Primary Elections Explained

Primary elections are how political parties
in the United States pick their strongest candidate to run for president.
The parties do this by holding mini-elections in each of the states and the candidates with
the most votes from these elections becomes the parties’ official nominees; these nominees
then face each other in the national election for president.
But this isn’t the whole story. There are five things that make it a bit more complicated
than that… Complication #1: Primaries vs Caucuses
In every state, the local party leaders decide how to run their elections. The two most common
choices are primaries and caucuses. Primaries are just like standard elections.
Go to the polls whenever you can, stand in a long line, hide in a booth, then tick a
box or press a button and your vote is cast in complete anonymity.
A Caucus, however, is a public vote. People gather in groups wherever space is
available then literally take sides in the room with everyone else who likes the same
candidate. The groups debate each other and, if people
change their minds, they need to physically switch sides.
At the end of the debates party representatives count the number of people in each group.
If you leave too early, you don’t count. This description of primaries and caucuses
is really all you need to know but the specifics can vary wildly.
That’s because there are fifty states all of which hold at least two primaries and caucuses
for the big parties, and possibly more for the small parties.
Covering all the local variants would take a tediously long time which your short attention
span for boring political videos wouldn’t tolerate – And you need to stay focused
because there are four more things to cover. Complication #2: Who can vote?
In the National Presidential election all American citizens over the age of 18 can vote,
with two exceptions, you can’t live here or here.
But primaries are in-state elections with lots of different rules.
Most states and parties will only let you vote in the primary if you are an official
member of the party. This is called a closed primary because the voting is closed to non-party
members. But some citizens are independents – and
are not registered with any party. If you’re an independent and live in a state with closed-party
elections, tough luck. No voting for you. Some states, however, have ‘semi-closed’
primaries. Where independents can pick one, and only one, primary to vote in. Parties
allow this because the presidential election is often determined by independents so knowing
which candidates they like is useful. Finally a few states and parties really play
it fast and lose with open primaries. Here any citizen, no matter which party they’re
registered with, can pick a primary to vote in.
But it’s not just the states that have primaries, they’re also held in the District of Columbia
and the oft-forgotten territories – holding primaries here is a bit odd though considering
that territorial residents can’t vote in the actual presidential election.
Lastly are the Americans living abroad who, depending on the party, vote in a bloc as
though they all lived together in one a big, extra state.
When all these elections take place depends on…
Complication #3 Who Votes When? Primaries aren’t conducted all at once but
are spread out over a year. This leads to fights between the states about who gets to
be at the head of the line and who is stuck at the back. Inevitably, last minute leap-frogging
of dates happens – even though the parties often take away votes from these uncivil states.
When it comes to being #1, nobody beats New Hampshire who wrote it into state law that
their primary will always be at least a week ahead of everyone else’s.
Which isn’t a problem until some other state gets the bright idea to do the same and then
we have an infinite loop in our system and have to force-quit the law.
But wait, you say, doesn’t Iowa already go first? Yes, but New Hampshire lets them
get away with it for two reasons: 1) Iowa’s election is a caucus and so New
Hampshire is still technically the first primary. and
2) New Hampshire thinks that Iowa is stupid and doesn’t matter.
Other states try to boost their influence not by cutting in line but by forming an alliance
and holding their primaries at the same time. The biggest alliance of the election cycle
is called Super Tuesday where – depending on how many states can agree with each other
– around half of them might participate, giving out a whole pile of votes.
Which brings us to: Complication #4: Votes That Aren’t Votes.
So this whole time you’re were probably thinking that citizens give votes straight
to the candidates, but no. Instead, the votes are given to a bunch of
guys, called delegates, who in turn will give them to candidates as requested to. Maybe.
Depending on the state, delegates might be required to vote as the citizens did, or they
might be completely free to ignore the citizens and vote for whomever they want.
Who are these people? The delegates are local party VIPs, such as state reps and officials.
The more citizens who live in a state, the more delegates that state gets.
Later in the year, when all the states have finished their primaries, the delegates travel
to a huge gathering for their party called the National Convention.
It’s here that the official vote to select the party’s nominee for president happens.
But it’s not just these delegates who do the voting.
Complication #5 Super Delegates Super delegates are the top members of the
party such as congressmen and former presidents. They go to the National Convention, not to
represent the people, but to represent the current party establishment and can vote for
whomever they want. Depending on the party, the super delegates
might be up to 20% of the voters at the National Convention.
Usually by the time the national convention happens all the candidates save one have dropped
out of the race so the convention is just a rubber stamp and a big party. But if the
fight between candidates is still ongoing, the delegates and super delegates are the
ones with the final decision. In summary:
Over the course of a year the states, plus, DC plus the territories, and the Americans
Abroad hold their primaries, or caucuses. When finished the delegates representing the
citizens who voted in those elections travel to the national convention. Most of the delegates
are forced to vote as the citizens of their state wanted them to, but some of them are
free to vote as they like. At the national convention the delegates meet
up with the super delegates who represent the best interests of the party and together
they make the final decision on who will be the nominee for president.
Tired? Don’t be, because now the race for the presidency begins.
Of course, you can skip all that and jump straight into the election as an independent,
the only downside to this strategy is near-certain defeat.

