The American Presidential Nomination – how complicated could it be?

Image above: Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images

America is currently in the quadrennial grip of election fever while the Democratic Party conducts its search for its nominee to run against President Donald Trump this November. These presidential ‘primaries’ (as they are more commonly known) are a complex patchwork of mini-elections steeped in idiosyncratic tradition and practice that offer many surprises even for long-suffering scholars of American politics. In this article, political scientist (and former intern in the United States Congress in 2005) Dr Matthew Laing, does his best to unpack this strange and fascinating facet of American political culture and points out what to watch out for over the coming months.

What are the Presidential Primaries?

In most democracies, political parties internally decide who leads their party and runs at the top of the ticket in elections. Such processes are usually dominated by the party’s elite and elected members, with often limited involvement by the party rank-and-file. Such was the case in America too until 1968, when the Democratic Party’s ‘faceless men’ nominated Hubert H. Humphrey as the party’s candidate for president. Humphrey had served as Lyndon Johnson’s Vice-President and was promising to continue to wage the Vietnam War, yet much of the Democratic Party faithful had turned against the war during Johnson’s term, sparking mass riots and protests at the party convention that year. A badly divided party lost to Richard Nixon, and in the aftermath, the Democrats created a unique system of democratic elections, held state-by-state, that would determine the party’s nominee in future years. The Republicans, feeling pressure from their own voters, created a similar system soon after.

Rather than have politicians and party elites from each state branch of the party attend the national convention to select a presidential nominee, in this primary system each state holds elections for its delegates to the national convention. Candidates to be the party’s presidential nominee put up their own slate of delegates pledged to support them in each state, and whoever has won a majority of pledged delegates after each state and territory has voted will be elected presidential nominee at the party convention.

28th August 1968: Delegates hold up HUMPHREY posters and signs at the Democratic National Convention, Chicago, Illinois. Vice President Hubert Humphrey won the nomination to run for President of the United States (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Why is the process so drawn out?

When designing the new system, it was believed that holding the primary elections all at once nationwide (in an electorate of hundreds of millions of voters) would unduly favour wealthy and already well-known candidates who had high name recognition and could afford to run a national campaign. To create a ‘more considered’ process, it was determined that the voting should be staggered, with small population states going first, so that many candidates could enter and run just small-scale campaigns in the early states. By slowing the process down, there was also more time for voters to consider amongst many options, debate policies, test positions, and to get to know more obscure candidates.

Why are Iowa and New Hampshire first?

There is a lot of attention given to the two first states to vote – Iowa and New Hampshire. They are first largely due to quirks of history. The complexity of Iowa’s voting system (explained next) meant it had to start early in the process in order to be finished in time for the party convention. New Hampshire had already been running an election to choose its representatives at national party conventions for decades when the new system was introduced, so it was also a natural choice to run its process early. Both states had small populations, making it easier for less-resourced aspirants to run campaigns and forge reputations there, so they were considered good choices to be held first.

Because the first contests in the primary season are often ‘make or break’ for many minor candidates, a disproportionate amount of attention is given to these races, as well as investment of campaign dollars. Consequently, both states have fought fiercely to protect their ‘first in the nation’ status. However, their status has become increasingly criticised in recent years – as predominantly rural and white states, they are not very representative of America as a whole.

What is a ‘caucus’?

Most states in the nominating process use what is called a ‘primary election’ – it is simply a normal election that each party holds with each potential candidate on the ballot. A ‘caucus’ is an alternative system used by a minority of states, but is importantly used in Iowa, and so has a lot of impact in the early stages of the race. A caucus is a type of political meeting that is steeped in traditions going back to Colonial America and the idea of ‘town hall democracy’. In a caucus, interested voters turn up to a large hall. There is some period of discussion and debate, before the chairman of the meeting asks those assembled to divide up into groups representing the candidates they support. The groups are counted, and those candidates whose groups do not represent a large enough proportion of the total assembled (often 15% of the total) are deemed ‘unviable’ and dissolved. A chaotic period will ensue, as members of those dissolved groups are now free to leave, to join other ‘viable’ groups, or sometimes even band together to form a new (and presumably viable) group supporting some other candidate. Often there is rancorous arm-twisting, cajoling and debating in this period. This process continues until only viably sized groups are left. The totals are then counted again, and delegates from the meeting representing the individual candidates go to another level of caucus. In some states, there are many tiers of meetings, and it can take months until a final set of delegates to the national convention is chosen. For instance, even though the Iowa Caucus was held on February 3, the final composition of Iowa delegates to the Democratic Convention will not be known until June 13.

