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Primaries and caucuses

National conventions choose U.S. political party candidates. States select delegates through caucuses or primaries. In primaries, delegates represent candidates based on vote percentages. Some states use a 'winner-takes-all' approach. Caucuses involve local gatherings where delegates are chosen through multiple stages. Early caucuses and primaries, like Iowa and New Hampshire, can influence candidate momentum. Created by Sal Khan.

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  • leaf green style avatar for user Paul Kïttson
    Would America benefit from reform in this process? Could there be a cheaper/more efficient/ more democratic system?
    (23 votes)
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    • blobby green style avatar for user Edward Meade
      Sure, it's called Canada.

      I'm an American but had my schooling on both sides of the border and was lucky enough to have both American and Canadian civics classes. While the Canadian process is not perfect (e.g. prorogation), the 5-week election cycle guarantees that it will be cheaper and more efficient. For example: in 2000, the prime minister called for an election in late Oct, the election was held only three weeks after ours (27 Nov). The votes were tallied and the new Parliament was seated prior to our Supreme Court's Bush v. Gore decision on 12 Dec gave us a president the majority of American voters did NOT vote for. I'm convinced that U.S. news networks don't cover Canadian elections because it would just be too embarrassing for Americans to watch.
      (22 votes)
  • blobby green style avatar for user jojohinky
    So at the end of the state conventions, there is just one candidate to move on to the national convention? And is this per state, leaving fifty candidates per party, or did I miss something?
    (9 votes)
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    • leaf green style avatar for user Mike Ridgway
      I'm afraid that an unclear statement in Sal's presentation has led to this question being asked this way. In actual fact, in non-primary states, it's not the candidate "who moves to the national convention," it's a set of national delegates who get elected and who then go to the national convention, often having publicly pledged at the caucuses or in the conventions to support a certain candidate in the first round of voting at the national convention. So depending on a state's rules, a given group of delegates elected in a convention system might go the national convention all ready to distribute their votes among several different presidential candidates, or they might all be committed to voting for one candidate.

      However, a lot can change between the state primary or the state convention and the national convention, (especially if it becomes apparent that a certain presidential candidate has lined up more than 50 percent of the pledged and bound votes of the national delegates).

      As the primary season progresses, candidates who do poorly will often withdraw from the race or "suspend" their campaigns, and "release" their pledged delegates to vote for someone else. When that happens, the question of whom those delegates will vote for at that point is usually determined by the rules of the state (party) from which those delegates come.
      (18 votes)
  • piceratops ultimate style avatar for user Klaus Beier Nielsen
    Who has the right to vote in the primaries? and who decides who has the right to vote in a state?
    (12 votes)
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  • leaf green style avatar for user Nicholas
    Can someone explain what occurred with Ron Paul and speaking at the RNC and why he wasn't allowed to or something?
    (6 votes)
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    • piceratops ultimate style avatar for user Poemi The Great
      The Republican party leaders decided that anyone who wasn't a strict "establishment" Republican (agreed with the party leaders on all major issues) wouldn't be allowed to speak at the convention, to create a false sense of unity within the party.

      They barred Ron Paul and other Libertarians and Conservatives from speaking because they would be seen as "too extreme".
      (1 vote)
  • duskpin ultimate style avatar for user UnrealDreamer989
    If any parties other than Democrats or Republicans get large enough, do they go through Primaries and Caucuses?
    (4 votes)
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    • mr pink red style avatar for user Robert H
      Many smaller parties are already required to do so in some states. What you may not be aware of the ballots in closed primaries, but they often exist. A Green Party ballot, for example, is usually available (in Illinois) but you must specifically request the ballot. Most parties also hold conventions. Generally speaking, each registered party in a particular state must follow the same set of rules.
      (5 votes)
  • piceratops ultimate style avatar for user Robert G.
    Will the state still have a primary/caucus if there is only one canidate for the party?
    (5 votes)
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    • male robot donald style avatar for user Jonathan
      That doesn't happen. If there was ever one guy running (assuming he is not incumbent) others would definitely join because it is easier to win in a small pool. It is also very good for the party to always have more people running because the competition helps strengthen the candidates for when they run in the general elections...
      (3 votes)
  • orange juice squid orange style avatar for user Alexander C. Arzadon
    Do you think that the primaries should open primaries rather than closed? This increases fairness to third party politicians
    (4 votes)
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    • old spice man green style avatar for user Alf Lyle
      Paraphrasing Wikipedia:
      Arrow’s impossibility theorem states that, when voters have three or more distinct alternatives, no rank order voting system can convert the ranked preferences of individuals into a community-wide consensus while also meeting three [very reasonable sounding] fairness criteria.
      Here’s the link:

