Primary election

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In the American electoral system, a primary election is an election that determines the nominee for each political party, who then competes for the office in the general election. A presidential primary is a state election that picks the delegates committed to nominate particular candidates for president of the United States. A presidential caucus, as in Iowa, requires voters to meet together for several hours in face-to-face meetings that select county delegates, who eventually pick the delegates to the national convention. No other country uses primaries; they choose their candidates in party conventions.

Primary elections are held on every level and branch of American government. However, only the two major parties (Republican and Democrat) use primaries; third parties (such as Libertarian and Green) use conventions.


Primaries were introduced in the Progressive Era in the early 20th century to weaken the power of bosses and make the system more democratic. In presidential elections, they became important starting in 1952, when the first-in-the-nation New Hampshire Primary helped give Dwight D. Eisenhower the Republican nomination, and knocked Harry S. Truman out of the Democratic race because of his poor showing. In 1964, Lyndon B. Johnson ended his reelection campaign after doing poorly in New Hampshire.

As a result of the 1968 McGovern-Fraser Commission, both parties changed their rules to emphasize presidential primaries, leaving the caucus system in use by only a few states.

In recent decades, New Hampshire holds the first primary a few days after Iowa holds the first caucus. That gives these two states enormous leverage, as the candidates and the media focus there. New Hampshire and Iowa receive about half of all the media attention given all primaries.


A primary may either be an open primary or a closed primary in most cases.

In a closed primary, a voter must (upon registering to vote) declare his/her party affiliation or declare as an independent. Only voters who affiliate with a party are eligible to vote in that party's primary elections. Oklahoma and Florida are among states who use closed primaries.

In an open primary, a voter is not required to declare a party affiliation until Election Day (including early voting), when s/he can arrive at a primary and declare his/her intention to vote in it. However, the voter can only vote in one party's primary election. Texas is among states which use open primaries.[1]

Jungle primary

Some states, such as California, Louisiana, and Washington, have what is known as a jungle primary, where every candidate, regardless of party, competes together in the primary election and the top two candidates, also regardless of party, are able to face each other in the general election. Jungle primaries are generally supported by those on the Left, and in California, they have weakened GOP power and made the Democrat Party more left-wing.[2] Contrary to expectations that the jungle primary would lead to more moderate candidates, they have become more polarized under California's primary system.[3]


The primary allows voters to choose between different candidates of the political parties, perhaps representing different wings of the party. For example, a Republican primary may choose between a range of candidates from moderate to conservative. Gallup's 2008 polling data indicated a trend in primary elections towards more conservative candidates, despite the more liberal result in the general election.

In many states, the cost of conducting a primary election is funding by the taxpayers, while the cost of a caucus is funded by the political party. Political parties, in turn, recover those costs through filing fees imposed on the candidates. Voting in a primary is more convenient because the election laws of the state apply, including a local polling place for each precinct; all-day voting hours; and absentee voting. A caucus is usually held in central locations and in many states, all voters must be present at the same time in the same location.

Control and impact of the primary

Each political party sets its own internal rules (sometimes called a "Party Plan of Organization"). Each state enacts its own election laws that governs both primaries as well as general elections. Tensions result between the party leaders that have political reasons for wanting rules which may favor certain candidates or factions and the state legislators that have their own priorities and agendas. For example, the legislature and party leaders of New Hampshire want to be the first primary in the nation and do not want other primaries to follow it quickly. Other states want to also have early primaries so as to have a greater voice in selecting a Presidential candidate. As a result, party rules were written to sanction states other than New Hampshire if they schedule their primaries "too early" with the loss of convention delegates.

Both political parties and state laws have attempted to control or limit the discretion of convention delegates. Historically, party conventions imposed "the unit rule" which cast all of a state's votes for the candidate that received a majority of convention delegate's votes instead of allowing each individual delegate's vote to count separately. The post-1968 reforms that promoted primaries to select convention delegates abolished the unit rule. Yet, some states provide for "winner take all" primaries which allow delegates that are pledged to a candidate to take all of the state's convention delegate seats rather than awarding the seats in proportion to the votes of the candidates. Some states impose a legal obligation upon the convention delegates to vote for the candidate to which they are pledged, while in other states, "pledged" delegates can change their minds about how they will vote without penalty.

States set the rules for a candidate appearing on a primary ballot. Typically, the candidate must gather signatures on petitions to show support. The Democratic party adopted a rule specifying that a candidate needs only 5,000 voter signatures to appear on the primary ballot, and that if a state law requires more signatures, then the state will be penalized in sending delegates to the convention.[4]

In sum, the control of the conduct of primaries is a shared responsibility of both the state and the political parties.

Too early?

states move up primaries earlier and earlier; in 2008 4 states held primaries in January and 21 in February

In recent years the primary seasons has come earlier and earlier, as states move up to earlier dates in the hope it will give them more leverage. For example, Barry Goldwater won the 1964 nomination because he won the last primary in California. The logic is faulty—in highly contested races the later primaries have more leverage. Thus in 2008 California gave up its traditional last-in-the-nation role and joined 20 other states on Super Tuesday. Neither the candidates nor the voters paid it much attention. Michigan and Florida moved up their primaries in defiance of national Democratic Party rules and were penalized. The result is the primary season is extended and is far more expensive, and no state gets an advantage—except for Iowa and New Hampshire, which now have dates in early January.

In late 2009 the two national parties are meeting to find a common solution.

Further reading

  • Duncan, Dayton. Grass roots: one year in the life of the New Hampshire presidential primary (1991) 436 pages; on 1988 campaign
  • Johnson, Haynes, and Dan Balz. The Battle for America 2008: The Story of an Extraordinary Election (2009), excellent history of 2008 primaries
  • Kamarck, Elaine C. Primary Politics: How Presidential Candidates Have Shaped the Modern Nominating System (2009) excerpt and text search


  1. Texas allows a voter who didn't vote in a primary election to vote in a subsequent runoff election (but again, only for one party); a voter who voted in one party's primary can't subsequently vote in the other party's runoff election. Also, a Texas voter who participated in a primary cannot then participate in another party's convention, nor can the voter sign a petition for an independent candidate.
  2. Fleischman, Jon (October 18, 2017). FLEISCHMAN: CA GOP Has Fared Poorly in ‘Jungle Primary’ Era. Breitbart News. Retrieved October 19, 2017.
  3. McCammond, Alexi (June 2, 2018). California's "jungle primary" isn't working. Axios. Retrieved June 2, 2018.
  4. Hartfield, Elizabeth. "Ballot Rules: Easiest, Toughest States for Candidates", ABC News, January 11, 2012. Retrieved on May 9, 2016.