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The Presidential Nomination Process

Updated on November 27, 2014

The Presidential Nomination Process

The closely fought contest in early 2008 between Barack Obama and Hilary Clinton brought unprecedented attention to the complicated process by which the Democrats and Republicans select their presidential candidate. As the race for the 2016 Republican and Democratic Presidential races heats up, this hub will try to address how the process works, why it was set up this way in the first place, and how the structure of the nominating process affects presidential elections.

So how exactly do the parties select their presidential candidates?

Formally, each party picks their candidate at their respective National Conventions in late summer of election years, typically in August or early September. The people who actually get to choose the party's nominee are known as delegates. Delegates are divided into two groups: pledged delegates, who are chosen based on the electoral results of state caucuses and primaries, and superdelegates, who are typically long-serving party figures (such as current members of Congress) who can vote as they wish. Whoever gets a majority of the delegates' votes at the convention wins the nomination: each delegate's (pledged or super) vote counts equally.

The interesting thing about this process is that, theoretically, superdelegates could all decide to vote for one candidate in a close election, and "swing" the nomination away from someone who won more pledged delegates through caucuses and primaries. In practice, this has never actually happened, though it was at least a theoretical possibility during the 2008 race for the Democratic nomination between Barack Obama and Hilary Clinton

So how do the Primaries and Caucuses translate into pledged delegates?

  • Pledged delegates are chosen by the state-level party organizations in each state. Each state is awarded a certain number of pledged delegates based on its population and how reliably Democratic or Republican that state is (what percentage of people voted Democrat or Republican in recent presidential elections). So, if a state typically votes for one party or the other, it can punch "above its weight" in terms of the number of delegates it gets to send to the convention. The total number of delegates up for grabs differs between the Republicans and the Democrats, but the principle is the same for both parties, each state gets to send delegates based on their population and voting preferences.
  • Iowa typically hold the first caucus during the first week of January of an election year, New Hampshire follows up with a primary a week or so later. The caucuses proceed throughout the late winter, spring, and early summer, typically ending around June.
  • Individual states get to decide how to assign their allotted number of pledged delegates through primaries and caucuses: usually they divide the delegates on a roughly equal basis to the popular vote in their individual primary or caucus. So if hypothetical State X is allowed to award 100 delegates by the party, and a candidate wins 55% of the vote in that state's primary, she will receive 55 of the state's 100 delegates to the national convention.
  • The above example is a rough approximation of what actually happens in each state: often states will also award some delegates based on how well candidates do in each congressional district or will give a bonus to the candidate who wins the state as a whole. But a general rule of thumb is that the delegates will be assigned in a fashion roughly equal to the results of a state's primary or caucus.
  • Superdelegates are chosen by the national party organization and can vote as they wish.

Got It. So how did this all play out in the 2008 race between Hilary Clinton and Barack Obama?

  • In recent history the nomination has almost always been wrapped up far before the convention. Usually one candidate wins a large enough number of the early primaries and caucuses to guarantee themselves the votes of a majority of the pledged delegates at the convention by mid spring. So by the time the convention rolls around in late summer, everyone else has withdrawn from the race and all of the delegates are free to vote unanimously for one candidate, unifying the party for the upcoming general election. Superdelegates usually don't play any role in choosing the nominee because the race is already decided by the time they get to vote.
  • In 2008, however, the unprecedented competition between Clinton and Obama resulted in them winning almost equal amounts of pledged delegates through the results of primaries and caucuses. By the end of the campaign, it was clear that it would be impossible for either candidate to win the nomination through the support of pledged delegates alone: they had to win the support of the superdelegates in order to win the nomination.
  • Here's the math for this: in order to win the nomination in 2008, a candidate needed the votes of 2025 delegates. Heading into the convention, neither had candidate had performed well enough in the primaries to win the nomination on the strength of delegates alone.
  • Which means that the remaining 796 superdelegates theoretically could have decided the election, since they can vote for whoever they want to for president.
  • However, early in the summer of 2008, Hilary Clinton conceded defeat to avoid a drawn out fight and the prospect of a potentially "stolen" nomination that would have left a terrible taste in Democrats mouth after the 2000 Gore Bush debacle in Florida. This freed up all of her delegates and superdelegates to support Obama on his eventual path to the nomination and the presidency.


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    • profile image

      Manx 5 years ago

      We're learning this in AP Gov.

    • profile image

      Wanda 5 years ago

      You know that the voting system is rigged by the complication of it ,and the fact that they are making it harder for people to vote.This certainly should never be like this in a country that is supposed to be a FREE country. The ones in charge just keep slicing and dicing till they get what they want.

    • vrajavala profile image

      vrajavala 9 years ago from Port St. Lucie

      It's not true that the nomiantion is pretty much wrapped up in the convention. Not at all. There are many surprises if the convention is open. This is the first time in history, that a candidate who has won so many votes will not be put into the nomination/ The Denver Group is still trying to get hillary's name into the namination. Even in 1932 it took 4 votes before FDR won the nomination but then they had to make a compromise and give garner the VP slot.

      Everything abouty this election stinks of being rigged.

    • DJ Funktual profile image

      DJ Funktual 9 years ago from One Nation Under a Groove

      GREAT GREAT HUB thankz

    • In The Doghouse profile image

      In The Doghouse 9 years ago from California

      Great explanation, thank you.