How Political Primaries Work

By: Josh Clark & Kathryn Whitbourne  | 
Indiana voters
Voters cast their ballots at a polling place on May 3, 2016 in Fowler, Indiana. Indiana residents were voting to decide the Republican and Democratic presidential nominees. Scott Olson/Getty Images

America before the turn of the 20th century, it could be argued, was in dire straits. The country was slashed in two – expansionism ruled the West as the last of the indigenous American Indian tribes were wiped out or forced onto reservations, and urban strife dominated the established land east of the Mississippi. Amid all of these national growing pains, people looked to the government for help. But the political system was corrupt, and only a handful of well-heeled people influenced the direction of the country.

In response to the social ills America endured, the Progressive Era was born. This nationwide movement produced Prohibition, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), unions and other individual protections. And in the political arena, the lack of a popular voice birthed, among other things, the presidential primary system.


This system was a backlash against the backroom dealings of corrupt politicos. The primary system was meant to transfer the right to elect a presidential candidate from an elite, entitled few into the hands of voters. Voters in each state had a choice among candidates, who now had to pay attention to the issues the public considered important. It alleviated corruption in national American politics.

But it looks like a century is about the shelf life for a reform. Present-day features that have emerged as traditions – such as the Iowa caucus and the Super Tuesday primaries – rub some people the wrong way. To some people, the primaries are little more than smoke and mirrors; despite changes made in the Progressive Era, political power is still in the hands of the few.

Some believe it's time to fix the system. To determine whether or not the primary system is in need of retooling, you've got to understand it first. Read the next page to find out how primaries work.

Types of Primaries

Primary voting
Presidential primary voting – shown here in Los Angeles during the 2004 primary – can be either closed or open.
Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images

A primary closely resembles a general election – when voters choose between candidates from each party for office. In a primary, however, the voter casts his or her vote to determine who will go onto the general election. This is a primary in a nutshell. Although primaries are more straightforward than caucuses – which also help choose a party's candidate for president – the primary process as a whole is somewhat convoluted.

Primaries can be closed or open. For simplicity's sake, let's start with the closed primary. In this type, only registered voters affiliated with a given party have the chance to go to the polls to cast their vote for their chosen candidate within that party. In closed primaries, only Republicans can vote for Republicans and Democrats for Democrats. Independent voters – those who have opted to choose neither party, but are registered voters – aren't allowed to cast a ballot. A closed primary can be modified to allow independents to cast a vote for a candidate from one party or another (this is called a semi-closed primary).


In open primaries, a voter can cast his or her ballot for either party. In most cases, the voter must choose a party to vote for by making a public statement at the polling station. In this circumstance, the voter will tell the election volunteer which party he or she chooses to vote for. He or she will then receive a ballot containing the candidates for that party. In some open primaries, voters may choose which party's candidate to vote for privately in the polling booth.

A third type of primary – the blanket primary – allows voters to vote for whomever they please, without having to affiliate with one party or another, and without making any kind of declaration. California and Washington were both using blanket primaries at the end of the 20th century, but stopped after a 2000 U.S. Supreme Court decision ruled them unconstitutional. It primarily survives in Louisiana in a form called the "nonpartisan blanket primary."

Whom would a blanket primary benefit? Aside from a last-minute change of heart at the polls, why would a Democrat vote for a Republican candidate or a Republican for a Democrat? The simple answer is strategy. Some voters use the primary to vote for the candidate of the other party that has the least chance of winning in the general presidential election. The reasoning goes that if enough voters from the opposite party vote for a lackluster candidate in enough primaries, that candidate will go on to win the opposing party's nomination for president. If this happens, then the disingenuous voters can cast their vote for their party's candidate in the general election, and their candidate will – hopefully – beat the lackluster candidate from the other party soundly.

Regardless of what kind of primary – or caucus – is used by a state, the point is to award delegates to candidates on their way to the national convention. So what's all this about delegates? Who are these people? Find out about the role of delegates on the next page.

Convention Delegates

Texas delegates
Delegates from Texas at the 2004 Republican National Convention
Shaun Heasley/Getty Images

The goal of the primaries is to choose the party's candidate for president. In order for a candidate to receive the nomination, he or she has to win delegates. There are generally two ways to win delegates in primaries. In some cases candidates win by proportion. If a state has 100 delegates and a candidate wins 60 percent of the vote in the state's primary, then that candidate will have 60 delegates from that state at the national convention – the party nomination night. Other states use the winner-takes-all method. This sounds exactly like what it is: A candidate who wins the majority of the vote in a primary – 51 percent – wins all of that state's delegates.

Some favor the proportional method because it closely reflects the feelings of a state's voters. Others favor winner-takes-all, because it keeps primaries competitive by allowing candidates to come from behind with huge gains in key states.


When a candidate wins delegates in a state – either by proportion of votes or winner-takes-all – those delegates are presumed to be committed to voting for that candidate at the convention. Each party has a finite number of delegates who are up for grabs in the primaries. In 2020, the Republican Party had around 2,552 delegates; Democrats offered 4,750 delegates [source: The Green Papers].

To win his or her party's nomination in the presidential race, a candidate must accrue the majority of the delegates. This can be as narrow a victory as just one delegate. A tie may result in more rounds of voting, and the numbers can easily change; a delegate is usually allowed to change his or her vote after the first round of voting.

Delegates are usually people who are involved in their state's politics. They may be volunteers, local party chairs or other interested citizens. In addition to delegates, states also offer uncommitted delegates. These people – sometimes called superdelegates – are usually elected officials from the state.

