The Presidential Primary for Dummies

The American presidential primaries are one of the most complicated and expensive democratic nominating processes in the world. Campaigning starts over a year before the election, and the process has dominated and will continue to dominate U.S. and even international news for months. The official process began February 1st, with the Iowa caucuses, and each party will finally nominate a candidate at their conventions in July. Then it all comes down to Election Day, November 8th. This is when the nation votes on the winning candidates of the primaries, and sometimes also third party candidates, to decide the next president. But there’s a long way to go until election day, and right now each candidate has their eyes on their party’s nomination.


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The caucus was the original method used to decide on a candidate. It is much more informal than a primary and much more involved. Hours of communal debate are followed by selecting the preferred candidate by raising hands or breaking into groups. They are still currently held in Alaska, Colorado, Hawaii, Kansas, Maine, Minnesota, Nevada, North Dakota, Wyoming and Iowa. The rest of the states use the newer system, the primary. In a primary, voters go to local voting centers in churches or schools to cast their secret ballot.

An important thing to note is that neither the candidates nor the president are actually elected by popular vote. Instead, the United States has a system of delegates that represent their home state. Delegates are elected or chosen with an informal agreement to support their pledged candidate at the convention. This is a process practiced by both parties, and different from the Electoral College process used to elect the President in the general election. The delegates are chosen at a state or local level and are not actually legally bound to the candidate they pledge. Some states have a “winner takes all” system, where the winner of the popular vote takes every delegate from the state. Others assign delegates proportional to the popular vote. So, for example, since Democratic candidate U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders (D-Vermont) received 33% of the popular vote in Florida, he received 65 of the 214 delegates (nearly ⅓ ). All states assign delegates proportionally in the Democratic race, but the Republican system varies by state. For a Republican nomination, 1,237 of the 2,472 delegates are required, and for a Democratic nomination 2,383 of the 4,763 delegates are required.

This year’s political primaries are unusual in many ways. Not only is a non-politician the front-runner for a major political party, but also because of the possibility of a brokered convention for both parties. This happens when no candidate in the party has a majority of the delegates’ votes after the first ballot. Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid told CNN he wouldn’t be surprised if the Democrats entered a brokered convention. The Republican Party has received the most attention for the possibility of a brokered convention. The last time this happened for the Republicans was in 1948, and although slim, there is a chance of it happening this year. A nominee requires 1,237 delegate votes for a nomination, and the political news website  FiveThirtyEight’s prediction places Trump just below that goal at the moment. If the GOP were to have a brokered convention, some delegates that were previously assigned to candidates from popular vote would be allowed to vote freely. They don’t even have to vote for candidates in the primary race, so there is actually the possibility of a Romney nomination, or any other leading Republican. It should also be noted that although this convention could be the answer for preventing a Trump nomination, the past has revealed that usually a brokered nominee will not win the actual election.

Meet the Candidates

DISCLAIMER: There is much more to the story than a short summary, and each candidate has additional views and priorities than expressed in these biographies. These segments are just a piece of the puzzle, and are meant to provide a foundation for what each candidate stands for.

Donald Trump

A businessman who has never held public office, Donald Trump is quite an unusual character for a political primary. He is currently the frontrunner for the Republican Party, followed closely by Ted Cruz. His campaign is a matter of fascination for much of the country and the world. His rallies are chaotic, and both peaceful and violent clashes between supporters and protesters are common. Before the campaign, Trump was branding his name around the country, building casinos and skyscrapers while building his net worth to a Forbes estimate of $4.5 billion (while Trump himself claims a worth almost reaching $10 billion).


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Trump’s social policies are fairly conservative, although he previously identified as a Democrat. He does not strictly oppose abortion altogether, but in a debate at the University of Houston on February 25th, 2016, he stated, “As far as Planned Parenthood is concerned, I’m pro-life.” His stance on immigration is one of his most highly criticized campaign promises. He claims he will force Mexico to build a border wall. In an interview, Trump said, “you force them because we give them a fortune. Mexico makes a fortune because of us. A wall is a tiny little peanut compared to that. I would do something very severe unless they contributed or gave us the money to build the wall.” Although the U.S. Supreme Court has made their decision on gay marriage in last June’s Obergefell v. Hodges, Trump still supports his stance against it. He said, “If I’m elected, I would be very strong on putting certain judges on the bench that I think maybe could change things,“ as shown in a January transcript from Fox News.

