Idiot’s Guide to the US Primaries

Words by: Sophie Raynor

We’re deep into the United States presidential primaries and you’ve gone long enough pretending to understand the significance of Bernie taking New Hampshire – and why and how that happens in the first place, ten months out from a general election. Don’t worry: we’re here to help. Give this one a read now and you’ll be ten steps ahead before you even start thinking about skimming all those New York Times analyses you keep chucking in your Facebook saved links.

Ready? Let’s go.


First up: a refresher on the background to all of this.

The US is set for a presidential election in November this year, where successors to prez Barack Obama and vice-president Joe Biden will be chosen. In the US, presidential candidate are chosen through primary elections – which, exactly as they sound, are elections that happen before an election for office – and then confirmed in July at their party’s national nominating convention.

Primaries narrow the field and cut the fat. It’s custom in the US to have primary elections or caucuses before a presidential election, which is different from Australia: here, our parties choose their candidates themselves (and then freak out a year later and chuck that leader out).

At those conventions, people called delegates vote to decide the party’s candidate, and then there’s speeches, ceremony, manic grinning photos, etc. As well as understanding the candidates running for the major parties’ nominations, it’s important to understand who the delegates are, how they’re chosen, and how influential their votes are – because all that plays into figuring out who’s running for president.

We’ll get into the candidates in a minute. Right now, let’s talk about delegate selection.

Caucus, primary, convention, oh my!

So, those national conventions I just mentioned will happen for each party in July. They’ll be attended by delegates, who are selected by the states to choose the party’s presidential candidate. Delegates are usually pledged, which means they’re allocated by state voter preference and have to vote for whichever candidate the state has chosen – which happens in its primary election.

At the convention, there are speeches and demonstrations in support of each candidate, and then delegates vote, state-by-state, for their choice candidate. The first candidate to receive a majority of delegate votes becomes the party’s presidential candidate. That person then selects a vice-presidential candidate.

Sometimes they’re pretty rowdy, but usually, the candidates are pretty much decided by that stage, and the nomination process is more ceremonial than an actual decider.

There are two methods of selecting delegates to the conventions: the caucus and the primary.


Caucuses are fun. They’re giant neighbourhood meetings, where people physically stand in a group with other people who’re pos on the candidate they’re supporting. If people are undecided, they clump together, and are courted by the decided groups to walk over and join them. Caucuses are generally open only to people who are registered voters, affiliated with the particular party. Then, there’s discussion and debate, and an informal vote takes place to select the delegates to the convention. Delegates can be pledged to a candidate or can remain undecided.

Sounds a bit old-timey and town-hall-y, right? Caucuses were the original method for selecting candidates, way back in the 1900s, before the introduction of primaries and ballpoint pens and Twitter wars. Primaries are more popular and more conventional now, though.


Primaries were introduced as a progressive reform in the early 1970s, because caucuses can amplify the voice of a committed knot of supporters for a particular candidate in a town (peer pressure, kinda).

Generally, voters in a primary go to a polling place and ask for either a Republican or Democratic ballot to vote for that party’s candidates. It’s generally open to all registered voters and done through a secret ballot, just like in general elections.

There are two types of primary: open and closed. They determine who’s eligible to vote in the primary. In a closed primary, a voter can only vote for the party with which they’re affiliated – a voter registered as a Democrat can only vote in the Democratic primary, not the Republican primary. In an open primary, a voter can vote in whichever one they want (but can only vote once).

Primary ballots can list either candidates for the party’s presidential nomination, or the names of the potential delegates (that the party sends to its convention to select the prez nom). As in the caucus, delegates can be in support of a particular candidate, or can sit on the fence.

One quick note on language here: the whole show is called “the primaries” – when you hear that phrase, it’s relating to both the primary elections and the caucuses.

Who are the delegates?

Delegates are often party activists, local political leaders, early supporters of a given candidate, or any kind of shit-stirrer who candidates can count on to bring along their bases to caucus or vote.