About the author


  1. Unpopular Opinion: I too would want a more purely democratic system if I could make sure that everyone was very informed of all the candidates and their stances on hot issues. However, since most people just vote for whoever they see the most on the TV, which they usually get from a biased news source, I acknowledge the need for delegates whose JOB it is to make informed decisions. Obviously the system is still not a great one though.

  2. You can still vote if you are in jail, there are multiple organizations trying to increase voting rates for those who are in prison…

  3. And this the main problem with politics today. It has caused extreme tribalism, for example someone declaring themselves never to vote for a Democrat again but then falling blindly to Republicans, or the Democrats introducing new identity politics which is pure tribalism at its finest. Primary elections should be banned.

  4. Anyone planning on voting in the upcoming primaries must by now realize, among all the candidates, before the issuing of any political articulated position papers geard to win your vote, what came first for them, and is most important, the consideration of the shade of their hair dye that you will be able to observe and like enough to vote for them…

  5. So, our vote doesnt matter? between deligates and upper deligates and if you are registered as a independent or freedom party or even green, dont get to vote after the open primary??? really?! and you never mentioned the electoral college, dude this system is rigged…money driven and power driven to see the upper persons vote matters? like what about the rest of the people? this is not fair…whats the point of me waisting 4 hours of my life to stand in a line or vote by mail and never recieve a confirmation of my ballot? why? thats not America.

  6. Actually, the really strange thing is the degree of state involvement in the process by which private organizations with no constitutional foundation decide who they want to nominate for an election. Why should anyone but Democrats and Republicans decide who and how the Democratic and Republican parties will nominate?

  7. So…if you can vote at the opposing party's primaries, wouldnt it make sense to vote for the least strong candidate, knowing they're more likely to lose?

  8. who says you can be part of a certain closed primary or an open one? and why?
    does the number of parties in a state depend on the population or am I making this up?
    im so confusion and i have a paper do welp

  9. A small correction but the Republican Party superdelegates are required under regulation to vote the way their state voted. Only Democrats believe in having superdelegates untethered to the people's wish. And thus they got Clinton, thank God she was easy to beat.

  10. I don't know why there are so many complaints. Primaries are for parties to select who their nominee is and has nothing to do with Democracy. Primaries are for parties to see who of their many choices is the most popular and the most likely to get more votes in the national election. That's why you have a Republican nominee, a Democrat nominee and independents running in the general election. The reason only the major party candidates have a chance of winning the presidency is the people themselves, cause they have the choice to vote for a 3rd or 4th candidate. McMullin got 21% of the votes in Utah, but no other state voted for him that much. And the electoral collage is not a bad system at all, first of all it allows that the elections won't be dominated by New York and California, and it makes for a fun election night which I imagine brings in billions of dollars in benefits since it's so highly followed and each state call being waited for by hundreds of millions of Americans (and hundreds of millions of foreigners as well).