      So your third party candidate puts you into the realm where Arrow’s (a man’s name) Theorem applies, where trying to “fairly” pick a winner isn’t possible.
      (5 votes)
  • hopper cool style avatar for user Jonathon Banks
    What is debt?
    (0 votes)
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    • male robot hal style avatar for user Andrew M
      I am going to assume, since, this is posted in a section about politics, that you mean what is the national debt, and what is the budget deficit.

      The national debt is the grand total of all the money that the US government has borrowed to cover the shortfall between what it takes in in taxes and what it spends on all the various things it does.

      The deficit is the amount EACH YEAR by which the government's expenditures exceed what it takes in. So each year, the deficit gets added to the debt, and the debt increases.

      The opposite of a deficit would be a surplus, and the government had a surplus then it would use that to start to reduce the debt.
      (3 votes)
  • purple pi purple style avatar for user Sarah Nema
    At ; how is the number of delegates per state determined? Also, how are the delegates chosen?
    (3 votes)
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  • piceratops ultimate style avatar for user Susan Jaracz
    At , how does a state decide if it does a primary or a caucus?
    (3 votes)
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    • piceratops seed style avatar for user Jarum
      Great question.
      The short answer is that before an election, each political party will choose how it is going to select its candidate within each state.
      It's actually somewhat complicated partly because the process isn't outlined in the US Constitution. One thing to remember is that the political party is choosing its candidate for president within the state. That means that each political party has their own rules within each state for choosing a candidate (like I said, it can get complicated). Basically what the Democratic party does in New Hampshire doesn't have to do what the Republican party does in New Hampshire. It also means that what one party does in Iowa doesn't have to be the same thing they do in Florida.

      Big changes like whether to do a Primary or a Caucus don't occur very often, but they could. It's up to the political party, which is made up of citizens who "register" for that party.
      Hope that helps!
      (4 votes)