Superdelegates can pledge their votes without regard to primaries or caucuses – for example, after being courted by a candidate – or they can remain uncommitted until voting begins at the national convention. While standard delegates chosen by votes from ordinary voters are important, superdelegates have a lot of influence as well. In the 2020 primaries, the Democrats will have 771 superdelegates, a sizeable number considering that to win the nomination a Democratic candidate needed 2,375 delegates voting in their favor [source: Ballotpedia].

Superdelegates become especially important when states begin to lose their delegates at the national convention. A party may penalize a state if it doesn't follow party rules or schedules. This can result in a partial or total loss of delegates at the national convention.

Primary seasons usually start with several candidates. Ordinarily, candidates drop out of the race after poor showings as the season wears on. So what happens when a candidate drops out after having won some delegates? This is actually a little murky. Ostensibly, the delegates go to the national convention uncommitted, like superdelegates. There, they should be allowed to vote however they choose.

These delegates may also be folded into another candidate's delegates. If a candidate drops out of the race, he or she may endorse a rival candidate in the same party. Once this happens, the delegates formerly belonging to the candidate may pledge to the endorsed one.

By now you surely see how complex the primary system can be. This is both good and bad, depending on your perception of primaries. Read about some of the problems with primaries – and how to fix them – on the next page.

Problems With Primaries

Iowans caucusing
Iowans in the act of caucusing in 2004. Critics consider Iowa and New Hampshire's perennial first-in-nation status unfair.
Shaun Heasley/Getty Images

In spirit, a primary consists of individuals casting a vote in favor of their preferred candidate. This means that voters have something candidates want: votes. So primaries are a way of forcing candidates to interact with voters. But votes don't go directly to a candidate; instead they come in the form of delegates.

The use of delegates is problematic to some. While delegates are meant to be committed to a single candidate, they aren't bound by law to do so since political parties are private organizations. So a vote cast by a citizen may not go to the chosen candidate at all, if the delegate breaks from his or her obligation. The presence of superdelegates in the primary system – delegates who possess a vote but are beholden to no voter – also make some critics nervous. A standard delegate represents a large amount of voters; superdelegates are equal to one massive vote for an individual.


Another problem with the primaries is that the schedule is considered unfair by many states. Iowa has maintained its first-in-the-nation status since 1972, holding its caucus before any other preferential election. New Hampshire follows second, holding the first primary in the nation, as mandated by that state's laws. Both of these states have been allowed to maintain their position in the primary schedule by both parties, prompting allegations of unfair treatment by other states.

The political parties set the schedule for the primaries during an election cycle. The states may choose to ignore that schedule, however. In 2008, Michigan, South Carolina, Florida and Nevada all moved their primaries to dates before the official earliest date the Democratic Party had scheduled. In response, the party threatened not to count the votes of some of the offending states, effectively rendering the votes cast by residents totally useless. The states, in turn, threatened to sue the party.

A state ultimately decides whether it will hold presidential primaries. After all, it's generally the state that pays to hold the primaries for the parties, and since it's the state's dime, it's the state's decision. But choosing not to hold a primary is not generally a popular move. Kansas came under heavy criticism in 2008 for opting out of the presidential primaries to save $2 million. In response, both the Democratic and Republican parties held caucuses in the state on their own [source: Kansas City Star].

Other states may choose to follow party rules and observe the earliest date states can hold their primaries. In the 2020 election, 14 states will hold primaries on the earliest date – March 3, referred to as Super Tuesday. To critics of the primary system, this frontloading of the schedule resulted in an unfair shift of power away from states that chose to hold their primaries later. In other words, with so many delegates up for grabs early on, states with later primary dates can lose importance. This criticism will likely increase as California has moved its primary date from June to Super Tuesday. With very populous states like California and Texas both voting on this date, the Democratic candidate for president may well be decided on March 3 (the Republican candidate is the incumbent Donald Trump).

As the debate over the value of the U.S. presidential primaries has evolved, so, too, have suggestions for solving any problems with the system. One suggestion for reforming presidential primaries is a rotating schedule, with states taking turns at the head of the pack. Other suggestions include a national primary day, with all states voting on the same date; picking a new state to hold the first primary and having all the smaller states vote first. Naturally there are pros and cons with each approach [source: Kurtzleben].

Lots More Information

  • Greenberg, David. "My vote means nothing." Slate. June 11, 2007.
  • Greenfield, Jeff. "A history of presidential primary resurrections." January 8, 2008. late. 01/09/DI2008010901715.html
  • Hill, Steven. "Fixing the presidential primaries." January 22, 2008. The Baltimore Sun.
  • Marchisio, Jocelyn. "Types of primary elections: Which do you prefer?" Muni League. Fall 2000.
  • Scerer, Micaehl. "The presidential primary is a scam." "Election office fields questions about lack of presidential primary." Kansas City Star. January 11, 2008. questions-about-lack-of-presidential-primary
  • Yoon, Robert, and Levy, Adam P. "Clinton, Romney top early CNN delegate survey." CNN. January 3, 2008.
  • "How does the primary process work?" Project Vote Smart.
  • "NASS regional primaries plan." NASS. =74&Itemid=210
  • "Q&A: US primary elections." BBC. January 19, 2008.
  • "The path to the 2008 presidential nomination." U.S. Department of State. January 16, 2008. 20080107110302hmnietsua0.6430017.html