Who can vote and participate in the primaries?

Unlike Australia there is no such thing as a ‘member’ of the Democratic or Republican Party as we understand it. Party membership is loosely defined and chosen for free when you register to vote, and you can change your party registration as much as you like. As such, the primary system is very open – over 60 million voters participated in it in 2016 – many of whom would only very loosely consider themselves to be members of the party in whose primary they participated. Each state has different rules regulating who can vote in a party’s primary – in some states, the system is ‘open’, and any voter can participate in a party primary, regardless of their party affiliation. The same goes for the candidates themselves – there is nothing technically to stop a life-long Republican from running for the Democratic nomination, and vice-versa. Indeed, Donald Trump had only been a registered Republican for four years before running for nomination in 2016 and had several other registered affiliations (including as a registered Democrat) for long stretches prior. Bernie Sanders, one of the top Democratic Party contenders in 2016 and 2020, only officially changed his registration to Democrat (from life-long Independent) very recently.

What can we expect from the 2020 primaries?

For the Republican side, not much. Although they are technically still holding primaries, there are only two challengers of note running against sitting President Donald Trump for Republican nomination, and they have very limited support. This is to be expected – a sitting president hasn’t lost nomination for a second term since Chester Arthur in 1884.

Chester A. Arthur – the 21st President of the United States, who didn’t secure the Republican Party’s nomination in 1884, and retired at the end of his term

For the Democratic side, on the other hand, the field is wide open. The Democratic primaries drew a record number of high-profile contenders by the time televised debates began in 2019. The field has narrowed considerably, however, in the wake of the first contest (the Iowa Caucus) and there are still at least six candidates with credible (if variable) levels of support. Thus far, the Democratic Primary season has been extremely unpredictable, with high-profile candidates (like Senator Kamala Harris) dropping out early and relative unknowns (like Mayor Pete Buttigieg) winning the Iowa Caucus.

What should I watch for in the Democratic Primaries?

Firstly, the South Carolina Primary on February 29. It is the fourth in the calendar, but the first state to vote that has a significant African American population (27%). African Americans are the backbone of the Democratic Party’s base and no Democrat can expect to be competitive against Trump without rallying this group. African American voters have, thus far, consistently supported Joe Biden more than any candidate. Biden has been leading the polls for years, but this is largely due to his high name recognition and legacy as Barack Obama’s Vice President. As voters have gotten to know other candidates his lead has eroded. Biden is pinning his hopes of nomination on a big win in South Carolina (after poor showings in Iowa and New Hampshire). If he does, his credentials amongst African American voters will be confirmed, and will be a powerful argument for his winning the nomination. If Biden is unable to do this, his candidacy will be on life support, and all eyes will be on the alternative candidates who have attracted African American support.

U.S. President elect Barack Obama and Vice-President elect Joe Biden wave to their supporters after Obama gave his victory speech during an election night gathering in Grant Park on November 4, 2008. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Secondly, who drops out when. Currently the Democratic Party is split between its progressive and moderate wings, with several viable candidates running representing each wing. At the moment, these candidates are largely splitting their wing’s respective votes, leading to fairly fractured patterns of support. It’s certain that for any candidate to have a chance of commanding a majority of delegates at the national convention, they will need to consolidate support from their ideological wing of the party. But of course, which candidates drop out first, and who they endorse as their ideological successor in the race (and presumably direct their supporters to vote for in future races), may make or break their colleagues’ candidacies. Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, for example, would have a strong chance of clinching the nomination if he can consolidate the progressive wing of the party behind him. However, that wing is currently split between him and Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, who has a smaller but nonetheless dedicated following. If Warren drops out early and endorses Sanders, he will be in a very strong position. If she does neither, it will greatly complicate Sanders’ path to victory.

