delegates – if you are pledged, then your vote in the 1st ballot of the nomination election has been decided in the primary. If you are unpledged, then you are free to change vote at any time. The Democrats have about 15% of their delegates unpledged, these are called superdelegates. The Republican party has about 170 unpledged delegates, representing about 7% of the total delegate count. Each state decides how to award pledged delegates, with a variety of processes which I will describe later.

If no candidate has a majority of delegated on the 1st ballot, then the fun starts – delegates are free to change their affiliation for 2nd and further ballots. This scenario, which used to happen often but now happens rarely, is called a contested or brokered convention. The last brokered convention was in 1952 for the Democrats, and 1948 for the Republicans. We have come close on a number of occasions, most recently 2008 for the Democrats, and 1976 for the Republicans.

Primary states vs caucus states

A primary is a straight vote – you turn up any time during the day, cast your ballot, and leave. Caucuses are different: voting is open, and caucus sites are typically only open for a couple of hours. In Iowa, for example, caucus-goers turn up and have a two hour meeting/debate about the candidates, when people can change who they support before the final count. The way caucuses work varies from state to state.

Turn-out in caucuses is much lower than in primaries, making them much more difficult to predict than primary states. Voters tend to be more committed supporters of the candidates, and caucus states favour candidates who have a strong core of supporters, and a strong “get out the vote” ground game.

Open primaries vs closed primaries

In the United States, when people register to vote, they also declare which party they support. Typically, people declare either Democrat, Republican, or Independent/Unaffiliated.

Some states allow independents to decide whether to vote in the Democratic or Republican primaries on the day of the vote. These primaries are called open primaries. They tend to favour candidates who are seen to be more moderate, and are also watched closely to get an indication of which party has an advantage among independents in the general election. On the other hand, closed primaries tend to favour candidates who appeal to the party base. In general, early primaries this year are open, while more of the primaries in March and later are closed.

Proportional delegate allocation vs winner take all

In the Democratic primaries, all of the primary contests split delegates proportional to the vote received by the candidates, as long as they get a minimum threshold of 15%. However, in the republican primaries, delegates are allocated differently from state to state. Some states have a strict proportional allocation of delegates, some allocate delegates based on the winner of the popular vote per congressional district, and some votes specify a minimum vote threshold of 20% to get any candidates at all, and award all delegates to a candidate who gets over 50% of the vote. Most states have a mix of delegates per congressional district and a number of “at-large” delegates, allocated according to the statewide vote.

For the Republican primaries, all states voting before a specific deadline (March 15th this year) are required to have some kind of proportional delegate distribution. Once that deadline is passed, some states choose a “winner take all” scheme – whoever gets a plurality of the vote receives all of the delegates. From March 15th onward, a number of states choose to allocate all of their candidates to whichever candidate wins the plurality of votes, with the intention of giving a strong mandate to whoever is the most popular candidate left at that point, and to enable the party to unite behind a single candidate. Ohio, Florida and Illinois are three such states, and they award a combined 220 delegates by themselves on March 15th.

Pulling the strings together

What does this all mean? Well, for one thing, it means that in spite of having won a plurality of the vote in 10 of the 15 states contested so far, Donald Trump does not have a lock on the nomination. It is possible that a more conservative candidate like Ted Cruz can rack up delegates in closed primaries and caucuses in states like Louisiana, Kansas, and Kentucky, or that a more mainstream candidate like Marco Rubio or John Kasich makes up ground in winner take all states like Florida, Illinois, and Ohio.

The difficulty for the Republicans is that they still have three viable “not Trump” candidates. As long as there are multiple candidates splitting the non-Trump vote, Trump can keep winning delegates without winning majority support anywhere. But with only about 30% of the total delegates awarded so far, the race is far from over. Given the acrimony in the race to date, there is a good chance that we might see no candidate with a majority of delegates by the convention.

If the candidates get to the convention with 2 or 3 candidates holding big blocks of delegates, but with no-one having a majority, then we would have a brokered convention for the first time in over 60 years. At that point, all bets are off. It is possible that some of the delegates who were pledged to one candidate switch alliances, to vote for one of the others. But it is also possible for a prominent republican who did not compete in the primaries to present themselves to the Convention as a compromise candidate – a senior house Republican with a nationally recognised face like Paul Ryan or Mitch McConnell, or a former candidate like Mitch Romney or Scott Walker. If that were to happen, it would be anyone’s guess who would represent the Republican party in November.