How are the delegates distributed?

Each party allocates a different number of delegates to the states, and the number depends on a whole bunch of factors, which are specific to each party.

They’re decided by the Democratic National Committee and the Republican National Committee. The DNC looks at how many electoral votes a state has (that’s about how important a state’s collective vote is in a general election), and how the state’s voted in the past; the RNC looks at that stuff, too, and whether the state has a Republican governor, but mainly splits its delegates evenly: three delegates per district per state.

Cool. How many delegates do I need to win?

If you’re a Democratic candidate, 2382 is your magic number (Hillary’s graphic designer has probably already turned that arrow logo into this figure for a June insta post). If you’re a Republican, you’ll need 1237.

How do candidates win the delegates?

The Democrats and Republicans use different systems for awarding delegates.

The Democrats use a proportional method: the proportion of the vote you win equals the proportion of delegates you get. Imagine you and I are running against each other for the Democratic nomination in a state the DNC has allocated 30 delegates to. You win 20, I win 10. We each get that number added to our running total.

The Republicans allow each state to decide whether it’s going to do that, or use a winner-takes-all method. With winner-takes-all, the candidate who wins the most delegates gets all of them. So, if you and I were running against each other for the Republican nomination in that state, it wouldn’t matter than I’d won 10 delegates – you’d get 30, and I’d get zero.

A quick note on superdelegates.

I’ve said that most delegates are pledged – they arrive at their party’s convention in July on the assumption that they’re going to vote for the candidate their state picked (and huge, treacherous lols if they don’t). But there’s also this thing called superdelegates, or unpledged delegates – rogues, basically, who can vote however they like, and change their minds at whim.

The Democrats have 717 of them (which is huge – around a fifth of their delegates). They’re senators and governors, plus party leaders and upper-echelon (both Biden and Obama are included in this year’s list). On the Republican side, there are the three member of each state’s national committee.

The superdelegates can come out now and pledge their support for a particular candidate; they can keep mum; or they can go back and forth, because they just dgaf.

Hillary Clinton’s the most popular kid at school with the superdelegates atm: of the 486 who have publically backed a candidate on the Democrat side, 461 of them are team Clinton.

Ok, that’s the system they’re using to choose the presidential candidates. But who actually are the candidates, and how will they go?

We’ll quickly talk through the two leading candidates for the two major parties. For the Democrats, that’s Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. For the Republicans, it’s Donald Trump and Ted Cruz (and we’ll talk a bit about Marco Rubio, too).

If you just want a one-liner:

Hillary will win the Democratic nomination; Trump’s all but got the Republican one locked in. We’ll probs be hailing President Clinton v2 in November.

Hillary Clinton

Former Secretary of State, former First Lady, former Texts From Hillary Tumblr celeb before she decided to run for president and got a real slick social media presence, Hillary Clinton is the Democratic party establishment’s fave child and swept primaries in a handful of huge states, including Florida and Illinois, yesterday, to all but guarantee the Democratic nomination. She hasn’t won it outright, but her pledged delegate count is so good Bernie will need to beat her by 16 percentage points in each state from now to catch up (including her home state of New York – another monster for Democratic delegates) – and that’s even before her huge lead in the superdelegates comes into it.

She presents as a fairly moderate lowercase-L liberal, and while she doesn’t inspire anywhere near the fervour in the yoof vote that Bernie does, she’s got the black vote and the vote of women, which has seen her take big Southern states and remain generally popular enough to reassure the party that she’d be a good candidate for them to put up in a general.

