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Peter Peyser’s primary primer for the 2016 U.S. presidential elections

To both observers outside and inside the United States, the U.S. presidential elections, which take place every four years, can appear to be a rather arduous – and often mysterious – process given the various caucuses, primaries, conventions as well as the electoral college. This overview aims to help unpack this process, which is not only one of the greatest political shows on earth, but will shift the public affairs environment for the next four years or more.

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The U.S. presidential elections have evolved into a two-year, multi-billion dollar process. Only the last three months of that time are in the phase referred to as the “General Election” – meaning the major parties have selected their candidates for the final head-to-head matchup. Most of the time devoted to electing a President, and most of the money, is spent during the period when the major parties are picking their nominees, through multiple primaries and caucuses at the state level. 

In a formal sense, the purpose of the state primaries and caucuses is to choose delegates who will go to the national conventions of the Republican and Democratic parties. At those conventions, delegates will select candidates for President and Vice President. In reality, though, it has been decades since convention delegates were asked to resolve a contest for a nomination. The primaries and caucuses typically resolve the issue of who will have the necessary support long before the conventions actually convene. 

This year, there are numerous primaries taking place in the months of February and March. As a result, the crowded field of candidates on the Republican side will likely be narrowed down to two or three, and the Democratic nominate may be decided before the end of the first quarter of the year. 

The schedule for primaries and caucuses is set by each party. The decisions about which states go first, and how many will be grouped on a given day, are steeped in tradition, political culture, superstition and other factors. To those who view the process from abroad (and, indeed, to many Americans) it is unfathomable that places like Iowa and New Hampshire play such an outsized role in picking a President. But they do because of longstanding traditions surrounding the timing of their caucuses and primary.

Kicking off in Iowa

The Iowa caucuses, which just took place on February 1, are the first major event in the process. A caucus is different from a primary in that in order to participate, a caucus-goer must attend a meeting, listen to speeches from representatives of the candidates and then show their preference – usually through a show of hands or by merely standing with a group and being counted.

So a caucus-goer must be a very committed supporter; the process involves a lot more than just going to a polling place and casting a ballot as one does in a primary.

The first primary will be held on February 9 in New Hampshire. Both parties have long protected New Hampshire’s position of holding the first primary and being the only state to hold a primary on that day.

The next big event on the calendar will be the South Carolina Republican primary on February 20, with the “under card” that day being the Democratic caucus in Nevada and both parties’ caucuses in Washington State. 

Following stops in Nevada on February 23 for the Republican caucus and February 27 in South Carolina for the Democratic Primary, the action will shift to the most important day in the primary season – “Super Tuesday” on March 1. On that day eleven states will hold primaries for both parties and two (Wyoming and North Dakota) will hold Republican caucuses. Seven of the thirteen states are in the South, with Texas and Georgia being the biggest prizes up for grabs.  The list also includes two states considered to be “swing” states in the General Election – Colorado and Virginia. This will be the first day when a large and diverse selection of voters go to the polls in this cycle.

The field narrows

When the dust settles on March 1, the two or three Republican candidates who do well are likely to be considered as the only real contenders for the nomination. On the Democratic side, it is possible March 1 could virtually settle the issue of who the nominee will be.

Ten more states hold primaries and caucuses on March 5, 6 and 8, but the next big event will be March 15 when five states hold primaries.  While the number of states on that day may not seem large, the list includes Florida and Ohio – two of the most important swing states in the general election – and Illinois, one of the five largest states. 

Following the March 15 primaries there is a relative lull. Only a few states will vote between then and April 19. This period will be a time for a sorting out and for party leaders to attempt to exercise whatever influence they can to either narrow their field of candidates, or even anoint one candidate as the standard bearer of the party. 

The New York primary on April 19 will set the table for the larger slate of Mid-Atlantic and New England states that will vote on April 26. The big prize that day will be Pennsylvania – also a major swing state for the fall election.

There is a high likelihood both parties’ nominations will be settled after the April 26 voting. This is particularly true on the Democratic side. In the unlikely event that is not the case, the June 7 primaries in five states – including the biggest of all, California – is likely to decide the matter.

Party time at the conventions: a nominee is chosen

When the Republicans gather for their convention in Cleveland on July 18, and Democrats assemble in Philadelphia for theirs a week later on July 25, the nominees for President will almost certainly be known.  The only drama remaining will be who they will pick to run with them as Vice President.  Then a General Election campaign of about 100 days will unfold in the final stretch in the race to the White House. 

Follow me and my colleagues of the Interel Washington Group as provide insights on this fascinating political process as it moves towards its conclusion on Tuesday, November 8.


Peter A. Peyser

Peyser Associates LLC

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