Thirdly, the outsiders, particularly Pete Buttigieg. The former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, ‘Mayor Pete’ is young, relatively inexperienced and had little national profile before the primaries. But after winning the Iowa Caucuses last week (narrowly), and a second placing in New Hampshire, Buttigieg is a serious contender. America’s unique primary system has often favoured dark horse candidates – Jimmy Carter (1976), Bill Clinton (1992) and Barack Obama (2008) are all good examples of candidates few voters knew when the Democratic primaries began, but who over the course of the drawn-out process gained recognition and popularity as breaths of ‘fresh air’, eventually winning their party’s nomination (and ultimately the presidency). Buttigieg bears a striking similarity to such examples in some respects, and history may repeat itself again. Amy Klobuchar, Senator for Minnesota, also has a possibility of taking this mantle, after a strong showing and new momentum coming out of New Hampshire.

Matthew with the 39th U.S. President Jimmy Carter and his wife Rosalynn

Fourthly, everyone should keep one eye on former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. An unusual Democratic candidate (in that he has previously been a registered Republican and Independent), Bloomberg is generally credited for shepherding a renaissance in New York during his 12-year tenure as mayor. As one of the richest men in America, he is self-funding his campaign for president. Yet he has taken an unorthodox approach. He announced his entry to the race very late and has not yet appeared at any of the candidate debates. He is also not campaigning in the early states. Instead, he has invested a fortune in advertising, particularly in large states falling later in the calendar (like California), which whilst traditionally less intensively focused on by the media will ultimately (as larger states) elect far larger delegations to the party convention. Racking up big wins in these large states may potentially override the need to have competed in small early states. Bloomberg’s polling in these such states has risen dramatically in recent months, making a ‘come from behind’ win a possibility.

When does it all end?

July 13, 2020. That is the date all 3,979 delegates elected from the various caucuses and primaries in every state and territory of the USA will meet in Milwaukee, Wisconsin for the Democratic National Convention. At this meeting, they will elect a presidential and vice-presidential candidate for November, as well as set their party platform. The result of the presidential nominee vote is usually known long beforehand, as by the end of April enough state races have generally been held to put one candidate in an unbeatable position, leading other candidates to concede the race.

However, because the primary system (unlike the general election) uses a system of proportional representation, and because there are so many viable candidates in the race in 2020, several with strong and fairly committed bases of support, it’s not impossible that no presumptive nominee will emerge with a majority of delegates by the time of the national convention. Such a scenario is known as a ‘brokered convention’ and has not occurred for either party since 1952. While delegates elected by the primary process are pledged to support their presidential candidate at the convention in the initial rounds of voting, if the convention is deadlocked then delegates will be released from their pledges, which will unleash furious horse-trading and negotiation at the convention to cobble together a majority for a particular candidate.

And then, after all the hard work and frantic campaigning over six-months of primaries (and usually much more time prior preparing for them), the party nominees roll-up their sleeves and do it all over again for the general election!

A young Matthew, left, with Hillary Clinton in 2005 – the first woman to contest the United States Presidency

Washington & New York: America’s Two Capitals tour, September 27 – October 10, 2020, with Dr Matthew Laing.


Dr Matthew Laing

Dr Matthew Laing is a historian and political scientist at Monash University who has led tours to the Americas and Europe with Academy Travel for five years. He has a strong personal interest in architecture, cultural history and modern art, with a particular expertise in the United States. Matthew holds a BA and PhD from the Australian National University, and wrote his doctorate on the history of the United States presidency.


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