  11. Now, I do recognize some issues that can occur with a complete democracy, but I just hate it when Americans push their system around because it is a "democracy". This is all on top of the fact that most of the important decisions and work for the nation as a whole is done by big corporations (which is not always bad (as it encourages productiveness), but can still be bad as these firms are forced to make decisions that may be undustainable/benefit the rich because of competition, do not always cooperate, and may focuss on demerit goods/services). The American system is not completely terrible, it's just not perfect either.

  12. All of this was against trump. Thats one big tide to fight against. He had to jump through a lot of hoops. Single handedly. Lot of respect for trump

  13. Wow I'm really glad of my Indian System.
    We have a an independent body(like judiciary) Election Commission of India who is responsible to conduct the elections nationwide. Ruling party has no say in appointment of officials in this commission and every decision is subject to Right to Information act(declassified).

    We have constituencies on which every party field their candidate and thus like this 545 MPs are chosen.

    Parties who can garner most MPs win and choose their pre-declared(optional) candidate for Prime Minister position.

    Done dana done done.

  14. Why are these official government events and not just things the parties do (albeit close to official) on their own time and dime. I don't want the government condoning such undemocratic methods for picking political candidates, especially if this can actually, legally affect the candidates.

  15. To everyone in the comments: stop fucking complaining about the delegates.

    America never has and hopefully never will be a straight up democracy. Simple majority rule is bullshit and the constitution was specifically designed to avoid this problem. Although a simple democracy is much better than a dictatorship for example, a representative democracy or a constitutional republic (as the United States is) helps avoid many of the problems that a simple democracy can create

  16. If you're in the democrat party, here's how it works

    1. The DNC decides who wins the primary

    2. All the superdelegates get behind the anointed one

    3. You vote

    4. The anointed one wins

  17. The DNC can't stand a disruption in the status quo so they rig it. The next convention they have said there will be no Superdelegates in the first ballot, they did this to appease the Bernie Sanders and other progressives bases so they have an active primary season that helps the winner gain some momentum going into the general. However, they are rigging it by agreeing to have large numbers of candidates (who have actually said they aren't aiming to win) to stand to eventually dilute the first ballot. Then claim to save the day by getting these party elders (superdelegates) to come in, to give the appearance of a free and fair primary season, but it really won't be.

  18. I wouldn't mind a longer video on how local elections work.
    Would be nice to see one about Canada though.

  19. The people of Iowa pick corn!
    The people of New Hampshire pick presidents!
    state level savagery detected

  20. Sounds like a rigged system? Does this mean Joe Biden wins because he’s a Corporate Democrat, and the rest of us Simply need to bend over and take it . The only problem is when the Progressive Democrats run on an independent ticket base on principle , and take away enough volts from the Democrats, it only took 3% of the volts in Florida to go to Ralph Nader to change the democratic outcome in 2000 Al Gore and Bush. Than Trump wins easily with his devoted 39% following. Then we all need to bend over and take it except the super rich and the military industrial complex.😎 💲. Maybe we need to hold presidential elections like they do in France and do away with this two-party system Travesty and have a government run by American’s will.

