Primaries and Caucuses
In the US, citizens vote for presidential candidates to serve as the Democratic and Republican parties' presidential nominees. Within each party, a field of candidates compete against one another to secure their party's nomination.
To win a nomination, a candidate must gain the majority of their party's delegates.
- 2,772 delegates are needed to secure the Democrat's nomination
- 1,144 delegates are needed to secure the Republican's nomination
The difference in the numbers shows that each of the political parties has its own internal requirements for choosing a nominee.
Each state holds a primary or caucus to award its delegates to the candidates. A primary operates like the general election in that voters go to a polling place and cast a ballot. In a caucus, voters go to a designated meeting space and divide themselves according to the candidate they support, with undecided attendees in a separate group. Caucus goers then have a chance to persuade the undecided voters to support the candidate of their choice. At the end of the process the number of supporters of each candidate is recorded and delegates are awarded accordingly. The number of delegates from each state is based on the state's population. California, with a population of nearly 38 million, has the largest share of delegates for a candidate to win in the primaries.
Voters in primaries and caucuses generally have to be registered as a member of either the Republican or Democratic parties. The legal voting age is 18 in the US. A small number of states such as Washington and Ohio allow independent voters to participate or permit members of one party to vote in the opposition's primary.
Primaries and caucuses begin in early January of an election year and run through to June. The nomination process is completed in late August or early September when each party selects a nominee at their convention.
2012 Primary Season
- 35 states and territories hold primaries
- 14 states and territories hold caucuses
- Arizona, Florida, Idaho, Michigan, Nebraska and Utah have both primaries and caucuses
- The dates of each state's primary and caucus are listed on our Primary Calendar page
The Tuesday when the largest number of states hold primary elections is known as Super Tuesday. The Super Tuesday phenomenon began in 1988 when 9 states wanted to give their voters a decisive role early in the primary season. In 2012 Super Tuesday will be on March 6.
- 24 states participated in Super Tuesday, representing 52% of the Democrats' and 41% of the Republicans' delegates.
- Party officials became alarmed at the number of states wanting to hold their primaries on or before Super Tuesday. Michigan and Florida went against Democratic Party orders and held their Democratic primaries before Super Tuesday. Controversy erupted about what to do with delegates from these two breakaway states.
- After Super Tuesday, of the 15 Democratic and Republican candidates, only Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and John McCain remained.
The candidate with the most delegates is officially nominated at the Republican and Democratic National Conventions in August/September. However, the presumptive nominee is known well in advance. In 2008, John McCain secured the Republican nomination on 4 March and Barack Obama secured the Democratic nomination on 3 June.
From the end of the primary season to the national conventions, the presumptive nominees focus on giving speeches on the campaign trail, fundraising and starting the selection process for choosing a vice-presidential running mate.
2012 Campaign Kick-off
Candidates declared their intention to run for president well in advance of the first primaries and caucuses:
- Barack Obama declared his candidacy on 4 April 2011
- Michelle Bachmann declared her candidacy on 13 June 2011
- Herman Cain declared his candidacy on 21 May 2011
- Newt Gingrich declared his candidacy on 11 May 2011
- John Huntsman declared his candidacy on 21 June 2011
- Ron Paul declared his candidacy on 13 May 2011
- Rick Perry declared his candidacy on 13 August 2011
- Mitt Romney declared his candidacy on 2 June 2011
2008 Primary Season Fast Facts
2008 Democrat contenders Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama; and Republican contenders Mitt Romney, John McCain and Mick Huckabee
- 19.1 million Americans cast ballots in the Democratic primaries and caucuses
- 13.1 million Americans cast ballots in the Republican primaries and caucuses
- Democratic Party nominee Barack Obama spent over $74 million on advertising for the primaries
- Republican Party nominee McCain spent over $12 million on advertising for the primaries