United States Elections 2008
Primary Elections

Candidates Primary Elections 2008

The series of Presidential primary elections and caucuses is one of the first steps in the process of electing the President of the United States of America. The primary elections are run by state and local governments in the states which do not have caucuses. A state primary election usually determines which candidates for president will be supported by that state at the national convention of each political party.


The political parties each officially nominate their candidate for President at their national convention, usually the summer before the election. Depending on state law, when voters cast ballots for a candidate in a presidential caucus or primary, they may be actually voting to award delegates "bound" to caucuses—both of the two largest parties (Democratic and Republican) have provisions for "superdelegates" chosen outside the primary system.

In recent elections, the eventual nominee is known well before the actual convention takes place. The last time a major party's nominee was not clear before the convention was in 1976, when incumbent president Gerald Ford narrowly defeated Ronald Reagan.

Types of primary

Franchise in a primary is governed by rules established by the state party, although the states may impose other regulations.

Nearly all states have a binding primary, in which the results of the election legally bind some or all of the delegates to vote for a particular candidate at the national convention, for a certain number of ballots or until the candidate releases the delegates. A handful of states practice a non-binding primary, which may select candidates to a state convention which then selects delegates. Both major parties have rules which designate superdelegates.

In most states, only voters registered with a party may vote in that party's primary, known as a closed primary. In some states, a semi-closed primary is practiced, in which 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. In all of these systems, a voter may participate in only one primary; that is, a voter who casts a vote for a candidate standing for the Republican nomination for president cannot cast a vote for a candidate standing for the Democratic nomination, or vice versa. A few states once staged a blanket primary, in which voters could vote for one candidate in multiple primaries, but the practice was struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court in the 2000 case of California Democratic Party v. Jones as violating the freedom of assembly guaranteed by the First Amendment.

Under the 2008 Democratic Party selection rules, adopted in 2006, delegates are selected under proportional representation, with a candidate requiring a minimum threshold of 15% in a state in order to receive delegates. In addition, the Democratic Party has the right to reject any candidate under their bylaws. Each state publishes a Delegate Selection Plan that notes the mechanics of calculating the number of delegates per congressional district, and how votes are transferred from local conventions to the state and national convention. The Republican Party adopted its rules at the time of the 2004 convention. There are no provisions requiring proportional representation, and as such, many states used the winner take all method in 2004.


There is no provision for the role of political parties in the United States Constitution, as political parties did not develop until the early 19th century. Before 1820, Democratic-Republican members of Congress would nominate a single candidate from their party. That system collapsed in 1824, and by 1832 the preferred mechanism for nomination was a national convention.

Delegates to the national convention were usually selected at state conventions whose own delegates were chosen by district conventions. Sometimes they were dominated by intrigue between political bosses who controlled delegates; the national convention was far from democratic or transparent. Progressive Era reformers looked to the primary election as a way to measure popular opinion of candidates, as opposed to the opinion of the bosses. In 1910, Oregon became the first state to establish a presidential preference primary in which the delegates to the National Convention were required to support the winner of the primary at the convention. By 1912, twelve states either selected delegates in primaries, used a preferential primary, or both. By 1920 there were 20 states with primaries, but some went back and from 1936 to 1968, 13 or 14 states used them. (Ware p 248)

The primary received its first major test in the 1912 election pitting incumbent President William Howard Taft against challengers Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson. Roosevelt proved the most popular candidate, but as most primaries were non-binding "preference" shows and held in only fourteen of the-then forty-eight states, the Republican nomination went to Taft, who controlled the convention.

Seeking to boost voter turnout, New Hampshire simplified its ballot access laws in 1949. In the ensuing "beauty contest" of 1952, Republican Dwight Eisenhower demonstrated his broad voter appeal by out polling the favored Robert A. Taft, "Mr. Republican." Also, Democrat Estes Kefauver defeated incumbent President Harry S. Truman, leading the latter to abandon his campaign for another term. The first-in-the-nation New Hampshire primary has since become a widely-observed test of candidates' viability.

The impetus for national adoption of the binding primary election was the chaotic 1968 Democratic National Convention. Vice President Hubert Humphrey II secured the nomination despite primary victories and other shows of support for Senator Eugene McCarthy, running against Humphrey on a strong anti-Vietnam War platform. After this, a Democratic National Committee-commissioned panel led by Senator George McGovern recommended that states adopt new rules to assure wider participation. A large number of states, faced with the need to conform to more detailed rules for the selection of national delegates, chose a presidential primary as an easier way to come into compliance with the new national Democratic Party rules. The result was that many more future delegates would be selected by a state presidential primary. The Republicans also adopted many more state presidential primaries.

With the broadened use of the primary system, states have tried to increase their influence in the nomination process. One tactic has been to create geographic blocs to encourage candidates to spend time in a region. Vermont and Massachusetts attempted to stage a joint New England primary on the first Tuesday of March, but New Hampshire refused to participate so it could retain its traditional place as the first primary. The first successful regional primary was Super Tuesday of March 8, 1988, in which nine Southern states united in the hope that the Democrats would select a candidate in line with Southern interests.

