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If you’re even vaguely interested in American politics, you’ll know that several Republicans are fighting it out for the right to challenge Barack Obama as the Republican nominee in 2012. But how, exactly do these primaries work? Who are the Republican candidates? More importantly, if not a single primary vote will be cast until February of next year why did candidates start popping their hands up this year in May?

This is the first of my two part series on the Republican nomination, which describes the mechanics of the primary process. The second part will take a look at the candidates themselves. Who are they? Who is most likely to win the primary? Can they defeat Barack Obama? Can new candidates still enter the race?

The American presidential primary system is not constitutionally nor legally entrenched. The process is set down by internal party rules and can be changed by the party according to those rules.

The primary process
I’m going to describe the primary process in some detail, since I want to highlight how the structural design of the primaries has a very powerful impact upon the strategic choices candidates make and upon what sort of candidates are more likely to win the presidential nomination. But, if you want the Sparknotes version, different States have primary elections on different days. The person who wins the most primary elections will become the Republican presidential nominee and face off against Barack Obama in the general election. (All States vote on the same day for the general election).

The primary election process is a historical quirk, but it is a very fluid process constantly changing over time and people are constantly proposing ways to change it even more. It is not merely about increasing civic participation by voters and by party faithful, but it is a crucial test of strength for candidates. In a nation of 200m souls, very few people have a national profile – the primary process is a way for candidates to introduce themselves to the nation and a way for the nation to test whether a candidate can withstand the pressure and scrutiny that a presidential nominee (and a president) must bear. It acts as a crucible, forcing candidates to build a national network of volunteers and raise significant funds from party donors. The process itself acts as a mechanism to promote debate and the exchange of ideas, as well as shaping the content of that debate.

Because I want to highlight the strategic elements of the primary process, I’m going to describe it in reverse chronological order.

General Presidential Election
At the end of the day, the Republican presidential nominee is trying to win the general election against Barack Obama (November 6, next year in 2012). The president is technically appointed by an electoral college. Each State has a certain number of seats in the electoral college (equal to the number of Congressmen that State has, so each State has votes roughly proportionate to its population) and the president is selected by a majority vote of the college. In practice, the vote turns on a few swing States like Florida, Pennsylvania and Ohio. So larger States, such as Texas, California and New York may be ignored by presidential candidates since they are regarded as safe Democratic States. This is important even at much earlier stages – sophisticated fundraisers, lobby groups and political professions will focus upon candidates who can win these swing States. A Republican like Gov Christie, who comes from Florida, has an advantage over Gov Perry of Texas solely because he comes from that State.

Republican National Convention
But to reach the general election, a candidate must win his party’s presidential nomination. The candidate is formally nominated at the Republican National Convention by delegates and the chairman of each State Republican Party. (August 27, 2012) The number of delegates allocated to each State is calculated by a complex formula. Basically, the higher the population, and the more Republican-leaning a State is, the more delegates it has. Historically, a clear winner is picked well before the Convention so the fact that larger States have more delegates becomes almost irrelevant in the scheme of things. The only exceptions in recent times are 2008 (Obama v Clinton) and 1976 (Reagan v Ford – Ford was the incumbent President and narrowly beat Reagan who later won the 1981 primaries).

Interestingly, the rules for the Democratic National Convention differ drastically from the Republicans (although, they follow approximately the same timetable). The formula for delegates to the Democratic National Convention is radically different. It is a form of proportional representation (ie like the Australian Senate), except that candidates with less than 15% of the vote are awarded no delegates. There are also ‘super-delegates’ (delegates who are not pledged to support a particular candidate) who form 20% of the overall vote. These super-delegates are mostly party officials and party elders. With the exception of the 2008 election, the super-delegates have not played a significant role in choosing the nominee.

There is no centralised method for electing those delegates. It is prescribed by the State Republican (or Democratic) Party.

Who can vote? In some States, the primaries are open to all voters, in other States, they are ‘closed primaries’ (you must be a registered party member). In other States, ‘modified primaries’ allow unaffiliated independents to votewith party affiliates in either of the part primaries. In the US, party membership is registered with the government and it is free – in contrast to Australia. In 2008, roughly 35% of primaries were closed, 25% modified, and 40% open. The historical trend is towards having more open primaries. This trend is probably caused by another historical trend for both parties to tend towards the centre (especially since the Clinton years).

How do you calculate the number of delegates from the number of votes? The Democrats mandate the same formula for all States (proportional representation) but the Republicans do not. In 2008, 19 States ran ‘winner-take all’ Republican primaries and a further 5 States had a mixed or modified version of ‘winner-take all’. 9 States ran proportional primaries. Other States had ‘caucuses’, in which all voters in attendance divide themselves into groups according to the candidate they support. The undecided voters congregate into their own group and prepare to be “courted” by supporters of other candidates. Voters in each group are then invited to give speeches supporting their candidate and trying to persuade others to join their group. At the end of the caucus, party organizers count the voters in each candidate’s group and calculate how many delegates to the county convention each candidate has won.