For domestic and economic issues, Trump also leans conservative. He is upfront and bold when addressing terrorism, frequently saying, “We have a tremendous problem with radical Islamic terrorism.” In his book The America We Deserve, he warned of Osama Bin Laden before the September 11th attacks, calling him a “shadowy figure.” Recently he has been quoted endorsing killing the families of terrorists, “They care about their lives, don’t kid yourself. When they say they don’t care about their lives, you have to take out their families.” Trump is also a strong supporter of gun rights and has vowed to “fully support and back up the Second Amendment.” Health care has become a complicated issue in American politics, and Trump denounces the Obamacare program. “The one thing we have to do is repeal and replace ObamaCare. It is a disaster. People’s premiums are going up 35 percent, 45 percent, 55 percent.” He strongly disagrees with economic stimulus and believes in market-lead recovery. Trump’s tax plan aims for tax relief for middle class Americans. He wants to simplify the tax system to “reduce the headaches Americans face in preparing their taxes” and “reduce most deductions and loopholes available to the very rich.” Lastly, Trump supports a stronger military, saying “I want to build up the military so nobody messes with us,” as what he would do first if elected.

Ted Cruz

Ted Cruz is a U.S.Senator and Republican candidate for the Republican nomination. He is the first Hispanic-American to serve as Senator for Texas. Cruz is a Princeton and Harvard Law graduate who worked as a domestic policy advisor for the 1999 Bush campaign. In his years on the U.S. Senate, Cruz has developed a rocky relationship with many fellow Republican senators.


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Cruz leans very conservative on domestic affairs. He is strongly pro-life and would only allow an abortion procedure in the case of danger to the mother. He also believes that marriage should be “between one man and one woman.” He is against both same-sex marriage and civil unions. “I have never and will never support banning guns,” Cruz has said. He repeatedly denounces the Obamacare program, even going as far as shutting down the government in 2013, saying “I will go to Congress and I will repeal every word of Obamacare.” The Cruz tax plan takes a step in the opposite direction from Senator Bernie Sanders (D-VT). The flat tax plan eliminates the seven tax brackets and creates one low tax rate of 10% for everyone. It would also set a flat business tax of 16%, whether small or big business. Although not as vocally as Trump, Cruz also supports building a better border wall with Mexico and tripling border patrol. For his foreign affairs, Cruz is not quite an isolationist, but not in favor of active interventionism. While he does not support getting involved in the civil war of Syria, he does want to “utterly destroy ISIS” and “carpet bomb” the terrorists into oblivion. He disapproves of the Iran nuclear deal and claims he will “rip to shreds” the deal on his first day of office.

John Kasich

Kasich is the current governor of Ohio and the third candidate for the GOP presidential nomination. He previously hosted a news program, Heartland with John Kasich, from 2001-2007. He also worked as a managing director for Lehman Brothers in Columbus, Ohio.


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Kasich has more moderate social policies than his running mates. He supports traditional marriage, but he accepts the US Supreme Court ruling and believes it’s time to move on. He is pro-life except for rape and incest and supports defunding Planned Parenthood. Kasich has long supported the end of racial profiling, saying: “That’s just not the way our justice system is supposed to work.’’ As a high school student at the young age of seventeen, Kasich took the microphone at a school board meeting and berated the community for not doing enough to ease racial tension. He defends the Second Amendment for the right to bear arms and opposes Obama’s efforts for gun control. Although he does not support Obamacare, Kasich has a new plan for a conservative health care program. He is working with his home state of Ohio to develop a new system of “patient-centered primary care” that can replace Obamacare. Kasich would like the remove taxes on small business and discontinue the death tax. He brought Ohio from $8 billion in debt to $2 billion in surplus during his time as Governor with his tax plan and created 347,000 jobs. He is also much more sympathetic to illegal immigrants than his running mates, saying, “If they’ve been law-abiding, then I think they should stay.” Kasich has a history of trying to eliminate wasteful spending at the Pentagon, while still strengthening the military. On that topic, he said, “Let me be clear: our military must be improved. We need to cut the bureaucracy.” Finally, Kasich supports boots on the ground to defeat ISIS. He told CNN’s Gloria Borger in a February interview, “Mark my words … at some point it will require boots on the ground from the world to be able to deal with this problem.”

Hillary Clinton

Former first lady Hillary Clinton is leading her second campaign for the presidency after losing the nomination to Obama in 2008. She served as a United States senator from New York from 2001 to 2009 and as the Secretary of State under Obama from 2009 to 2013. She announced her 2016 candidacy in April 2015 and currently leads the Democratic primary against Sanders.


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Clinton’s social policies are very liberal. She supports abortion rights, saying “I will defend a woman’s right to choose. And I will defend Planned Parenthood.” She does oppose abortions in the late third trimester, besides cases of medical necessity, rape, and incest. Clinton is currently capturing the majority of women and minority votes with her policies. She is a supporter of women in the workforce, saying in a speech in February in Columbia, South Carolina: “Let’s break down the barriers that keep people on the sidelines of our economy, especially women.” She became a supporter of gay marriage and gay rights in 2013 after years of opposing it. She featured a gay couple in her campaign launch video; the couple then invited her to their wedding. Clinton also stresses her environmental concerns, claiming that as president, she will invest in clean energy, prevent drilling in the Arctic, and “stop tax giveaways to big oil and gas companies.”

