election q&a

What You Need to Know About the Primaries


What is a primary?

It is an election by secret ballot in which voters choose a political party’s candidate for office in an election. Primaries are held for most public offices, including the presidency. In a closed primary, voters must declare which party they support and can vote only in that party’s primary. In an open primary, voters from any political party can participate. For the presidential race, some states have winner-take-all primaries. That means the candidate with the most votes claims all that state’s delegates (see below). Other states award delegates by proportion. In a proportional primary, a candidate who won 20 percent of the vote would get 20 percent of that state’s delegates.

What is a caucus?

Although most states hold primaries, caucuses are another way political parties nominate candidates for election. Caucuses are a series of meetings held across a state. At these meetings, party members discuss the candidates, and then openly vote for state delegates who represent the candidate they support. Those state delegates, in turn, choose delegates to attend the national convention, where they are expected to support the candidate whom they had pledged to support.

What is a delegate?

A delegate is a member of a political party who helps determine the party’s presidential nominee. Delegates are usually longtime party members, and they vote on the nominee at the party’s national convention (see below). Most of them are required to vote for a certain candidate. Their vote is determined by the result of primaries or caucuses in their home states. However, some delegates are unpledged. That means they can vote as they wish.

What is Super Tuesday?

This is a single day when many primary elections are held. First begun in 1988, Super Tuesday usually takes place on a Tuesday in March. This year it falls on March 6. Ten states will vote on Republican presidential nominees on that day. Super Tuesday is not the only day on which several primaries or caucuses are held. But more political contests are held on this day than on any other during primary season.

Do U.S. territories vote in the primaries?

Yes. A territory is a part of the United States that has its own government but is not considered a state. Voters in U.S. territories do hold primaries and caucuses to help select the party nominees for President. But because territories are not states, their citizens do not get to vote for the President in the general election. These include American Samoa, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico, and the United States Virgin Islands.

Which Republicans are seeking their party’s nomination for President?

You can find out more about Michele Bachmann, Newt Gingrich, Ron Paul, Rick Perry, Mitt Romney, and other Republican candidates at Who’s Who.

Which Democrats are seeking their party’s nomination for President?

Barack Obama is the only major Democratic candidate this year. Obama is an incumbent President, which means he is already in office and is running for re-election. Incumbent Presidents usually—but not always—face little serious opposition in the primaries and caucuses. This year, Obama faces no major opposition.

What happens at a political party’s national convention?

Each major party holds a national convention after the primaries and caucuses. Republicans will choose their presidential candidate there, based on the results of the primaries and caucuses. They will also choose a vice presidential candidate. The Republican National Convention will be held August 27 to 30 in Tampa, Florida. A week later, the Democratic National Convention will be held in Charlotte, North Carolina. Barack Obama will most likely be the presidential candidate, and current Vice President Joseph Biden will most likely be his running mate.

What happens after the conventions?

The two major candidates will launch their campaigns. Both sides will make speeches, run ads, and take part in televised debates. The general election this year will be held on November 6.


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What You Need to Know About the Conventions
Get ready for this summer's most important electoral events with this guide to political party conventions.

What You Need to Know About the Primaries
Find out more about how candidates are nominated to run for President.