Naturally, this counting process makes a significant difference. In the Democratic race, candidates with a substantial core constituency can last longer than in the Republican race due to the proportional representation system. On the other hand, the Republicans seek the strongest candidate under their ‘winner-takes-all’ system – a candidate who can obtain the support of the diverse kinds of people who are Republicans.

Republican Primaries
The mere fact that one State has more delegates than another is not terribly important. What matters is when those States hold their primary elections. Although the votes of later, larger States are counted, these States have less choice as poor performers in early primaries will drop out of the race. In fact, the race may be decided before some States have voted.

Who decides which States hold their primaries first? The Republican National Committee (whose members were elected at the last Republican National Convention) sets the timetable but the order in which States vote is more or less historically ordained. However, I would emphasise again the fact that the State parties are responsible for organising the elections because some States may choose to defy the timetable set by the DNC. In 2008, during the Democratic primaries Florida and Michigan moved their primaries forward to January and were stripped of their delegates. After some debate, the DNC Credentials Committee permitted them to have half a vote each.

The primary dates have not yet been set for 2012, although the very first primary in Iowa has been confirmed as being on February 6, 2012. With the other early States (New Hampshire, Nevada, South Carolina) being between February 6 and March 5. States with proportional representation and non-binding caucuses will be held in March. The remaining States hold their primaries in April and afterwards.

The two most important categories of primaries are the early primaries and the Super-Tuesday primaries. The early primaries (Iowa, New Hampshire, and also Nevada and South Carolina) are a test of strength for candidates, with many weaker candidates dropping out of the race. Candidates who are genuinely seeking office tend to drop out earlier since they suffer reputational damage if they maliciously stay in the race and since they waste funds that can be used for later campaigns. Candidates who are trying to divert the real candidates attention to certain causes tend to drop out of the race later. In 2008, the early primaries were held from Jan 3 to February 3 (although the more notable States were held earlier: Iowa – Jan 3, Wyoming – Jan 5, New Hampshire – Jan 9).

Therefore, the nature of the early voting States is crucial to what sort of candidate can win. This can be something as mundane as being born in Iowa. Tea party candidate Michele Bachmann is making as much hay out of this fact as possible.

It is often said that Iowa and New Hampshire are more conservative and more rural States, which skews America towards the preferences of those voters. In the West Wing episode, ‘King Corn’, the candidates all had to take the pledge to support ethanol subsidies at the Iowa Corn Growers’ Expo. No doubt the Iowa primaries are a key reason why agricultural subsidies are so difficult to eradicate. New Hampshire is an overwhelmingly white State, with about 94% of its population being white and mostly American-born. Likewise, Iowa has a 96% White population (although Hispanic immigration is increasing) with only 3% of the population being foreign-born.

But I would argue the conservatism of these States is overrated. These States have a non-conformist and individualist/libertarian streak. New Hampshire’s motto is ‘Live Free or Die’ and its nickname is “The Granite State”, in reference to its geology and its tradition of self-sufficiency. Likewise, Iowa was the vanguard in various civil and individual rights movements. In fact, New Hampshire and Iowa are one of the few States to have full gay marriage. New Hampshire was the first to legalise gay marriage by legislation. New York became the second last month. Surveys suggest that New Hampshire’s population, whilst 70% Christian tend to be less devout than other States.

Whilst pre-1992, New Hampshire often voted Republican, the demographics are shifting. Its population centre is moving southwards since population growth is occuring along its border with Massachusetts (or, as conservatives like to call it, Taxachusetts). Iowa has also shifted from Republican to become a weakly Democratic State, though there are strong Republican pockets.

‘Super-Tuesday’ is the day on which the most primaries are held. In successive elections, more and more States have moved their primaries forward to Super-Tuesday so that in 2008, 52% of pledged Democratic delegates and 41% of Republican delegates were at stake on Super-Tuesday. Super-Tuesday was held on February 5, 2008.


If the first primary/caucus isn’t till February 6 of next year, why are all the candidates coming out of the woodwork now? Why did people like Donald Trump throw their hat in the ring as early as May? Structurally, the answer is that there are several debates and other events. These are organised on an ad hoc basis. In 2008, the first debate was held on May 3, 2007 almost a year before any votes were cast. There were 21 debates in total, the last being on Feb 2, 2008 (just before the first primary in Iowa).

I’m skeptical of the importance of these debates, aside from gaining momentary prominence. They are scheduled too far apart for provide momentum and the early debates will often not be attended by frontrunners depriving the winner of any legitimacy. They may provide a platform for weaker candidates to present themselves to the nation, but the media tends not to focus upon what those candidates say.

