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Political science professor Sarah A. Treul shares her expertise on America’s confusing primary election process.

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As Super Tuesday (March 3) approaches, The Well posed several questions about political primaries to faculty expert Sarah A. TreulBowman and Gordon Gray Term Professor of political science, specializing in American political institutions. She has published several papers about primaries, including “Assessing Strategic Voting in the 2008 U.SPresidential Primaries: The Role of Electoral Context, Institutional Rules and Negative Votes.”

Q. Have we always had primaries?

A. No.In early U.S. history, most candidates were chosen in what political scientists would call “smoke-filled rooms.” The party bosses, party leaders, prominent people in the party, elected officials were meeting in rooms, often smoking cigars, and deciding who the best candidates would be for their respective parties. Who’s the most likely to win the general election? This process generally worked. It tended to give us candidates that were in line with the median of the party, fairly moderate.  

 But in the Progressive Era, the early 1900s, voters were demanding more ability to influence electoral outcomes and legislative politics. They asked, “How can we get voters involved in choosing who our candidates are?” This was when the primary election was introduced, so primary elections in the United States have been around for over a hundred years. But it wasn’t until the 1960s that we got the primary system we have today. 

Q. What happened in the 1960s?

A. The Democratic National Convention in 1968 selected Hubert Humphrey [the incumbent vice president who had not run in any of the 15 primaries].This brought to a boil all the unhappiness that voters were feeling with parties not listening to their opinions. We wind up getting reform by both political parties at this time. And what that meant was giving us the process that we have today. Now primaries are going to be linked to delegates, and so the outcome in a primary election or in a caucus in some states are going to give a particular candidatedepending on what rules are used in that state, X number of delegates at the convention. And then you’re going to need to achieve a certain number of delegates to achieve the nomination of your party.  

woman in white top Sarah Treul
Sarah Treul

Q. What’s the difference between a primary and a caucus?

A. A primary is how we classically think of elections.You get a ballot. You go into a voting booth. It’s a very private activity. Primaries are often set for at least 12 hours on election day [and during early voting, in some states]. A caucus is more or less a meeting. And you go there, and you outwardly support a candidate. There’s some type of threshold that candidates must obtain to be a viable candidate in the caucus. In Iowa, it’s 15%. So if the candidate you’re going in to caucus for doesn’t get 15%, then someone is going to try to persuade you to come join their candidate’s side. 

Q. In a closed primary, only registered party members can vote. In an open primary, a voter doesn’t have to be affiliated with a party. What kind of primary does North Carolina have? 

A. North Carolina is a state that has a semi-open primary, which means that people who are registered as unaffiliated can choose which primary they would like to vote in.  

Q. Who decides how many delegates each state gets?

A. Primaries are party contests, and parties make the rules. States that tend to have more delegates are states that are swing states, battleground states — states that parties want to have a lot of electoral votes going to the Electoral College.

Q. New Hampshire was one of the first states to have a primary and has hung on to being first partly due to this historical tradition. But who determines when a state’s primary will be held and how important is the order? 

A. It is up to the parties and the states. States generally like to front-load. They want to be as close to Iowa and New Hampshire as possible, thinking that they’ll get the most say, the most attention. And there is evidence of that. That being said, North Carolina was influential in 2008 in the Democratic primary between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, and no one would have thought a May primary could have been influential.  

Q. But North Carolina is now a Super Tuesday state, having its primary March 3 along with 13 other states. What’s the significance of that? 

A. Super Tuesday is a big deal. It does inhibit campaigns’ abilities to go to all the Super Tuesday states because there are so many of them. So you do lose some attention and some uniqueness as a state.  But on that day, it’s a day we actually expect to have some candidates that will drop out. And so if your primary is after Super Tuesday, you might not have much of an ability to influence who your party’s nominee will be.  

Q. Can a person get a party’s nomination without going through the primary process? 

A. Not now. Today the states tie their delegates directly to the outcomes of their primaries, so you would need to participate in the process 

Q. What does it mean when a candidate wins a primary?

A. The Republican Party often has used a winner-take-all method. If you win the primary, you get all the delegates. Democrats have done more of a proportional method of delegate allocation.  

Q. What is a superdelegate?

A. Superdelegates have been used almost exclusively by the Democratic Party. They put in superdelegates to, in some ways, replicate that smoke-filled room idea, with the acknowledgment that there are going to be people who are going to be more informed about politics and the issues of the day. For the most part, superdelegates are not decisive. There’s not enough of them to throw the election one way or another. After 2016, the Democratic Party retracted the number of these superdelegates. 

Q. Primary voters elect delegates to attend a party’s national convention. What happens at the convention? 

A. Typically, this is very blasé at this point because you know — sometimes even after Super Tuesday — who has the most delegates. And those candidates simply go to the convention and after the first ballot, they are the nominee for the party. Things can get more interesting, potentially, if you get into additional ballots at a convention. After we move through a number of ballots, delegates do have more freedom and flexibility with regard to who they can vote for. This can lead to a brokered convention. This has not happened recently, but there is often talk of it. It’s too early to tell.  

Interview by Susan Hudson, The Well

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