I am sure you have seen it on the news: the US primary elections. Trump, Hillary, Bernie, and Ted are probably the names you have heard the most. And then there are names like New Hampshire, Iowa, and Nevada. The latter are, of course, the names of US states (like California and Florida). But why are they so important? What is a primary election anyway?
The process to elect a president in the United States is unique at the very least if not downright mysterious to foreigners. Unlike most other countries, one of the central foundations of the US government is a careful division of power between the federal (central) government and individual state governments (California, Florida, etc.). This division is written directly into the US constitution and was placed there on purpose because the founders feared the rise of a tyrant through an overpowerful federal government. Remember, the US was founded in the late 1700s, when virtually the whole world was still run by monarchs, an age where people were just starting to feel more autonomous and yearn for self-governance.
In the spirit of this autonomy, individual states in the US vote separately when choosing a president. Each state has a certain number of points that go to electing a president, points called electoral votes. California, for example, has 55 electoral votes while New Hampshire has 4. The candidate who gets 270 or more electoral votes wins the election (there are 538 total). Generally speaking, each state offers a number of electoral votes roughly proportional to its population. This is why California has so many electoral votes compared to New Hampshire.
So why all the special attention for New Hampshire, Iowa, and Nevada? None of these states has a particularly large population. In fact, they are some of the least populated. The answer has to do with how presidential candidates are selected. In the US, there are only two major political parties: the Republican Party and Democratic Party. Each party chooses one candidate to run for president in the actual presidential election. To choose this candidate, each party has an election called the presidential primary.
The exact rules for how each political party runs its primary are different but the general idea is the same as the actual presidential election: each state has its own separate vote and that vote decides who gets the points from that state. States like New Hampshire, Iowa, and Nevada are important because these are the states that cast their primary votes before the others. This means the results from these votes often set the tone for the remaining election campaign. If one candidate does very well in these early states, that candidate often gains insurmountable momentum and is able to declare him/herself the preferred choice of the party before the other states have even voted. This often creates a bandwagon effect that the remaining states usually go along with.
Now some of you may be blinking very hard and asking the simple question: doesn’t this process put a disproportionate amount of influence into the hands of the earlier states? The answer is yes. These earlier states function as the battleground where the dialogue and discourse is often determined for the rest of the election. To counteract some of this influence, each party also has some internal mechanisms to balance the primary points awarded by states. The Democratic Party, for example, has a number of individuals called superdelegates who possess their own, personal primary points. These individuals are almost always distinguished party leaders or congressmen. These individuals can pledge their points to any candidate and often make such pledges before the primary votes take place to sway the result in the direction of their preferred candidate.
To make matters more complicated, the primary vote rules for each party in each state are often very different. Each state, in fact, has the right to create its own rules. Some states have a winner-takes-all rule where the candidate who wins the popular vote collects all of the points for that state (e.g. if a candidate gets 51% of the vote, he/she collects all the points). Other states have rules where the points are divided based on the proportion of the popular vote (so if a candidate collects 55% of the votes, he/she gets only 55% of the points).
All in all, the US presidential election is a long, intricate process steeped in a complex mixture of tradition and individual state rules. The good news is that the first two weeks of March are when the vast majority of state primaries take place, bringing clarity to the final identity of each party’s presidential candidate. Very soon, there will only be two.
[Justin Fendos is a Ph.D. from Yale and a professor at Dongseo University in Busan. He is also the associate director of the Tan School of Genetics at Fudan University, Shanghai, and a National Academy of Sciences Teaching Fellow.]
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