There are also events, such as the Ames Straw Poll. Ames is the geographic centre of Iowa (the location of the first primary) and is treated as a good indicator of which candidate is likely to fare best in the Iowa primary. The Ames Straw Poll is held during a fundraiser/county fair, in which each candidate makes a speech to attendees (including non-Republicans) who then formally vote for a candidate. That vote has no binding effect, but is strongly symbolic. The Ames Straw Poll is always held on a Saturday in August; this year’s straw poll is scheduled for August 13, 2011.

Attendance at the Straw Polls is not compulsory. In 2008, 3 out of 4 of the lead contenders (Giuliani, McCain, Thompson) did not attend the Ames Straw Poll. The other lead contender, Romney, came first followed by Huckabee. Of course, if the majority of leading candidates attend then it is a sign of weakness for the other candidate not to attend.

The crucial point, however, is that even by August, candidates must have a strong field organisation throughout the whole of Iowa and sufficient funds, media profile etc to make a strong showing at the Ames Straw Poll. Candidates with more fund-raising prowess and stronger organisations in Iowa can afford to bus in supporters from across Iowa. Candidates must bid to pay for booths at the fair, which can cost as much as $31,000 each. A victory in Ames will be publicised in media across America, giving the winner front-runner status, political momentum and national publicity. It is, however, far from a slam dunk. Of the last 5 Straw Polls, only 2 Ames winners became the Republican nominee (George W Bush, Bob Dole).

Organisation Building, Media Profile and Fund-raising
More importantly than the debates and straw polls is the ability to raise funds, build national networks of volunteers, build a media profile and gain political momentum.

Since the primaries are held so closely together (with a few days between them), candidates must have built a network in the early States and in the Super-Tuesday States by February, 2012. Arguably, they would need this infrastructure ready by August (for the Ames Straw Poll and similar events). In any case, the mere fact of having an infrastructure is pointless unless you use it. Candidates must build that network of volunteers and use it to doorknock, to call voters etc over a period of several months in preparation for the primaries and earlier events.

Fund-raising is another crucial factor. Building a network of volunteers and funding their activities costs vast amounts of money. But being able to fund television campaigns in key States and being able to outfund your competitors is a crucial advantage because of the pervasive power of television advertising. This requires the ability to inspire Republican donors (whether ordinary individuals, corporations, lobby groups or rich donors). Closely related is the power to attract endorsements from key lobby groups, such as the Heritage Foundation, and from prominent Republicans. Traditionally, fund-raising mostly comes from large donors but in 2008 Barack Obama, Ron Paul and, to a lesser extent, Mike Huckabee demonstrated a prodigious ability to raise funds from small donations.

Media coverage is another crucial factor that contributes to candidates’ ability to raise funds and build organisations. It allows candidates to shape their message to the voters, and to donors because it simply isn’t possible to shake the hands of 200 million Americans individually, nor to give speeches to all of them at rallies. Mitt Romney is currently using his media profile to give an impression of himself as the undeniable frontrunner by attacking Obama on the economy (without mentioning his Republican competitors) and cementing his message of being a business leader who knows how to turn around a failing economy.

Candidates with a higher media profile can use it to reshape the areas of debate between competitors. An ascendant Romney, for example, has pushed the debate away from healthcare or social conservatism towards the economy. This hurts, for example, Santorum whose focus is on social issues.

High profile candidates can also use their power to attack and hurt other candidates. If Palin were to make any statements about Romney’s flip-flopping or stance on healthcare, it would instantly become front page news and severely injure Romney. Any rebuttal by Romney would be drowned out by that headline. This is a double-edged chalice, as it may give prominence to that other candidate and signal that Palin considers Romney a real threat to her candidacy.

More important is the concept of ‘momentum’. A candidate who wins successive debates or media cycles becomes more embedded in the voters’ minds to the exclusion of other candidates. He gains more media power which can be used to gain further power.

One final point I’d make is that to begin to build up these three factors, a candidate must already have reasonably strong national credentials. How do you build a national network or a national media profile if the media ignores you and no one knows your name outside your home state?

Becoming a candidate
Under federal election laws, candidates must form an exploratory committee if they wish to spend more than $5000. In practice, candidates use an exploratory committee as not only a transitional phase for their bookkeeping but as an extra claim on media attention. Some of the most skillful handlers like to leak word that their candidate is testing the waters, then leak word that he or she is thinking about forming an exploratory committee. Additional “news” can be made when the same candidate actually forms such a committee and registers with the Federal Election Commission. Yet a fourth round of attention may be generated when the word exploratory gets dropped from the committee filing.


2 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. […] analogy with the US Presidential Primaries is completely misleading. As I described in a previous post, the US primaries are a test of strength, requiring candidates to spend half a year fund-raising […]

  2. […] with the US Presidential Primaries (which is what most people think of) is completely misleading. As I described in a previous post, the US primaries are a test of strength, requiring candidates to spend half a year fund-raising […]

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