The Apathetic Student’s Guide to Primaries

The Spin Zone | Noel Anderson | March 29, 2016

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Even if you haven’t been paying attention to the recent headlines, news about the 2016 presidential primaries is inescapable. Whether you’re Cruzin, feeling the Bern or staying up at night either crying or laughing about Donald Trump, this year is an excellent time to learn how important primaries are to the election process, and I’m here to show you why.

As I’m sure you’ve gathered, primary elections are held for both the Democratic and Republican parties in order to determine which two candidates will run against one another in the 2016 presidential election. These primaries will take place in all 50 states, plus the District of Columbia, and five United States territories, which include Puerto Rico, Guam, American Samoa, the Northern Mariana Islands and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Selection of each candidate is decided at a state level by distributing delegates for each party. This is done by proportion or population of the states; for example, Alaska has 28 delegates, and Massachusetts has 42 (pro tip: think about population, not geographic size). Delegates are awarded a vote based on the votes each party candidate receives in a primary or caucus, which is determined proportionally by the population. For example, if in Virginia, Senator Stan Smith of Langley Falls is a delegate in a group of 49 for the Republican Party and supports Marco Rubio, he is awarded a vote after the primary turnout is 32 percent with three other candidates running.

If you noticed the conventions that took place in the last election, they may have seemed like huge meetings for each party and their candidate, or in that instance, President Obama and Gov. Mitt Romney. Party conventions are events that occur at the start of the election process, after each candidate for the party has been determined. This is done when each party has selected their primary candidate through primary elections and caucuses.The candidate that is chosen for each party is then represented at that party’s national convention, and is the candidate who will appear on the ballot in the general election.

While both parties hold both caucuses and state-wide primaries, they differ in one area: superdelegates. For a Democratic candidate to win the nomination, he or she must accumulate votes from a certain number of super delegates, which are a special minority consisting of 712 delegates. This number makes up about one third of the 2,383 delegate votes needed to win the nomination. These superdelegates are either members of the Democratic National Committee, a member of Congress (Senate or House of Representatives), or an already elected official. What makes these superdelegates especially potent is their power to shift support from one candidate to another, regardless of state primaries or caucuses. The other delegates must support a candidate based on these outcomes. This year there are some especially notable superdelegates, including Vice President Joe Biden, Al Gore and President Obama.

The Republican primaries this year are much the same way, sans the superdelegates, with each candidate vying for the votes of 1,237 delegates.

Now, as I mentioned previously, states hold both Republican and Democratic candidate elections, either through caucuses or primaries. But what are caucuses? A caucus is simply a meeting conducted at a smaller level in a county, city or town. In addition, they are open to any member of the party, but you must be registered if you wish to vote for a candidate.

While caucuses are a great way for the party to generate voter interest, primaries have become a much more popular way for states to vote on candidacy in recent years. It is important to note that primaries are elections held to determine candidacy preference statewide, and caucuses are held throughout participating states at a local level in which people interested in a particular candidate meet to discuss policy and generate interest. Both of these events involve voting; however, the structure of the events themselves differ. Some states, like Minnesota, Iowa and Kansas use caucuses, while states like South Carolina and New Hampshire do not. Primaries are either closed or open, meaning that if they are closed you may only vote if you are registered with that party and registered to vote. If the primary is open, however, a registered voter may vote in either party’s primary, regardless of their party registration status.

Though the entire electoral process is bewildering and disconcerting at times, its importance never fades, even if the candidates and voting events do. Just by looking at the turnout and delegate votes, we can see how a small percentage can change results drastically. An excellent example of this is in Iowa, where Ted Cruz won by 8 delegates or 27.6 percent with Donald Trump just one delegate behind at 24.3 percent. In the same state, Hillary Clinton won by 49 percent or 23 delegates, with Bernie Sanders on her tail with 49.6 percent and 21 delegates.

Being confused about the U.S. political process is natural, I assure you, but it can be understood by we students and citizens. Voting matters, as does representation, and no matter your ideals or political orientation, your voice is heard in the electoral process. In addition, our generation is the largest in history, and our power to be politically mobilized is limitless. As citizens, we not only have a duty to uphold our history as a democracy, but we can also invest in our own future by participating in the election. Just a few votes can change the outcome of your state’s primary or caucus, and that will not only influence the candidate outcome of either party, but the entire outcome of the election.