Features / Politics

Primaries and Caucuses: The Political System

By Daniel Popoloski

Staff Writer

The primary nomination system of presidential candidates is easily comparable to network television and HBO, according to a political science professor.

“Network television needs to apply to a wide range of audiences so a lot of times it’s less edgy,” said Dan Cassino, associate professor of political science at Fairleigh Dickinson University. “HBO, however, can be as specific as it wants as long as it’s pleasing a passionate few people who will care enough to pay to subscribe to it.”

In an election process full of different rules and seemingly contradictory tactics, analogies such as those are key in understanding the mess that produces the presidential candidates on the national stage. Throughout the nominating process, it seems that each state has completely different rules when it comes to giving candidates delegates.

The biggest variance in the election process is between primaries and caucuses. There are 13 caucus states, and they work substantially different. Primaries are a closed affair, similar to the general election, where each voter privately goes to vote for the candidate that they want. Caucuses, however, are a much more public affair. Voters go to public areas such as the local high school, where they listen to different candidates’ supporters’ stake their claims for why voters should support their candidate. Voters then physically show their support, and are able to be persuaded to change their minds, or cast their vote for a different candidate if it seems as if no one is backing their original choice.

“There are a lot of chances to persuade undecideds or even committed voters with strong voices,” said Michael Unger, an associate professor of political science at Ramapo College

This is a much more involved process that can take upwards of four hours at some points. As a result, fewer voters turnout thus leaving the decision of which candidates gets the delegates in the hands of a few more passionate supporters. Grassroots candidates tend to benefit from this structure. Voters are more informed, giving those candidates a better chance.

Cassino’s analogy of HBO and network television show that candidates need only greatly inspire a few passionate voters to win caucus states, whereas in primaries, they need to get their message to masses, which can be difficult if they aren’t well known.

If caucuses favor grassroots candidates, and primaries favor establishment candidates, why would a state prefer to either one through its designation as a caucus or a primary? Iowa for one resorts to caucuses due to tradition.

“Iowa would never change its status, that way they can always be first in the nation,” said Fanny Lauby, as associate professor of political science at William Paterson University.

Other states change their designation in order to get candidates’ attention. Often times a state that believes it’s being neglected by candidates on the campaign trail will switch to a caucus system, which will at least garner attention from lesser-known grassroots candidates. Other states will remain primaries in order to get the better-known candidates, as well as the attention from party establishment on the national level, in hopes of getting offered more things that it wants in exchange for votes.

“The primary system definitely favors the more-known establishment candidates,” Unger said.

If he could have it all one way, Cassino says he’d want caucuses for all the states.

“Voters that go to caucuses are generally more involved and are more informed,” he said. “Those are the kinds of voters that I would want voting across America in the nomination process.”

The second major difference between states hosting a primary and those with a caucus process is whether the delegates are allotted in a winner-take-all fashion or whether they are split up proportionally based on percentage of votes. For instance, on the Republican side, Florida is a winner-take-all state, where whoever has the highest number of votes gets the states’ 99 delegates. On the other hand, Louisiana doles out delegates based on percentage of votes proportionally. The reason that states do this is similar to why they choose being a caucus or a primary. In the Democratic Party contests, most all of the states are proportional winners.

Because Florida is such a big state and has so many delegates, all the national candidates campaigned there in hopes of winning. However, for the smaller candidates or simply candidates that don’t appeal to the electorate there and who may be polling poorly, they have to pay attention elsewhere, since winning is unlikely.

In other states with proportional allotment, even candidates who are polling in the single digits can campaign as everyone has a chance to at least get a few delegates, even if they are unlikely to win. In an election cycle similar to the Republican one in 2016, every single delegate counts, making those states even more important.

“Especially on days or weeks with multiple primaries or caucuses, the differences between proportional and winner-take-all states makes sure that each of those states get attention from candidates,” Lauby said.

Why does the national party system approve of such a system? It protects their party’s candidates, as well as gives them the most power to have their preferred establishment pick be nominated at the national convention. There are still more primaries than caucuses, which favor establishment candidates. However, the mix of caucus states drags out the process, which prevents the opposing party from having a chance to identify the nominee early.

Arizona Senator (R) John McCain wrapped up the presidential nomination in 2008 very early, which gave the Democratic Party plenty of time to expose what it thought were his shortcomings. The mixture of state rules helps protect the party’s interests.

“The national party doesn’t have much say on what the states do,” Cassino added. “They can pressure them to do what the national party wants, but in the long term, they’re at the mercy of the states every cycle.”

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