Public Policy: Presidential Primaries and Caucuses

Over the last few months many of the states with early presidential primaries and caucus have played chicken with each other over the dates they wish to hold their respective events.  For those of you who do not follow politics let’s have a little background.

There are two methods used by the states, territories and political parties to choose who will be the nominee for that party to campaign for the office of President of the United States (POTUS). The first most well-known method is that of a primary election. The registered voters of the party go to the polls and vote for the candidate of their party whom they would like to see win their party’s nomination. These elections have their own drama to them in the fact that some are open primaries and some our closed. Closed primaries means only those who have declared a party may vote for that party’s candidates. An open primary does not require anyone to declare a party to vote. Each state runs their primary elections different, which is the general rule for all elections.

The second less well-known method of selecting delegates for the national convention is that of a caucus. Very few states run caucuses anymore, Nevada and Iowa being the most well-known due to how early they are in the process. Here is what happens at a caucus. The registered voters for a political party within the precinct meet at a predetermined time and destination. They are then asked to line up with whom they would like to nominate. They count the supporters for each candidate. For a candidate to receive delegates for the county convention they must have a specific number of supporters. If candidates do not have enough supporters or there people undecided the supports for other candidates may convince them to join with their candidate. Once this is done they select delegates for each candidate from that precinct to be sent to the county convention where it happens all over again and then again at the state level.

But both of these methods do not to truly select the person who will be the party’s nominee. This just determines how many delegates from that state are going to the national convention to nominate the candidate for that party. Now by the time that the delegates meet at the Party’s National Convention, all this voting and caucusing may not matter because the other candidates could have dropped out. But candidate can keep any delegates earned during the primaries; unless released by the candidate. Each state is also granted delegates for the National Convention on a series of formulas that include population, general support for the party in the state, number of registered members of the party and the list goes on and on. In modern-day times the Convention is not a big deal because it just reasserts the person who won the most delegates, but in the past this was a contentious battle between different groups within the political party. Sometimes it took multiple ballots to have a candidate win a majority.

Does all that make sense now?

This all started when Florida decided to move up its primary date in to January. This intern forced the other early primary states to move up their dates. Iowa moved their caucuses to January 3rd. Nevada moved theirs to January 14th. New Hampshire is threatening to move their primary election up to December. State law requires them to have the first primary in the presidential election.

If this sounds at all familiar, it also happened during the last Presidential Election, when the Democratic Parties of Florida and Michigan moved their primary dates against the will of the National committee. The Democratic Party allowed both states to move their primaries, but they gave up their delegates at the National Convention. In the middle of the campaign both Florida and Michigan voters grew angry because now their votes effectively did not count. And those delegates could have swung the nomination in favor of Hilary Clinton, when you consider both the uncompleted primaries and the party’s Super Delegate (That is another topic that will not be dealt with in this article). The Party brokered a  during the campaign but it did not make a lick of difference to the result. And we are dealing with this issue again four years later, just on the Republican Party side.

Running elections have always been a power reserved for the states, though Congress has limited authority over elections within the Constitution. This authority is found in Article I, Section 4; it states: “The Times, Places and Manner of holding Elections for Senators and Representatives, shall be prescribed in each State by the Legislature thereof; but the Congress may at any time by Law make or alter such Regulations…” Congress has used this authority in the past to establish the first Tuesday after the first Monday as the day for all federal elections for Congress and the President ever four years. They have also used this authority to write federal campaign contribution laws. Congress has t the authority to clear up this mess once and for all, if they wanted to.

This solution allows for the states to still have plenary authority over the elections but require all Presidential Primaries and Caucuses accomplished within a limited period. For example, Congress sets a two month window for all the primary elections to take place. Each state and state political party could set their primaries for any time within that window.

The advantage of this plan would be that the Presidential campaign would be drastically shortened. This would give the candidates a good chance to affect the final outcome since the shortened period of the primary campaign would mean that they did not have to raise and spend money over a long period of time, like the last few elections.

One disadvantage to this system would be all the legal challenges that would come from this law being passed. New Hampshire would probably be the first to file suit against the federal government because its state law requires that its primary be first in the nation.

If this case were to go before the U.S. federal courts it would likely be decided in the favor of the federal law for several reasons. First, as previously discussed, the federal government already has authority granted in the Constitution to make such a law. Secondly, all federal laws override state laws, therefore the New Hampshire law would be deemed null, void and unconstitutional in light of the Supremacy Clause. But if the law was properly written it could still allow New Hampshire to still have the first primary in the nation.

While this solution is not perfect, it will help solve some of the problems the faced in the last few Presidential Elections. And as always, you should not make the perfect the enemy of the good.

Questions? Comments? Concerns? Class dismissed!


4 thoughts on “Public Policy: Presidential Primaries and Caucuses

  1. Primaries are next to worthless, as they should not be needed. Just because a political party chooses you, doesn’t mean any of the other candidates should not continue to run. I know the parties would disagree because their candidates would split votes, thus not unifying behind one candidate.

    The political parties of today are corrupted and pointless institutions. However, your insight on this process is well put and creates a worthy discussion on this subject, even if I disagree with the whole thing. Thanks Adam for continuing to inform people about how these things actually work rather then just having uneducated or ignorant people speak their mouth before doing the research. Rock on!

  2. Ben, I agree with you about political parties. George Washington was right over 200 years ago when he said they would be bad for the republic since they only care about the accumulation of power instead of doing what is in the best interest of the nation as a whole. If you look at the elections article in the Adapted U.S. Constitution on this page you will find all elections in the U.S. under the adapted Constitution would be nonpartisan in nature as would all leadership positions in the House and Senate.

    I appreciate the compliments. I try to inform the people as best I can to the facts of government and history. Then obviously give my opinion on the subject. I hope you sign up to be a member.

  3. Pingback: Primaries and Cacuses, What’s the difference? « The Sexy Politico's Blog

  4. Pingback: Michigan is an Open Primary State « The Young Economist

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