Bernie Sanders

Vermont Senator, socialist and your grandfather, Bernie Sanders, is the surprise candidate who announced his presidential bid in a swamp, and massively trailed in polls in the early months of the race. But what seemed a joke has now turned serious: Bernie’s been fiercely competitive, he’s still in with a chance to secure the nomination (the map does turn in his favour now, and he could win every state’s primary from here), and crucially, his rhetoric about a political revolution has inspired action in an apathetic clutch of progressive intellectuals, liberal whites, and young people all over the country. His campaign is funded entirely by grassroots donations – he’s had over five million unique donations to the campaign, which is unprecedented (for comparison, Hillary’s had barely a million), and he takes great pains to remind voters that he’s not funded by any super PAC, which is the kind of heavyweight political money that enabled Jeb Bush to spend so much in New Hampshire (Bush’s PAC, called Right to Rise, raised $100 million – which is the kind of stat that makes Bernie’s plucky competitiveness all the more impressive).

Bernie talks about social justice, free tertiary education, free healthcare, inclusion – all the things that probably sound pretty good to you. And that’s happening in the US. Bernie could still nab the nomination at the convention because he’s inspiring huge numbers of people to come out to vote – and a barrier to a Clinton presidency could be voters just not coming out (remember, the US doesn’t have mandatory voting, so in choosing their candidates, the parties also have to consider who’d inspire voter turnout, too).

Also, Bernie Sanders’ Dank Meme Stash is the best Facebook group you’ll see today.

Donald Trump

Cartoon villain and baked ham Donald Trump is such a stinking shitheap that not even the party he’s running for wants him as president – but he’s wildly popular where it counts: he’s steamrolled the other Republican candidates in the primaries, and though he took a couple of losses this week, he’s still in with an overwhelming chance to sew up the delegates he needs. He’s divisive, xenophobic, inflammatory and crude, and the party’s desperately worried that he’ll turn off voters in droves (or that they’ll come out to vote just to vote against him in protest).

But Republican senators like him, for some reason (he probably hasn’t been in the party for long enough to really piss anyone off). And his dizzy celebrity and brash honesty has attracted swaths of furious, disillusioned independents and Democrats to the Republican party, which has swelled – an important result in a year when almost every Republican seat is under threat, and the party needs voters.

Ted Cruz

Texas Senator Ted Cruz is basically the older brother in Step Brothers. He’s a hardline ideological right-wing conservative who’s been throwing bombs in the party for years – but at least the establishment knows him, and to them, at least he’s a true Republican (Trump’s actually a fair bit more moderate than Republicans proper). He’s not popular enough to secure the nomination on delegates, but if he at least sticks around til the end of the primaries and doesn’t lose too badly, he’ll limp to the convention and the party might be able to choose him as nominee on the ground that Trump’s polarising position would isolate too many voters in a general election.

Marco Rubio

A brief shout-out to Marco Rubio – the young Florida Senator who dropped out of the presidential race on Tuesday after crushing defeats in every state’s primary, including his own. Though he’s now gone, that fact’s important for the rest of the race, because it’s just changed the game for Hillary Clinton. It’s virtually guaranteed that she’ll face Trump or Cruz in the general election (the other Republican candidate, John Kasich, trails the other two significantly) – and Rubio might have actually been the Republican’s best candidate in a general. What’s made him ho-hum in the primaries would have been great in a general election: he’s moderate, charismatic, and relatively placid. He was the one who tried to play Trump’s aggressive, angry, bullying game with that small-hands things, and had it absolutely backfire on him: he’s better at hope and optimise than he is at anger, which is what voters want from a president whose vision shapes their next four years.  

Plus, he wasn’t Trump – whom the Republican party doesn’t want out front at a general because of his divisiveness – and he wasn’t Cruz, who is so far right Margaret Thatcher would be taking notes. Now that Rubio’s out, things just got a lot harder for the Republicans.

A wrap-up (for now)

So, that’s the bizarre system the US goes through to choose its presidential candidates, and that’s where they are right now. Nothing’s sewn up yet, and even when it is, it’s worth keeping an eye on what these guys do – partly because they’re the ones most likely to be trying again in 2020, and partly because these themes are exactly what Australian politicians will be tuned into come our own election time later this year. And until then, we’ve still got three more months of US primaries. What great sport.