News Archives

Primaries and Caucuses

January 29, 2016

During assembly on Friday, January 29, Mark Smith, chair of the History Department, spoke to students about  about the process by which presidential candidates are selected. His remarks follow:

Good morning. You may recall that last year, I spoke about the grand jury process involving the Michael Brown shooting, and Mr. Wagner spoke about the history of housing in St. Louis. Mr. Abbott has asked me to find ways to incorporate more of these talks into assembly, so I’m pleased to announce the formation of a new club focused on presenting current events talks in assembly.

We will talk about political topics, among other things, but this will not be an inherently political club, meaning we will focus on discussing and disseminating the news of the day rather than debating and arguing various political opinions about it. If you are interested in joining our conversations, or you have an idea for an assembly talk that you believe the community needs to hear, please listen for announcements or e-mail us at

I intended to give this talk with 8th grader Gabe Fleisher, but he is on assignment in Iowa, so I’d like to thank him and Christopher Hinshaw for their help in preparing these remarks. 

While it seems as though the 2016 Presidential election cycle began months ago, nobody has cast a ballot yet. Over the next ten days, citizens in two states will officially begin the process of choosing the candidates for November’s presidential election.

The two major political parties are currently trying to determine who their candidates will be in that election. Each party has established rules for how they will accomplish that, and each state has a slightly different system to determine how that will happen. The formal procedure begins on Monday and ends with political party conventions. Republicans will meet on July 18 in Cleveland, and Democrats meet a week later in Philadelphia. The goal of each party is to head into their convention with a nominee. The earlier that nominee is established, the sooner the party can begin to rally around that individual and begin to mount assaults on the other party.

The Conventions are the formal end to the nominating cycle, when party leaders, appointed as “super-delegates,” and other elected delegates officially vote for the nominee, hear speeches from candidates for President and Vice President, and discuss their party’s political platform (the set of ideas that each party stands for). To determine who gets to be a delegate, parties hold primary elections and caucuses throughout the country. That process begins on Monday with the Iowa caucus.

The caucus system dates to the early republic and is used to choose the candidate of a party to stand for the general election. In the 19th century, only party leaders participated, but now any citizen registered as a member of that party may do so. It is a more time consuming process than voting in a primary election, so fewer voters generally attend a caucus (in Iowa, roughly 20% of citizens caucus, while, in New Hampshire, roughly 50% of citizens vote). Depending on the state, voters gather by precinct or county, in some public space like a high school gymnasium. Some will vote by secret ballot after hearing speeches by representatives of the candidates. 

In other systems, caucus goers group themselves by which candidate they support and then, through speeches and conversations, attempt to influence the undecided or those leaning toward a particular candidate. Groups of smaller supporters are then forced to align with larger groups. The candidate with the most supporters at the end of the evening wins the largest share of delegates at that particular location. As caucuses from across the state conclude their evenings — and Iowa has about 1,500 caucuses — a total number of delegates per candidate can be tabulated. Some states send those delegates directly to the party convention, while others send the chosen delegates to county or state-wide conventions for further caucusing and voting. 

A week after the Iowa caucus, New Hampshire voters head to the polls in the first presidential primary election. In the early 20th century, progressives felt that party bosses had too much power and control over the selection of the candidates and pushed states to adopt primary elections, so voters could choose their own candidates. Over time, states have developed their own unique systems of whom to allow to vote. There are various types of primary elections, but the two most common are the “open” and “closed” primaries.

An “open” primary allows any registered voter to cast a vote for one of the candidates of one of the parties. A “closed” primary only allows registered voters of a party to cast a ballot. Some states allow independents to vote; others allow voters to pick candidates from both parties. Regardless of the type of primary, at the end of the night, delegates to the national party conventions are awarded. Some states have a winner-take-all system in which the evening’s winner gets all the delegates a state has to offer, and some states use a proportional system to determine the number of delegates awarded: if you win 30% of the vote, you get 30% of the delegates.

Up for grabs in Iowa and New Hampshire are about 1% of the delegates to the Republican convention and 2% to the Democratic Convention. That is a very small amount, but then again, these are small states, leaving one to wonder why they get to go first. Essentially, they get to go first because their states have passed laws mandating that they go first and the two major parties allow that to occur. Having small states go first acts as a personal vetting process, as voters can have more access candidates than they might in a larger state. One downside is that the voters in Iowa and New Hampshire are decidedly not a good representation of the entire electorate. Because of that factor, candidates who have won in Iowa and New Hampshire have not always gone onto win the nomination. In fact, in most years the same person does not win both, but, recently, almost every nominee from both major parties has won either Iowa or New Hampshire.

After New Hampshire votes, there is an 11-day gap to the Nevada Democratic caucus and the South Carolina Republican primaries (parties don’t have to hold their events on the same day each state). The big day after that is March 1, or Super Tuesday, when 15 states vote. Missouri is scheduled for Tuesday, March 15. Primaries and caucuses continue into early June.

Perhaps by the time Missouri votes, we will see a narrowing of the field of candidates. Perhaps by then, some candidates who have not done well in early primaries and caucuses will drop out, asking their delegates to align with a different candidate.  Some candidates may find that funding is difficult to obtain with poor electoral results. Others may fall victim to not meeting analyst expectations. In rare instances, if candidates win multiple states, no candidate may head into the convention with a majority of the delegates. 

In that case, wheeling and dealing occurs and a “brokered convention” might result in an entirely new candidate emerging, although that has not happened in 64 years. If that happens, it will be even more fun than it already is to be a social studies teacher. 

Whether you are Republican, Democrat or somewhere else on the political spectrum, and whether or not you’ve enjoyed the campaign up to this point, the real fun begins Monday.

If educating our community about issues like this, or the Zika virus, or the Flint water crisis is something you’d like to do, please contact us at

Thanks for your sweetly faked attention.