  21. – ❗️PLEASE READ ALL❗️👍✌️You may be surprised to hear that the word “Democracy” does not appear in the Declaration Of Independence or the US Constitution, or in any of the Constitutions of the 50 states. The founding fathers did everything that they could to keep us from having a democracy. James Madison in the federalist papers said, “ democracy’s have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security, or the rights of property; and have in general been as short in there lives, as they have been violent in there deaths.” Alexander Hamilton said…” real liberty is never found in despotism or in the extremes of democracy.” The founders had good reason to look upon democracy with contempt. Because, they Knew of the democracy’s produced in the early Greek city states where in every case they ended up with mob rule then anarchy and then tyranny under an oligarchy. During that period in Greece there was a man who urged creation of a fixed body of law not subject to the majority whims. The Romans adopted that man ideas, in which they created the 12 tables of the Roman law and in affect built a Republic that limited government power and left the people alone. Rome became wealthy and the envy of the word. However, it’s people forgot that “the essence of freedom is the proper limitations of government”. Once the Romans dropped there guard, power seeking politicians began to exceed the powers granted them in the Roman constitution. Some learned that they could elect politicians who would use government power to take property from some and give it to others. Benjamin Franklin said, “ When the people find that they can vote themselves money, that will herald the end of our republic.” Agriculture subsidies were introduced, followed by housing and welfare programs. Inevitably taxes rose and Controls over the private sector were imposed. Soon a number of Rome’s producers could no longer make ends meet. Productivity declined, shortages developed and mobs began roaming the streets demand bread and other things from the government. However, there was no food to give since producers stoped producing .Many were induced to trade freedom for security. Eventually the whole system came crashing down.They went from a republic to a democracy and ended up with an oligarchy under the progression of the Caesars. There are really only two true forms of government, Oligarchy, and a Republic. Monarchy doesn’t exist in the practical sense in which it’s always a group that puts one of its members up front.(oligarchy is the most popular form of government in history!). Anarchy doesn’t exist because it’s just a transition, like like a vacuum, in which it brings in an oligarchy. Democray come from (demos Kratein) which means people rule; which mean MAJORITY RULE. As I already stated Democracy doesn’t really exist because it always goes from mob rule to anarchy and finally tyranny under an oligarchy. The word Republic however, comes from the Latin words , (res) meaning THING and (Publica) meaning PUBLIC. It means the public thing, THE LAW!. The key is in preventing a republic from getting to a mob ruled democracy, like what happens in the Roman Republic. The United States Republic is following the same fate as the Roman Republic. The only two true forms of government are , an Oligarchy and a Republic. When Benjamin Franklin exited the Constitutional Convention he was asked by a woman, “ sire, have you given us a monarchy(oligarchy) or a Republic.?” Benjamin Franklin answered, “A Republic ma’am, if you can keep it.”

  22. Abolish closed primaries,
    Anyone with a us id can vote
    Abolish delegates and super delegates

  23. In neighboring Canada or any other Commonwealth nation a party election is analogous to a caucus/primary election in the States, but in this case to elect the president, deputy president and executive members of a political party or coalition.. The president of the party / coalition are usually considered as the candidate for a prime minister if his/her party or coalition wins the election, unless if he refuses to be the premier of the state.

  24. Further proof that we live in an oligarchic society. The wealthiest can lobby politicians, who not only write laws for them but also decide who runs in future elections.

  25. The simple answer to the why use delegates: What if the majority of votes select someone who is clearly not fit to be president? The writers of the Constitution put in safety valves so the "uneducated Mobs" would not do something silly. Give pause to consider why the Democratic party has Superdelegates who can vote for whoever they want. Hmm?

  26. i hate our system so much. at least the democrats got a taste of it backfiring on them last year. not that i want our current president.

  27. Why are you talking about one of the best parts of our political system as if it's some kind of flaw? You're a freaking moron sometimes, CGP.

    Also, you neglected to mention that the Democratic Party is the only political party in the US that uses super delegates. The Republican Party does not do this, and never has.

  28. I honestly think that had there been no Oil in the US borders it would have collapsed a loooooong time ago.

    After all it was only after Oil was discovered in the US that the economy and industry took off, prior to that it was a low-density predominantly rural nation.

    The discovery of oil brought immense amount of capital that went to building massive industry and cities that people the world over flocked to giving the US an immense amount of wealth and population that could make up for it's abysmal political system.

    No oil = poorer US = less immigration/technological advancement/industry = less people who are themselves less well-of.

    TLDR – No US oil means the US wouldn't exist today and would instead be many smaller countries, made up of either single former big States or many smaller states joined together.

  29. To the morons who are saying "Durr the USA isn't a Democracy it's a Constitutional Republic" wtf do you think a Constitutional Republic IS?! It's a REPRESENTATIVE DEMOCRACY, and people who say that this system is flawed because it isn't democratic, they're talking about that it isn't a representative democracy, stop pretending like they're talking about a DIRECT Democracy.

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