Video transcript

Both of the major parties -- and we're talking about the United States here -- hold a national convention during the summer before the actual general election. So the Republicans will hold their Republican national convention, and the Democrats will hold their Democratic national convention. And it's there that they will choose their official candidates that will run against each other in the general election. And a national convention for one of the parties will look something like this. This is the Democratic national convention in 2008. You have all the delegates over here, and everyone's all excited and they start to cheer lead for their party. and for their candidate the republican national convetion looks very similar And although there's a lot of energy here there actually isn't a lot of suspense Going into the convention we usually know already who the candidates for each of the parties are going to be And that's because each of the states have their own selection process for picking a candidate As we get the results from we know how many delegates they're going to send to the convention and who(m) they're going to vote for But there's two ways they can select those candidates or those delegates at the national convention They could either run a caucus or they could run a primary And I'll start with primary because that's a little more intuitive It's kind of like just a election that is based on party for whom do you want to be your nominee at coming out of the convention So for any given state they will have both a Democratic primary and a Republican primary And on the democratic primary let's say candidate A gets 40% of the votes on that election Candidate B gets 30% of the votes and let's say candidate C gets another 30% What will happen is is that state's delegates on the democratic side So let's say that that state just for convenience Let's say they have ten delegates On the democratic side, that means that these delegates will go on to the national convention and represent the different candidates proportionally So out of these ten delegates 40% or four will represent candidate A Three will represent candidate B and three will represent candidate C when they go to the national convention On the republican side it's a little bit more nuance you could have similar results A gets 40% B gets 30% and C gets - now let me do different letters so these aren't the same candidates Let me do candidates D, E and F So you could have candidate D, candidate E, candidate F and let's say - let me do the percentages slightly different for fun So let's he has 45% over here let's say he has 25% over here and then let's say you have candidate F with 30% over here On the republican side it depends from state to state Some states will do it similar to the democrats where the delegates represent the candidates proportion to the votes they have While some other states have it 'winner take all' And so for example in a winner take all state, candidate D will get all 10 delegates And the reason why states do that is it's a stronger incentive for candidates to show up to that state if they feel like their in the running Because if they throw enough money and marketing in that state, that's a big deal to take all of the votes. On the other hand, if you're a smaller candidate and you don't think you can take it all, it may be a disincentive for you to even show up to that state and you might want to focus on the states where you can actually get some delegates So that's all the primary is. It's really a- you can kind of view it as an election That sell separately on the democratic side, separately on the republican side an those are used by the state's parties to decide which delegates go to the national party and whom those delegates are going to vote for A caucus, the point is the same thing To figure out who are your delegates that are going to go to the national convention and whom are they going to vote for but the process is a little bit different In a caucus, you essentially have- people get together in these events, these caucuses in different in these events, these caucuses in different precincts, and the most famous of these are the Iowa caucuses So in small precincts you'll have groups of fifty to a hundred people get together, and the different parties will have different ways of going about it but they have processes in place where people try to market for different candidates they campaign for different candidates and sometimes they'll have a cut-off that if one of the candidates at one of the precincts don't get at least 15% of the votes then those people who supported that candidate will have to give their support to another candidate they make sure that all of the delegates represent at least a certain threshold of voters but there's different processes in place But the bottom line is that at each of these pre-syncs they'll select delegates and then those delegates will then go on to the county conventions and then those delegates at the county conventions now these are representing more people will then pick delegates to the district conventions and then at the district conventions they will pick candidates to the state conventions and at the state conventions they will pick the final candidates that will go on to the national convention No the two most famous caucuses or primaries are the Iowa caucus which takes place in Iowa You have the New Hampshire primary which of course takes place in New Hampshire And they are important not because they pick so many delegates that those delegates will tip the balance necessarily These are small states they don't have that many delegates compared to California or Texas or Florida but what's important about both of them is that they happen very very very early on in the primary season and because they happen early on in the primary season the candidates that come off with the lead here it is easier for them to raise money they say 'Oh I want to give my money to a winner, you know I don't want to give it to a candidate who is just going to blow it and lose the money and lose the election regardless' So it gives you that. It also gives a big signal for who's a front runner because there tends to be dynamics for whoever wins or comes in in second place in the Iowa or New Hampshire primary that those are the people that everyone should pay attention to they get more fundraising it's kind of a self-fulfilling prophecy More people all of a sudden take a serious look at them Now the Iowa caucus just to be clear the primaries all happen in one day and you get the one, the polling results when people exit the polls and you also get the final result pretty quickly This caucus process actually takes place over many many months five months in the case of the Iowa caucus And the result, the thing that the press focuses on is not this final result, of who are the actual delegates that go to the national convention The thing that the press focuses on are the precinct convention where people get together Because coming out of those precinct conventions the state parties get the information on how many candidates each delegates won going into now the county convention And this, this is the indicator that the press and the media and everyone else likes to use to see who's a front runner in that specific party's primary And the reason why the Iowa caucus in particular gets so much importance is because it is the first caucus These results come out before anything else The New Hampshire primary this is the first time that you have direct voting for candidates so you're getting I guess getting a more direct number or your not having it distorted or maybe cleaned up depending on how you view it by all of the different processes that might take place within the precinct convention