How are U.S. presidential nominees selected? A look at primaries and caucuses

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After more than a year of announcements, debates and campaigning, the United States’ two major political parties will finally begin the process of selecting nominees ahead of the 2020 presidential election.

Currently, the Democratic field remains historically large, with 13 hopefuls still in the race.

On the Republican side, two candidates have thrown their hat in the ring to challenge U.S. President Donald Trump.

But beginning in Iowa next month and running until the summer, the parties will whittle down the fields and decide who they want to be their candidate for the upcoming election.

Candidates in the United States are chosen through two systems: caucuses and primaries.

Some states use a combination of both, some favour one over the other, but none do it exactly the same.

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Here’s how it works:


Caucuses were the U.S.’ original method for selecting a candidate, but now only three states — Iowa, Nevada and Wyoming — rely strictly on them as a way to gauge support for a presidential candidate.

Caucuses are run by political parties.

At caucuses, registered voters meet at what are called “precinct locations” across the state to choose delegates through a series of discussions and votes.

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At the precinct locations — often school gymnasiums or churches — caucus-goers divide into groups, showing their support for their preferred presidential candidate.

At this point, there are often a number of undecided voters.

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Officials then count the participants. Any candidate who receives at least 15 per cent of the vote is considered “viable.”

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Supporters of candidates who do not meet the 15 per cent threshold can choose to join the group of undecided voters, shift their support to another candidate during “realignment” or try to persuade undecided voters or members of smaller groups to support their candidate.

Those who supported a candidate who reached the 15 per cent threshold during the first round are locked in and unable to change their vote.

After another round of realignment and counting, an informal vote is held, and caucus officials use a mathematic formula to determine the number of “state delegate equivalents” (SDEs) each candidate is afforded.

The SDEs eventually go on to select the delegates to the national convention, who then choose which candidate will represent the party during the presidential election.

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The Republican Party does things a little differently.

Registered Republican caucus-goers vote for their preferred candidate after hearing a number of speeches.

Officials count the votes, and delegates are elected to the county convention based on proportional support for each candidate.

The Republican Party allows each state to determine whether the winner takes all or if each candidate will be afforded delegates based on the proportion of support garnered during the caucus.

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Iowa is the first state to hold a caucus.

It is scheduled to take place on Feb. 3 and kick-starts primary season, which runs until the beginning of June.


Primaries are run by local and state governments.

During a primary, participants across the state vote for who they think should be the party’s candidate via secret ballot.

In the United States, there are two types of primaries: open and closed.

In a closed primary election, only those who are declared members of the party are able to vote.

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In an open primary, anyone is allowed to cast a ballot without declaring party affiliation.

During primaries, voters cast ballots for a specific candidate, choosing who they want to represent them in a general election.

In some states, though, participants vote for delegates instead of candidates.

A delegate is an individual who is authorized to represent someone else as an elected representative at a political party convention.

If the ballot lists delegate names, voters often choose a delegate who has voiced support for the candidate they support, though delegates can remain uncommitted.

The first primary is scheduled to take place on Feb. 11 in New Hampshire.

National conventions

Once all states and territories have conducted their primaries or caucuses, each party holds a national convention at which it will eventually choose its presidential candidate.
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National conventions are also the time when each prospective candidate announces their running mate for vice-president.

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The candidate with the support of the majority of delegates wins the presidential nomination.

Once the selection is made, the party will back that candidate in their endeavour for the presidency in the general election.

The general election is scheduled to take place on Nov. 3, 2020.

Is this a good way to choose a candidate?

Matthew Lebo, chair of political science at Western University, said there are parts of the system that have “always been a bad idea” and that some things “should be tinkered with.”

Among those things is the order of the states, he said.

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“Momentum is incredibly important,” Lebo said. “So how candidates do in the first couple of contests is hugely important. And the first two contests are Iowa and New Hampshire, which are two of the least representative states in the United States.”

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He said another problem with the system is that it pushes the parties to pick candidates who are popular within the party and with people who are most active within the party.

“The Democrats, the people who are most active in the Democratic Party, are the more liberal members. People who are most active in the Republican Party are the more conservative members and activists,” Lebo explained.

“And so when those groups choose their favourites, they’re not really choosing who might be the favourite of the average American voter. They sort of choose more extreme candidates than the general population would.”

Another issue, Lebo said, is that caucuses are not accessible to everyone and can, therefore, be exclusionary.

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“People have to be able to have the time to do it. They have to be able to get off work. They have to be able to deal with child-care issues. They have to be able-bodied that they can get to the caucus. So there’s lots of people who can’t participate,” he said.

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Overall, though, Lebo said that when determining if primaries and caucuses are an effective way of choosing a presidential nominee, we have to consider electability.

“Political parties are primarily interested in winning elections,” he said. “And so we sort of have to look and say to parties, do primaries do a good job of picking candidates who are going to win elections, or does the Canadian system do a better job of picking candidates who win elections? So when the primaries have led to choices that are maybe less electable then that certainly makes people worry about how effective they are.”

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