How The US Primary Election Works

How The US Primary Election Works

The US election has the potential to affect the global economy for years to come — so you should probably be paying closer attention. But even if you’ve been following the current presidential race with keen interest, it can be difficult to understand how delegates are picked. This explainer covers everything from how the US caucus system works for each major party to the likelihood of Donald Trump being president.

[credit provider=”Getty Images” url=”″]

Before a US presidential candidate can be on the ballot for the general election, they have to win the approval and backing of their political party. Think of the caucuses and primaries as the Australian Open — with candidates dropping out after each round of voting — and the general election this fall is like the final where (usually) two candidates go head to head for the right to fart in the oval office.

How Is a Caucus Different Than a Regular Primary?

Every state has either a caucus or a regular primary, but both are part of the primary election process. A regular primary is essentially a ballot election, open to all eligible voters in that party. A caucus is more of a political event, especially for Democrats (more on that in a bit).

Both are run at the state level, but primaries are run by state governments, while caucuses are run by state party officials. In terms of accessibility, voters participate in primaries by casting a ballot at any point on a primary election day. Caucuses, on the other hand, take place at a very specific time, in a specific place. If you’re late or unavailable, you cannot participate. Caucuses are also a much larger time commitment, with some taking several hours to complete. This list from Election Central will let you see whether your state is holding a primary or caucus, and when it is.

What Happens at a Caucus

So what actually happens at these caucuses? For both Republicans and Democrats, a caucus can be a long affair. Voters meet at schools, churches and other community centres; unlike in Australia, voting is entirely voluntary. Party officials do some last-minute campaigning or give a few speeches, and sometimes presidential candidates will even attend. Finally, after all of that, the actual voting will begin.

That’s where things start to differ dramatically. Here’s the breakdown:

If You’re a Republican:

After hearing some speeches and maybe talking with a few politicos, you cast a secret ballot in a private voting booth just as you would during a regular primary or general election. That’s it for a Republican Party caucus.

If You’re a Democrat:

The voting process at a Democratic Party caucus is a little more physical and time-consuming, but also a little more exciting. Here’s how it all breaks down:

  1. The total number of voters at the caucus are counted.
  2. Voters gather in a large room to talk amongst themselves and convince one another their candidate is bigger, stronger and way cooler.
  3. Voters are then asked to vote by swarming into groups for each candidate. They may also stand aside in an “undecided” group at first.
  4. The number of people in each group is then counted off.
  5. Any candidate that doesn’t have at least 15% of the total head count is removed.
  6. Then the “realignment” phase begins. Voters who were in a removed candidate’s group, or part of the undecided pool, must then choose a new candidate to side with. While they decide, voters are allowed to talk to each other (read: shout over) and try to convince the newly unaligned why their candidate is bigger, stronger, and way cooler.
  7. Once those voters huddle up with their new groups, everyone is counted off again, and candidates with less than 15% of the total head count are removed.

That process continues until there are only viable candidates left. If this process sounds like it could get intense and loud, you’re correct. This video from inside a 2008 Iowa caucus will give you a little taste.

What Happens After That?

Depending on the state, delegates are divided based on the caucus results, and sent to the national party convention to vote for their candidate on behalf of their state. Some states have “binding” primary elections, which are more of a winner-take-all contest. In states with binding primary elections, all of a state’s delegates are awarded to one candidate. Other states have “proportional” primary elections, where delegates are awarded in proportion to the popular vote. Finally, there are “non-binding” primary elections. Non-binding primary elections first select candidates for a state convention, where those candidates vote for how to divide the state’s delegates.

Some states, like Iowa for example, start even smaller and select candidates for a county convention, who then select candidates for a state convention, who then finally vote for delegates to the national convention. It all varies by state, so if you’re curious how your state handles it, this list from explains.

Finally, the delegates from each state go to their respective party’s national convention and cast their vote for their party’s presidential nominee. They usually vote based on the results in their precinct, so it’s not uncommon for winners to be forecast early on. That said, delegates aren’t necessarily required to uphold their pledge, so a close race can still be anybody’s game. After the delegate’s votes are counted, each party announces their presidential nominee.

How Can I Find A Delegate’s Stance On Different Issues?

Google can help here — and not just via usual searches. A new tool allows you to instantly find a candidate’s stance on issues as well as track the primary results. When you search for a specific candidate, you get a dropdown menu that runs through their stance on topical issues. You can also narrow that down with a search like, “Donald Trump immigration policies.” The resulting quotes are pulled from various news sources. As far as the primaries are concerned, go ahead and just search for “primary results,” to get up-to-date info on how everything’s shaking out.

Is Donald Trump going to be leader of the free world?

At the time of writing, Trump has won three of four states. Tomorrow, a number of US states will hold primary elections simultaneously. This is known as Super Tuesday and is considered a presidential candidate’s first test of national electability. Participating states include Alabama, Arkansas, Colorado, Georgia, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, Vermont, and Virginia.

If opinion polls are anything to go by, Trump looks poised to pick up more delegates on Super Tuesday than any of his Republican rivals. Candidates that win these caucuses don’t always go on to win their party’s nomination, but history suggests it’s a fairly good indicator of things to come. If Trump won all delegates up for grabs, he would have more than half of the 1237 delegates needed to secure his party’s nomination. Ulp. Of course, winning your party’s nomination is only half the battle — you then have to come out on top in the US general election. In other words, the outcome is far from decided.

Additional reporting by Chris Jager.


  • If the Orangutan does end up in charge over there, I wouldn’t mind at all if China and Russia got together and rolled the US. The country would fail anyway

  • John Oliver did a piece on Trump on Sunday, with little things like 75% of his statements being rated false, a statement that he basically states his wealth depending on how he feels at the time, and the fact that he was at one time $8B in debt. Oh, and his family name was originally Drumpf.

    However, all of the Republican candidates are scary to some degree. Crikey’s headline piece today outlines some of their policies, and most of them make Tony Abbott look like Gough Whitlam. To quote that piece, “Donald Trump is not the anomaly for the Republican Party; he’s the status quo, with worse hair and a louder mouth.”

    • The times when he said you should kill terrorist’s families, or that he would bring back waterboarding, and bring back a lot worse, are truly scary. Luckily I think the American government has enough checks and balances to stop too much bad from happening (I hope).

Show more comments

Comments are closed.

Log in to comment on this story!