How do primaries work?

A viewer asked this question on 8/5/2000:

I am writing a speech for a class about the presidential election process and was wondering if you knew how it all works. I roughly know about the electoral college and everything like that, but I was interested in the primaries and the campaign and the conventions. Thank you very much for your help.

JesseGordon gave this response on 8/5/2000:

Here's an outline of primaries and conventions:

1. The primaries are votes within each party to decide who will be the candidate representing the party in the general election.

2. When you vote in the primaries, you're actually selecting delegates to attend the party convention and vote for the candidate you voted for. So when Bush won Colorado, what that means is that he got most of CO's delegates to the GOP convention to represent him.

3. The number of delegates for each state is proportional to the population of that state. The Democrats use a higher ratio than the Republicans, which means they have more delegates overall. So from Colorado, the Democrats selected 61 delegates and the Republicans selected 40. The number for Dems & Reps in each state can be found in the "primary schedule" section of

4. Those available delegates are split up based on how the vote went within the party in each state. For example, in Colorado, Bush won 65% of the vote and got 28 of the 40 delegates. McCain got 27% of the vote and got 12 delegates. Keyes got 7% of the vote but got no delegates, because it's not exactly a proportional split -- it's decided by majority in each district (the details differ from state to state). You can see the results for Colorado at ado and can link to every state's results on that page.

5. The conventions are effectively over when one candidate gets over half of the total national delegates, which gives him a majority at the convention. That happened in March for both Bush & Gore, so the primaries after March didn't matter very much. The plan for 2004 is supposed to be that all the large states have their primaries last, so not so many states as this time have meaningless primaries.

6. The delegates from each state meet at the convention to vote for the candidate they represent. They have a big party, wear silly hats, and hold up signs saying things like "Colorado for McCain". This year, since the convention was a sure thing for Bush, it was all just a show. If no candidate has a majority going into the convention, the candidate gets decided there.

7. The delegates determined in the primaries are committed to vote for their candidate only on the first ballot at the convention. After that, they can vote for anyone. McCain "released" his delegates to vote for Bush so that Bush could have a unanimous vote. Bradley will likely do the same for Gore next week.

8. At the convention, the party delegates also write the official party platform. At the GOP convention, there was some controversy over whether the platform would oppose abortion, among other issues. Bush influenced the platform, but isn't bound by it, so the platform's abortion view differs from his.

9. The whole delegate system was intended to replace the "smoke-filled rooms" where powerful members of the party secretly chose a candidate. The Constitution doesn't talk about how party nominees are chosen, so every party can decide for themselves. Smoke-filled rooms and secret processes are perfectly legal; we just use this primary process because people like it better.

Anonymous asked this question on 1/24/2000:

Could someone explain to me the difference between presidential primaries and caucuses? Iowa is having a caucus - New Hampshire is having a primary. I'm confused. HELP!

budgetanalyst gave this response on 1/27/2000:

A primary is an election that happens to take place before the main election. It is run with secret ballots and strict rules under state law. Voters may or may not be limited in the what they may vote for - some states restrict voters to candidates from their declared party, others do not.

A caucus is a bunch of people of a political party who show up at a party meeting and decide, by whatever system they want to use, who their choice is.

Anonymous asked this question on 8/12/2000:

How are delegates to the political conventions chosen?

stevehaddock gave this response on 8/12/2000:

Delegates are chosen in the primary elections that precede the presidential election. Each state is given a number of delegates proportional to its population. Each state has its own method of choosing delegates. Some give all their delegates to the winner, some break them down by districts, and others dole them out depending on the percentage of the total vote each candidate receives.

Nowadays, all delegates are "pledged" to a candidate before they are elected to go to the convention. However, these pledges don't last past the first round and, after that, delegates are free agents. Prior to this, delegates elected on behalf of one candidate often went to the convention and made deals with one of the other candidates, essentially making the primaries meaningless. Now, with pledged delegates, it is the conventions that are probably out of date as it has been a long time since there was even a second ballot at either major convention. (Compare this to the 19th century where at one point the Whig convention went through over 250 ballots to elect a majority candidate).

Each party has its own method of putting up delegates for election at the primaries. Generally, you have to be a part of the party organization and pledge support for one (but just one) of the candidates.

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