Primary Elections – Mompolpedia

Primary elections are one of those things that managed to confuse me. I didn’t realize there were presidential primaries, local primaries, and then general elections. Each state handles them all differently. Some states use a caucus system, some a convention, some both. Sometimes the convention is first and then a primary. Sometimes there is a primary and then a convention. 

I don’t know why I was confused….

Here’s hoping I can add some clarity.  As a note to friends who already have a good handle on this topic, feel free to add to the conversation in the comments. I’m sure I won’t be able to cover all of the finer points of this topic. 

What are primary elections?

When election time rolls around and voters have a chance to vote in a new person for whatever position, usually there are several people who step forward, willing to fill the role. Primary elections, however, are only necessary if those people stepping forward belong to the same political party. Each political party is allowed only one nominee, one person, to represent them on the ballot for each elected position. The primary election is a way for political parties, and those voting in their primaries, to pick their favorite. 

If there were only one candidate stepping forward for each position, there would be no need for a primary. Those individuals would simply advance to the general election

Is there more than one primary election?

Because primary elections are handled on a state-by-state basis, you might have more than one primary election — a presidential primary and a state primary.

How does the presidential primary election work?

Each state handles their own presidential primary election. That includes determining the method and day of the election.  Each person trying to win the nomination of their political party — each person saying “pick me!” — has to file with each state separately. In addition to each state having rules for primary elections, each state’s political party might have their own additional set of rules for a candidate to navigate. This may include filing fees, signature gathering, and registration deadlines. 

For presidential elections, each state first holds a primary where votes are cast and a winner is declared. Once all of the state primary elections are done, there is a national convention. These conventions are held every four years, in line with when we elect a new president. Delegates from each state attend this big meeting and cast their vote for the candidate who won in their state. Each state determines the rules for how delegates vote, either reflecting the proportional results of their primary election (you guys vote for the first place winner, you guys vote for the second place winner, etc) or as a winner-take all (all of you vote for this one person).

When the national convention is done, the nominee is selected and then formally accepts the nomination. That one candidate (and chosen running mate) move on to the general election. 

So if someone were to want to understand how the presidential primary election is being handled in, say, 2020, what would you tell them?

The presidential primary for the Democratic party is currently the most intense. More than the usual amount of candidates are hoping for the Democratic party nomination. With the number of candidates, the Democratic party has conducted a fair number of debates to help voters decide whom they like better. 

The Republican party has a handful of candidates on their primary ballot, but there aren’t any debates or any real contentors (as far as the public is concerned). That’s because President Donald Trump is able to run for a second term and he is pretty much the one who will win the nomination. It’s pretty rare, though not impossible, that the incumbent (the person currently in the position) doesn’t get the nomination. 

Iowa and New Hampshire have already finished their primary elections for all political parties registered in their state (specifically the Republicans and Democrats). From now until the national conventions, there will be more state primaries.  

How are state primary elections different?

Each state organizes their own primary elections if more than one candidate is competing for the same political office from the same political party. Some states simply hold their own open primary elections where all candidates who have met certain requirements are on the ballot and people vote. Other states have a convention meeting first with political party delegates and a primary election is conducted if there is no clear winner after the political party convention. 

How do primary elections work in your state?

Please share how things work in your state. If you aren’t sure how they work, maybe do some digging and learn a little more about how they work. Are they closed primary elections? Open primaries? 

What have I left out?


  1. The second part of this post from Heather Cox Richardson goes into detail about the nominating systems in both parties. I thought you might like to read. Kind of challenging to keep it all straight (at least for me). 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you! Yes, keeping it straight is a challenge for me too. Thank you for the information from Heather Cox Richardson. Always happy to have more information. Thank you!


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