The Structure And Function Og The U.S. Primaries Essay

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The Structure And Function Og The U.S. Primaries

The U.S. presidential primaries are contests between members of the same party that state political parties hold in order to select delegates to the national nominating conventions (Stevenson, 1992 p. 40).

The U.S. primaries have their origins in the party primaries of the late nineteenth century held on the local level. They are a twentieth century product that was conceived in an attempt to reduce the party bosses’ power and to give it to the voters (Kendall). In 1904, Florida was the first American state that adopted the presidential primary elections and a number of other states followed suit with the next decade. This reform revitalized the role of the primary elections in the process of determining party nominees and encouraged broader participation of voters in the nomination process (Coleman, Cantor, & Neale).

            The series of primaries and caucuses is the initial step in the election of the President of the United States of America. The primary elections are held by local and state governments in order to narrow the list of presidential candidates that this state will support at the national convention of major political parties. The candidates who obtain the majority of delegates at the Democratic and Republican conventions respectively are officially nominated for President by these parties (United States Presidential Primary).

            Both the Republican and Democratic Parties adopted their own approach to the assignment of delegates to the different states.

Democratic Party

            The allocation of delegates practiced by Democrats is based on population and depends on Electoral College strength and on how the population voted for the Democratic candidate for President in the previous general election. Delegates are also awarded to the following jurisdictions which do not take part in the presidential election, namely: the Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, Guam, Democrats Abroad, and American Samoa. Additionally, delegate slots are assigned to party  members of the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate, former distinguished officials, and party leaders (Coleman, Cantor, & Neale).

            Democrats have two basic groups of delegates: those who are bound to support a particular candidate (pledged delegates), and those who are not (unpledged delegates). Pledged delegates are divided into three categories: a) district-level base delegates; b) at-large base delegates; c) and pledged party and elected official delegates. Three quarters of delegates designated to the state are chosen at the district level, and the remaining 25% of delegates are assigned at-large. At-large and district level delegates are selected in the same manner but separately at different stages of the allocation process. A 15% addition of pledged party and elected official delegates in most cases are chosen in the same way as at-large delegates (Coleman, Cantor, & Neale).

            Unpledged delegates for the state are divided in the following categories: a) former Democratic officials such as Presidents and Vice Presidents, Speakers of the House of Representatives, Majority leaders of the Senate, and all Chairs of the Democratic National Committee (DNC); b) Democratic Governors; c) Members of the DNC and the State chairs, vice chairs, and officers of the DNC as well; d) and all party members of the House of Representatives and the Senate. Their number depends on the availability of individuals in each of these categories (Coleman, Cantor, & Neale).

Republican Party

In the allocation system practiced by Republicans there are three delegates assigned per congressional district and six delegates at-large assigned for every state. There are also bonus delegates whose number depends on how the voters in a given state voted in the past elections for Republican presidential candidate, Republican candidates for the U.S. House of Representatives, the U.S. Senate, and Governor. The Republican National Committee also assigns delegates for other jurisdictions (Coleman, Cantor, & Neale).

In case a particular state voted for the Republican candidate in the previous election, it gets four and one-half at-large bonus delegates. If the state elected a Republican candidate to the Governorship and the Senate in the previous elections, it is allocated one bonus delegate. A state with Republican half the delegation to the House of Representatives is also allocated one bonus delegate (Coleman, Cantor, & Neale).

If a particular state holds the primary or caucus after mid-March of the election year, it is awarded bonus delegates by the national party. If states hold the primary or caucus between March 15 and April 14, they are awarded a 5% increase to the delegation to the national convention. State parties are awarded a 7.5% increase or a 10% increase, if the contests are scheduled between April 15 and May 14 or May 15 and the third Tuesday in June respectively. National party rules give state parties considerable flexibility in the process of determining the means of selecting the at-large and district delegates (Coleman, Cantor, & Neale).

Primaries and caucuses (conventions)

State parties use and combine electoral devices such as the primary and the caucus (convention) systems, which are different in each state, in the process of choosing and electing delegates to the national party conventions. Both the state parties and the state legislatures determine when delegate selection events occur. Caucus events are determined by the state’s political parties, while primary dates are scheduled by the state legislatures (Coleman, Cantor, & Neale; Vontz, & Nixon).

Voting in presidential primaries in most states is restricted to party members only. This method is called closed primaries. In open primary states voters are allowed to choose either party’s ballot. In this case, voter registration by party is not required. Crossover primary states allow the participation of independent voters as well as voters from any political party (US Government Guide: Presidential Primaries).

In a caucus, party leaders or members meet to determine the composition of delegations that will attend the national nominating convention. The caucus (convention) process consists of several levels and begins with various meetings of ordinary party members mostly at the precinct level.

Participants in a caucus publicly declare their support for a particular presidential candidate. The next step is the election of representatives by caucus participants who will support the latter’s presidential preference in caucuses held at the county or congressional district levels. Finally, at the next stage, state delegates to the national convention are selected (Coleman, Cantor, & Neale; Q&A: US primaries and caucuses).

In states that do not provide for presidential primaries, the caucus method is used by both parties. Political parties may also decide to withdraw from the primary method and instead use the caucus method to select their delegates. In some primary states, caucuses are used as a component of the selection process, but in such cases the results of the primary election are more important in the division of delegates (Coleman, Cantor, & Neale).

The main difference between the Democratic and Republican parties in selecting delegates in primaries and caucuses is that the former requires delegate candidates to declare their presidential or uncommitted preference and the latter does not require this declaration (Coleman, Cantor, & Neale).

State Democratic parties use one of the four methods to select district delegates: a) caucus (convention) system; b) pre-primary caucus; c) post-primary caucus; d) and two-part primary. District delegates declare their presidential or uncommitted preference in the primaries and caucuses. At-large delegates as well as pledged party and elected official delegates also state a presidential or uncommitted preference. They are selected by the state committee, the state convention to reflect caucus or primary results, or by a committee of elected district delegates (Coleman, Cantor, & Neale).

Republican district delegates are elected in primaries or selected by candidates for President according to the primary votes. These delegates may be selected in congressional district caucuses or combined with the at-large delegates. At-large delegates can be elected by primary voters, chosen by candidates for President on the basis of the primary vote, chosen at the state convention, or selected by the state committee (Coleman, Cantor, & Neale).


  1. Coleman, K. J.; Cantor, J. E.; & Neale, T. H. Presidential Elections in the United States: A Primer. Retrieved March 1, 2008 from the World Wide Web:
  2. Kendall, K. E. Communication Patterns in Presidential Primaries 1912-2000: Knowing the Rules of the Game. Retrieved March 1, 2008 from the World Wide Web:
  3. Q&A: US primaries and caucuses. Retrieved March 1, 2008 from the World Wide Web:
  4. Stevenson, D. K. (1992) American Life and Institutions. (2nd ed.). Stuttgart: Ernst Klett Schulbuchverlage GmbH u. Co.KG.
  5. United States Presidential Primary. Retrieved March 1, 2008 from the World Wide Web:
  6. US Government Guide: Presidential Primaries. Retrieved March 1, 2008 from the World Wide Web:
  7. Vontz, T. S.; & Nixon, W. A. Teaching about Presidential Elections. Retrieved March 1, 2008 from the World Wide Web:

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