The big difference on the Democratic side is that Democratic states all vote proportionally, and there are more superdelegates.What that means for Bernie Sanders is that, while he is trailing by only about 200 in pledged delegates after 16 contests, he is trailing by over 600 delegates when superdelegates are counted. To be nominated at the Convention, he would need to win upcoming states heavily, and convince a significant number of unpledged superdelegates to change their support from Hillary Clinton. In addition, since the demographics of Super Tuesday states, where he underperformed with respect to expectations, were unfavourable to him, the narrative in the public media is now creating a self-fulfilling prophesy. “Clinton is beating Sanders” will remain the story, until election results cast doubt on that conclusion, and people tend to vote for the frontrunner. With Clinton expected to win the primaries in Louisiana, Michigan, and Mississippi, and with low expectations in this weekend’s caucus states, that narrative is likely to continue unless Sanders can pull off big wins in Florida, Illinois, or Ohio, on March 15th. And even after that, he would need to rack up some big wins in states like New York and California to close the gap on Hillary. Given the state of the race, it is fair to say that Hillary Clinton has a near-lock on the Democratic nomination.

Next time: The Electoral College

After the parties nominate candidates, and the candidates name their running mates, it is on to the general election, and then we meet another of America’s controversial institutions, the Electoral College, which will be elected on Tuesday, November 8th, and which elects the President. How the electoral college works, and how it affects the presidential campaign, and what happens if, for some strange reason, the elctoral college does not give a majority vote to any candidate, will be the subject of another post.


3 Responses

  1. Larry Cafiero Says:

    Overall, fairly accurate, Dave.

    A couple of things, though . . .

    “In the United States, when people register to vote, they also declare which party they support. Typically, people declare either Democrat, Republican, or Independent/Unaffiliated.”

    Generally true, but there are several “third parties” like the Greens, Libertarian, Socialist, and other parties which have ballot status from state to state. But most people either register Democrat, Republican or No Party Affiliation/Non-Affiliated/Independent or whatever they called the I-don’t-want-to-be-in-a-party designation.

    Another observation on something you wrote that needs enhancement is the superdelegate issue, outlined in the second-to-last paragraph. You rightfully note that superdelegates are “unpledged,” and the importance of this is often overlooked. This has come into play in the past where superdelegates who once were for Hillary in 2008 moved to Obama, essentially helping him get the nomination. Superdelegates are fairly fluid and their votes are not etched in stone, and that makes your statement about Bernie Sanders having to “pull off big wins in Florida, Illinois, or Ohio, on March 15th” a little too simplistic (though, clearly, it would be good for him to “pull off big wins” anywhere at this point). Those 600 or so superdelegates may not be there for Hillary come convention-time, and counting them now is essentially “counting your chickens before they’ve hatched.”

    Bear in mind, too, that this was supposed to be an unchallenged cakewalk to the Democratic Party nomination for Hillary. Now it’s not, she’s in a fight, and she’s going to have to address some pretty important issues going forward to appeal to what is essentially half the Democratic Party. So here’s where the numbers don’t matter: Win or lose the Democratic nomination, Sanders’ campaign has done the nation a great service by bringing up a variety of issues that would otherwise not be addressed in a Hillary “coronation.”

    Truth in advertising: I am campaigning for Bernie Sanders in California, though I would gladly vote for Hillary in November if she is nominated, given the screwball fascist lunatics being thrown up — and I do mean “thrown up” — by the Republican Party.

  2. Florian Says:

    Thank you for that explanation. I always wondered where that huge gap between Sanders and Clinton came from.

    This system looks pretty corrupt from a large distance.

  3. Dave Neary Says:

    Thanks for the comment, Larry! I think I got your points into the article when I explained the difference between pledged and unpledged delegates in the first section, and I think my “Typically” covers your additional detail too.

    However, I stand by my analysis of Bernie’s chances – to convince superdelegates to switch allegiance, Bernie will need to do what Obama did in 2008, and win more pledged candidates. Given his current (almost 200) deficit, and his prospects in this week’s primaries, it is likely he will be 250 to 300 pledged delegates behind by Tuesday evening. To make up that shortfall he will need, I maintain, big wins in the big states where he has a chance, and will need to significantly close the gap in other states where the demographics are not as favourable to him. His result in Michigan in Tuesday will be a first test – anything better (for him) than a 60%-40% loss gives him a chance to change the narrative in advance of the 15th, but anything more, and Clinton will keep on trucking along as the frontrunner.

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