primaries and caucuses

From The New Book of Knowledge

U.S. political parties choose candidates for public office through primary elections and caucuses. A primary is a direct election. Party members vote for the candidate they prefer. A caucus is a meeting of party members. They gather to state their preferences.


In most states the parties hold closed primaries. People must be party members to vote. Some states have open primaries. In these, members of one party may vote in another party's primary. But a voter may participate in only one party's primary. Some candidates were chosen in direct primary elections in the 1800s. But most were chosen by party leaders at state and local party conventions. Primaries were not widely held until the early 1900s. At that time states began to pass laws providing for these elections.

Primaries were meant to give more power to the people. But the results have been mixed. Sometimes primary winners are outsiders. They would not have been nominated at their party's conventions. But often there is not much competition. This is especially true when someone holding office runs for reelection.

Where one party is very powerful, primary elections have extra weight. That is because the party’s candidate is almost certain to win the general election. Choosing the candidate is most important.


Parties in most states hold primaries to choose presidential candidates. The candidates are not nominated directly in these votes. Instead, voters choose delegates pledged to one presidential hopeful or another. The delegates go to the party’s national convention, where the candidate is named. In some states, delegates are chosen through caucuses. The presidential primaries and caucuses are spread over several months. In each state, the party sets its own date. Iowa and New Hampshire are traditionally the first states to caucus and vote, in January.

There are problems with the primary calendar. One is that a candidate may "lock up" the nomination by winning the early contests. Voters in states that hold primaries later have less say in the choice. This has led some states to move their primary dates forward. In 2008 more than 20 states held primaries on "Super Tuesday," the first Tuesday in February. And the major parties penalized several states that set dates in January.

Primaries are expensive for states to hold. The calendar is also a physical and financial strain on the candidates. They spend months traveling and campaigning in each state. These problems have led to calls for regional, rather than state, primaries. Some people worry that primaries have become major media events. Media coverage tends to emphasize the personalities of candidates. There is less serious discussion of issues.

Another concern is that primaries may not produce candidates with broad support. This is a risk if voter turnout is low. A candidate may win early primaries with the support of a small percentage of voters. That early success might be enough to lock up the nomination. But without broad support, the candidate would not win the election. Despite such concerns, presidential primaries are likely to continue. They are a key part of choosing presidential candidates.
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