The series of U.S. presidential primaries is one of the first steps in the process of electing a President of the United States. The primary elections provide a method for U.S. political parties to nominate and unite behind one popularly chosen candidate for the Presidency.
In most democracies, top-tier nominees are chosen by a relatively small number of political party leaders and activists. In the United States, however, citizens in many states may participate in a caucuses of candidate supporters or larger primary elections to select a national nominee. This has not always been the case, however; until the latter half of the 20th century, nominees were indeed chosen by a nominating convention of mostly party leaders. Direct primaries were first introduced at the local and state level as party of the Progressive Era reforms of the early 20th century.
Despite this, direct primaries were not fully used for national candidates until the latter half of the 20th century. As late as 1968, Hubert Humphrey won the Democratic party nomination without entering a single primary. Humphrey's nomination split the Democratic party (see 1968 Democratic National Convention) over the issue of the Vietnam War. Republicans had already begun moving toward popular nomination when Senator Barry Goldwater won the 1964 nomination by defeating Nelson Rockefeller on the California primary. Popular participation in the nominating process became de facto by 1976 when little-known Jimmy Carter won the Democratic nomination.
Today, both the Democratic and Republican parties hold a series of caucuses and primaries from January through June of a presidential election year. In any given state, the parties typically hold their caucus or primary election on the same date. Who is eligible to vote in a primary depends on the system in use in each state. In a closed primary, only voters registered with the party may vote. In a semi-closed primary, voters unaffiliated with a party (independents) may choose a party primary in which to vote. In an open primary, any voter may vote in any party's primary.
The long process of choosing the President of the United States begins with a series of individual state primary elections, in which voters in particular parties express their preference among a series of candidates. While typically voting for a particular candidate, voters actually choose a slate of delegates for each party to represent that state at the party's political convention. The delegates gather at each party's nominating convention held several months prior to the general election. There, the delegates formally submit their votes for the nominees, and the person with the most votes becomes the party's Presidential candidate for the general election.
The primary elections begin as early as January of the election year and take place through the spring, culminating in the mid-summer national convention of each political party. Campaigning for the primaries often begins six to 12 months before the first primary, almost two years before the general election. Incumbent presidents seeking re-election have nearly always won their party's nomination (Franklin Pierce, Grover Cleveland, and arguably Lyndon Johnson are exceptions).
The best-known of the American presidential primaries is the one in New Hampshire, because it is the first in each quadrennial cycle. Although established in 1916, this primary drew little attention until 1952, when a change in proceedings allowed more candidates to be listed on the ballot. That created a contest that drew notice from then-new television coverage, and its importance was cemented when Jimmy Carter took a surprise win in 1976 and rode it to the presidency.
In the late 1970s, the New Hampshire Legislature passed laws designed to guarantee that their primary would always come first — a status it has successfully defended from other states who envy the attention. The main competition comes from Iowa, which holds a less-binding caucus vote a week or two before the New Hampshire primary. Some people claim that the current primary system is unfair, because it places undue emphasis on New Hampshire and Iowa, which they claim are not representative of the nation as a whole.
Since the advent of "Super Tuesday" in 1988, there has been a trend towards "front-loading" state primaries--moving their dates forward as much as possible, so that more primaries are bunched together earlier in the campaign season. As a result, in the 2004 Democratic primary schedule, for instance, the nominee was already known by early March; in the past, the nominee was often not known until June, when the last of the primaries were held, or even until the late-summer convention. A number of states do not have primaries, citing the costs of the election and the irrelevance of primaries late in the nominating cycle.
There are several proposals of reforming the primary system. Some reformers have called for a single nationwide primary to be held on one day. Others point out that requiring candidates to campaign in every state simultaneously would exacerbate the problem of campaigns being dominated by the candidates who raise the most money. Alternative reform concepts would return the presidential primary season to a more relaxed schedule. Fewer primaries in smaller states would allow grassroots campaigns to score early successes and pick up steam. With this idea in mind, a commission empaneled by the Republican Party recommended the Delaware Plan in 2000; however, populous states objected to the plan because it would have always scheduled their primaries at the end of the season. The Delaware Plan was put to vote at Republican National Convention of 2000 and rejected.
Types of primaries
List of primaries