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Campaigns and Elections in the United States

Nominating Candidates in the United States

Historical Changes in Candidate Selection

The methods used to nominate candidates for federal office are more democratic than they once were; today, primaries that eligible voters can participate in have largely replaced the historical practice of caucuses or nominating conventions, meetings of party members that were controlled by party leaders.

The methods used to select a political party's candidates have evolved over time. In the early decades of the country's history, caucuses were held to decide whom a party would choose to run for election. A caucus is a meeting in which party members choose candidates to run for office. In the past, only party leaders participated in these meetings, and the time and place of the meetings were not necessarily made public. This system came under criticism as being undemocratic.

A somewhat more democratic process—nominating conventions—developed to replace the caucus. A nominating convention is a meeting at which specially chosen party members gather to choose candidates for their party. The system typically began at the county level. At the county nominating convention, delegates decided on candidates for local and county offices and selected representatives to attend a statewide nominating convention. Members of that meeting decided on the party's candidates for state offices and, in presidential election years, chose representatives to attend a national nominating convention. The national convention then named the presidential and vice presidential nominees. This nominating system often came under control of powerful party state party bosses and still did not allow average party members to participate directly in the selection of candidates; delegates typically voted in a bloc as their party leader directed them. Thus the powerful state leaders could collaborate to determine who would be the nominees for state and national office.

In the early 20th century states began moving to hold primary elections to make the selection of candidates more democratic. A primary election is an election in which voters select the candidates who will run in the general election. This is the method for choosing candidates used in most states today. For several decades, presidential primaries did not necessarily result in the allocation of delegates at nominating conventions. These so-called beauty contests were simply tests of candidates' relative popularity. Over time, voters pushed for a stronger voice in the nomination process, and the parties passed rules that the primary results would determine which candidate won the state's delegates to the national convention. Some states continue to use caucuses to choose delegates who are pledged to support specific candidates, but these meetings are more open to the ordinary party members (the rank and file) than in the past.

Modern Primaries

In modern politics, most states use one of several types of primary election to select candidates, but voter turnout in primary elections is low and generally consists of the most committed members of a party.

The modern system for campaigns, with most states relying on primaries, dates from the 1970s. While there are many types of primaries, two are common. A closed primary is an election to select a party's candidates for office in which only registered members of that party can vote. An open primary is an election to select a party's candidates for office in which all voters, even nonparty members, can vote.

California, Washington, Louisiana, and Nebraska use a top-two primary system. Also called a jungle primary, this is a system in which all candidates seeking an office appear on one ballot, voters select the candidate they prefer, and the top two vote-getters advance to the general election. Under this system, two members of the same party could face off in the general election if both outpolled all candidates from the other party in the primary. Nebraska's system is slightly different from California's in that party affiliation is not listed on the ballot; Nebraska elections are nonpartisan. Louisiana, which has a nonpartisan primary, uses a top-two system that is slightly different. If a candidate wins a clear majority of votes in the primary, then the candidate wins the election for that office and there is no general election.

At the state and local level, party members organize and participate in the primaries. They may do research on political issues or conduct polling to find out voters' opinions on issues. They may also be involved in fundraising for campaigns. At the local level, political parties may organize door-to-door campaigns for candidates, canvass voters, and provide signs showing support for a campaign or position on an issue for people to post in their yard.

Despite the importance of primaries in the election process, voter turnout in these elections is generally low—typically half that of a general election. In some cases, less than 10 percent of eligible voters turn out for the primary elections. Generally, only the most committed party members and activists vote in the primary. The result is that candidates running in a primary need to establish their fidelity to party principles in order to win the nomination. According to many analysts of American politics, this process has contributed to sharpening the political divide between the two major parties by producing elected officials less likely to compromise with members of the other party out of fear that party activists will withdraw their support in the next campaign.