Clinton is also more liberal than the average Democratic candidate when it comes to domestic and economic policies. She has responded in favor of reforming our police and criminal systems, speaking against police violence and unnecessary imprisonments. She supports restricting our gun laws, developing more comprehensive background checks, and closing many purchase loopholes. Clinton strongly supports ObamaCare, promising to “fix” it. She is a strong believer in economic stimulus and proposed a $100 billion plan in the 2008 crisis. Like most liberal candidates, Clinton claims “the wealthy pay too little” in taxes and “the middle class pays too much.” Unlike her counterpart Trump, she is sympathetic to immigrants. “I will stand up against any effort to deport Dreamers. Immigrants are vital to our economy.”

On international issues, Clinton is more moderate. Since beginning her candidacy, she has switched her viewpoint on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, no longer supporting the deal. Her opponent, Sanders, has frequently attacked her on her past support of both NAFTA (signed by her husband, President Bill Clinton, in 1994) and the TPP. Clinton disagrees with expanding the military, and unlike conservative candidates, she does not support complete overhauls on veteran and military personnel programs such as Veteran Affairs.

Bernie Sanders

Sanders is the longest serving independent Senator in history, although he joined the Democratic convention in 2015 for his candidacy. A survey conducted in November of 2015 found Sanders the country’s most popular senator, with an approval rating of 83% among his constituents.

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Sanders upholds pro-choice viewpoints on abortion and fully supports the LGBT community. He is also focused on climate change and carbon emissions. The page corresponding to climate change on Sanders’ website reads, “Climate change is the single greatest threat facing our planet.” A famous campaign promise that attracts many young voters is his goal for free tuition at public colleges and universities. His campaign estimates a cost of $70 billion a year, and the plan could hit state governments hard. Many journalists and economists have commented on his plan for free college and its feasibility. Sanders frequently mentions the big banks and Wall Street as the source of many monetary concern. He plans to split up the big banks that caused a financial crisis in 2008. “It is time to break these too-big-to-fail banks up so that they can never again destroy the jobs, homes, and life savings of the American people.” He believes that the Affordable Care Act did not go far enough, and his plan would provide healthcare to all Americans. The $13.8 trillion cost would be partly covered by his new tax plan with brand new income tax brackets at $250,000 (37%) and $10,000,000 (52%). Finally, Sanders is strongly anti-war, voting against the Iraq war in 2002 and calling for immediate troop removal. He says the U.S. should not lead the fight against ISIS and would generally focus more on middle and lower class America than international issues.

Progress of the Primaries

Republican Primary

The Republican candidates have been dropping like flies, narrowing from the original seventeen to just three. Although Rubio has dropped out, he still received a number of delegates before his departure. In the first state to vote, Iowa, there was a fairly even spread between Trump, Cruz and Rubio, with a narrow lead by Cruz. The rest of February was all victories from Trump, winning the majority in New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada. Super Tuesday was on March 1st this year, an important day with eleven Republican primaries and caucuses. Trump took the majority in seven of these states, and Cruz trailed with three victories, including his home state of Texas with a large sum of 104 delegate pledges. Rubio won Minnesota for his first victory. In Virginia Trump received 35% of the vote, Rubio 32%, Cruz 17%, and Kasich 9%.

On March 5th, Trump had two more victories in Kentucky and Louisiana, and Cruz had two victories in Maine and Kansas. The next day Rubio secured all the delegates of Puerto Rico. On March 12th, Rubio and Kasich nearly evenly split the District of Columbia, and Cruz received majority in Wyoming. March 15th was a big day for Trump, with five victories, but also a huge day for Kasich, with his first victory in his home state of Ohio, securing all 66 delegate pledges.

Republican Delegate Totals as of Wednesday, April 20, 2016.

Trump: 845            Rubio: 166 (Dropped Out)

Cruz: 559             Kasich: 148

Democratic Primary

The Democratic primary is a battle between Sanders and Clinton, and although Clinton appears to have the majority, the nomination is not set in stone. February was a big month for Clinton, as she received ninety-one delegate pledges, as opposed to Sanders’ sixty-five. Super Tuesday was also a Clinton victory, securing 522 delegates to Sanders’ 356. In Virginia, Clinton picked up 64.3% of the popular vote and walked away with sixty-two of the ninety-five delegates.

Sanders rebounded with a victory on March 5th and 6th, winning majorities in Kansas, Nebraska, and Maine. Clinton had one victory in Louisiana. After a narrow Sanders’ win in Michigan and a Clinton victory in Mississippi came March 12th, another huge day for the primary elections. This day was an overwhelming Clinton victory, winning majority in all five states and gaining another 386 delegate pledges.

Democratic Delegate Totals as of Wednesday, April 20, 2016.

    Clinton: 1,930            Sanders: 1,189

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