Another trend is to stage earlier and earlier primaries, given impetus by Super Tuesday and the mid-1990s move (since repealed) of the California primary and its bloc of votes—the largest in the nation—from June to March. In order to retain its tradition as the first primary in the country (and adhere to a state law which requires it to be), New Hampshire's primary has moved forward steadily, from early March to early January.



Great attention is paid to the results of the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary; however, critics, such as Mississippi secretary of state Eric Clark (see quote below), and Tennessee Senator William Brock, point out that these states are not representative of the United States as a whole: they are overwhelmingly white, more rural, and wealthier than the national average, and neither is in the fast-growing West or South. For example, New Jersey and Montana, which are the last states to have their primaries, usually end up having no say in who the presidential candidate will be; in 2004, they had their primaries in June, 13 weeks after Senator John Kerry became unopposed. The New Jersey primary has been moved to February for the 2008 election.

Although the addition of Nevada to the early primaries in 2008 was done to equalize representativeness in the country, this change does little to represent the entire country.

n 2005, the primary commission of the Democratic National Committee began considering removing New Hampshire and Iowa from the top of the calendar. A revised system was supposed to take effect beginning in 2008; however, it has not received approval, so New Hampshire and Iowa are still the first primaries in 2008. New Hampshire is fighting back by obliging candidates who want to campaign in the state to pledge to uphold that primary as the first one.

Front-loading and compression

States vie for earlier primaries in order to claim greater influence in the nomination process, as the early primaries can act as a signal to the nation, showing which candidates are popular and giving those who perform well early on the advantage of the bandwagon effect. Also, candidates can ignore primaries which fall after the nomination has already been secured, and would owe less to those states politically. As a result, rather than stretching from March to July, most primaries take place in a compressed time frame in February and March. National party leaders also have an interest in compressing the primary calendar, as it enables the party to reduce the chance of a bruising internecine battle and to preserve resources for the general campaign.

In such a primary season, however, many primaries will fall on the same day, forcing candidates to choose where to spend their time and resources. Indeed, Super Tuesday was created deliberately to increase the influence of the South. When states cannot agree to coordinate primaries, however, attention flows to larger states with large numbers of delegates at the expense of smaller ones. Because the candidate's time is limited, paid advertising may play a greater role. Moreover, a compressed calendar limits the ability of lesser-known candidates to corral resources and raise their visibility among voters, especially when a better-known candidate enjoys the financial and institutional backing of the party establishment.

In an article from Detroit News, Tennessee Senator William (Bill) Brock said about front-running, "Today, too many people in too many states have no voice in the election of our major party nominees. For them, the nominations are over before they have begun."

Reform proposals

There are several proposals for reforming the primary system. Some 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 purported problem of campaigns being dominated by the candidates who raise the most money. The following proposals attempt to return the primary system to a more relaxed schedule, and would help less-funded candidates by lowering the cost of entry.

Graduated Random Presidential Primary System (American Plan)

One reform concept is the graduated random presidential primary system, variations of which have been referred to as the American Plan or the California Plan. This plan starts with small primaries, and gradually moves up to larger ones, in 10 steps, with states chosen at random. The idea is that fewer initial primaries, typically in smaller states, would allow grassroots campaigns to score early successes and pick up steam. However, since states are chosen at random, travel costs may still be significant.

Delaware Plan

A commission empaneled by the Republican National Committee recommended the Delaware Plan in 2000. This plan had states grouped by size into four groups, with the smallest primaries first, then the next-smallest, and so on. Populous states objected to the plan, however, because it would have always scheduled their primaries at the end of the season. Other criticisms included the wide geographic range of the states, necessitating high travel costs. The Delaware Plan was put to vote at Republican National Convention of 2000 and rejected.

Rotating Regional Primary System

The National Association of Secretaries of State has endorsed a Rotating Regional Primary System, with the country split into four regions: the West, the Midwest, the South, and the Northeast. Unlike the Delaware Plan and the American Plan, the Rotating Regional Primary System would lower campaigning costs by restricting groups of primaries to single, contiguous regions. Criticisms of the regional plan include the higher entry costs than the other plans (since 1/4 of the country would vote in the first regional), and the political bias of certain regions (the South or the Northeast) unduly influencing the selection of a nominee.

Interregional Primary Plan

In the Interregional Primary Plan the country is divided into geographical regions. On each primary date from March to June, one state from each of six regions votes. Each election date would contain a wide variety of perspectives. The order of the states in each region is set by a lottery. In a 24-year cycle, every state would have a chance to be among the first primary states. The primary criticism of this plan is that travel costs would be quite high: in each round, candidates would essentially have to cover the entire country in order to effectively campaign. Contrary to most reform plans, this would reduce the ability of lesser-funded candidates to build up from small contests to large ones.

National Primary

Many have proposed a National Primary, a single day on which all state primaries and caucuses would be held.