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In the United States, the way in which a political party chooses a presidential candidate is up to the party itself. This is because there is no provision in the U.S. Constitution that calls for any particular method for choosing candidates. The two major parties in the U.S., the Republicans and the Democrats, each choose a presidential candidate at a national convention where delegates from each state cast votes. How the delegates vote usually is based on the results of primary elections or caucuses that were held in their respective states. The exact manner in which the delegates are chosen, the primaries or caucuses are held and how the delegates must vote is determined by each state's branch of that particular political party.
Within each party, every state is assigned a certain number of delegates. Other U.S. jurisdictions, such as the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and American Samoa, also are assigned a specific number of delegates. These numbers are determined by the party and can be based on a combination of many factors, such as the state's population and its number of party members in the U.S. Congress. There also can be at-large delegates — usually current or former party officials — who are not obligated to vote for any particular candidate. In each state or jurisdiction, the party holds a convention where individuals are chosen to be delegates and attend the party's national convention to help choose a presidential candidate.
Primaries and caucuses are held in each state, usually starting in early January of the presidential election year. A primary is an election in which citizens cast secret ballots, and caucuses are meetings where votes are cast either publicly or by secret ballot. Local primaries and caucuses help determine the delegates to the state convention and which candidate or candidates those delegates will support. Just like at the state level, the exact manner in which this is done is up to the local branch of the party.
In some places, the percentage of delegates who are obligated to support a candidate is based on the percentage of votes received in the primary or caucus. Some primaries and caucuses, however, award all of the delegates to the candidate who received the most votes. At the national convention, the delegates cast their votes to choose a presidential candidate. The party's nominee might be the person who receives the most votes from delegates, or a majority of the votes might be required.
In some cases, the eventual nominee will already be known before the convention because he or she is assured of receiving more than enough votes from the party's delegates. When this happens, the other candidates from the party might endorse the front-runner and release their delegates to vote for him or her when the party begins the roll call to choose a presidential candidate. This typically is done as a sign of unity within the party, which is seen as giving the nominee a better chance in the general election than if the party were to have somewhat of a division within its ranks or doubt about its nominee.
Frequently Asked Questions
What is the primary process in choosing a presidential candidate?
The primary process involves a series of state-level elections where party members vote for their preferred presidential candidate. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, these primaries can be open, closed, or semi-closed, determining who is eligible to vote. The results of these primaries and caucuses determine the number of delegates each candidate receives, who then officially nominate the candidate at the party's national convention.
How do caucuses differ from primaries in the candidate selection process?
Caucuses are local gatherings where party members discuss and vote for candidates, differing from primaries which are statewide secret-ballot elections. The Pew Research Center explains that caucuses are less common and can be more time-consuming and complex, often involving multiple rounds of voting. They are seen as a more grassroots approach to candidate selection, with Iowa traditionally holding the first caucus in the nation.
What role do delegates play in nominating a presidential candidate?
Delegates are party members chosen to represent their state at the national convention. Their role is to cast votes for a presidential candidate based on the preferences expressed by voters in the primaries and caucuses. The Center for Responsive Politics notes that there are also "superdelegates," who are party leaders and elected officials free to support any candidate, regardless of primary results, though their influence varies by party.
How does a candidate secure the party's nomination?
A candidate secures the party's nomination by winning a majority of delegate votes at the national convention. According to the American Presidency Project, this typically requires a candidate to win a majority of pledged delegates from the primaries and caucuses. If no candidate achieves a majority on the first ballot, subsequent ballots may be held, and superdelegates may also cast votes to help decide the nominee.
Can the outcome of the primary and caucus process be contested at the national convention?
Yes, the outcome can be contested at the national convention, especially if no candidate has secured a clear majority of delegates. This situation is known as a contested or brokered convention. As the Brookings Institution outlines, in such cases, multiple rounds of voting may occur, with delegates eventually shifting their support to different candidates until one emerges with a majority. However, brokered conventions are rare in modern U.S. politics.