By: Anne M. Cizmar, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Political Science for EKU Online
The presidential candidate nomination system is not specified anywhere in the U.S. Constitution. Instead, the nomination process has evolved over time to the system we have today. This evolution has led to a somewhat complicated system for choosing the nominees, with each party and state developing their own rules and methods for selecting delegates. Party delegates are the individuals who officially select the presidential nominees for each party, after a long primary season where the public gets to vote. The delegates selected at each state’s primary/caucus ultimately go on to the national party convention in the summer and officially cast ballots to nominate their party’s nominee for president.
There are different methods for choosing convention delegates. Some states use a caucus system, while others use primaries to select delegates. A caucus is a meeting of party members used to select candidates for an election. At the caucus, candidates’ supporters can try to woo caucus-goers to support their candidate, and can openly campaign at the event. The most famous caucus is the Iowa Caucus, which comes first every presidential election year. The Republican Party generally has caucus participants cast votes for one of the candidates and has shorter caucus meetings. The Democratic Party, though, engages in an iterative voting process at the Iowa caucus. Candidates must receive a certain minimum level of support in order to be considered “viable.” When a candidate doesn’t meet that threshold, supporters are told to disperse to other potentially viable candidates.
Most states choose their delegates through a simpler system of primary elections. In a primary election, like the general election, voters go to the polls and cast ballots for their candidate of choice. No campaigning is allowed inside the polling location, and voters individually complete their ballots and then leave the polling location. States have different rules for primary participation. Some states, such as Kentucky, only allow registered members of the party to participate in the primary (called a “closed” primary). Other states allow independents and others to participate in addition to registered party members (called an “open” primary).
In addition to delegates that are selected through the primary/caucus process, the Democratic Party also has unpledged delegates that are regularly referred to as “superdelegates.” These superdelegates are automatically awarded a place at the convention because of their position within the Democratic Party. Their spot at the convention is not reliant upon the caucus/primary outcome of their state. Superdelegates include people such as members of the Democratic National Committee, and Democrats serving as members of the House of Representatives, members of the Senate, and state governors. For example, Kentuckians John Yarmuth (Democratic Representative from Kentucky’s 3rd congressional district), Charlotte Lundergan and Charlie Moore (members of the DNC), as well as Sannie Overly (the Kentucky Democratic Party chair) served as superdelegates in 2016. They joined the delegates representing Kentucky that were selected through the Kentucky Democratic primary.
The Democratic Party first adopted the use of superdelegates in the 1980s following the Hunt Commission. Superdelegates were created for a couple of reasons, including several unpopular Democratic candidates, along with a desire for the party elites to have more input over the party nominee. In recent years, superdelegates have been controversial for the Democratic Party, with some voters arguing that it is undemocratic to include these automatic delegates. The Republican Party, by contrast, does not have superdelegates.
Controversies over superdelegates and open/closed primaries were prevalent in the 2016 nomination campaign. It is important for voters to remember that presidential nominees were not always selected through the current method of primary/caucus contests in all 50 states with the national conventions conferring the nomination on the primary season winner. Previously, presidential nominees were selected at the conventions, with the winner of the nomination unclear beforehand. This nomination process continues to evolve overtime as the parties change to meet new demands of the electorate, and it is possible that one or both parties could make changes before the 2020 election.