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WTF is a “primary” anyway?

Written By: - Date published: 7:25 am, January 26th, 2012 - 36 comments
Categories: us politics - Tags:

I like to think I’m pretty au fait with American politics. A large chunk of my teenagehood was spent in online spaces like DemocraticUnderground and the political “debate” communities on Livejournal.

But it wasn’t until this post from News With Nipples popped up in my reader that I realised, “hey. I’ve been swanning around snarking about Michele Bachmann and Mitt Romney, and *I* actually have no bloody idea what the primaries even *are*, beyond obviously a series of amusing debates where the finest of tea partiers can reveal just how tea their party is.” So how can I expect your average Kiwi-on-the-street to know what’s going on?

I turned, as I often do, to Wikipedia. That … kinda didn’t help. Those with a greater interest than I are welcome to jump on in to that excellently-written yet incredibly dense treatise on the process; here are, I hope, the high points.

1. The Dems and Repubs both pick their candidate for the US presidency at their national conventions. Which probably makes them far more interesting affairs than our parties’ speechathons.

2. The votes come from the individual state party organisations – think LECs – and “superdelegates”, who are usually former elected members and party leaders. Superdelegates vote however they like.

3. The states’ votes come in several hundred different flavours. Some allot their votes on a winner-takes-all basis – you get 51% of the votes, you get all the states’ votes. Some split them proportionally, in any number of ways. Some state parties limit the voting to registered party members, some states allow independents to vote – but only in *one* primary of their choice, Republican or Democratic. Some states’ primaries (or caucuses, fuck knows what the difference is there) are hard and firm about candidate selection – the dude who gets voted in is who you select at the convention, and some act as more of a guideline.

The upshot? The primaries usually determine who the candidate is going to be well before the convention. The early primaries – Iowa and New Hampshire – get a hell of a lot of attention, because they give a lot of momentum to the winning candidates, because they’re first, and because after a slow start it gets reeeeeeeeeeeeally busy – right up till Super Tuesday, when up to 24 states have their primaries on a single day.

You can imagine that that’s pretty much just too darn complex for the modern Western media to cope with.

It’s a fascinating system, in terms of the power of individual state parties and their little foibles, in terms of how different – how public – the process is compared to here.

It would just be super-awesome if our media would bother to tell us the first thing about it, instead of leaping in all “CNN BROADCAST THIS CLIP OF RON PAUL IT MUST BE IMPORTANT” without so much as, you know … looking it up on Wikipedia to give the NZ audience some basic context.

(Interesting sidenote: Yep, the Democratic Party is running primaries too. Even though I think we can all take a guess who the candidate is going to be. But … I can’t blame anyone for not reporting *that*.)


For more QoT goodness and a little badness (good badness, that is) head over to her blog: Ideologically Impure

36 comments on “WTF is a “primary” anyway? ”

  1. Paul Campbell 1

    Caucuses are when you all turn up at your local hall at a nominated time (say 7pm) and all the people voting for candidate A stand in one corner, those for B in another then get counted – kind of like ballots but counting live people rather than paper

    I’ve always found it strange that the US, a country that includes a constitutional mandate against the state stopping free association can tell you that you can vote in the Republican primary and not the Democratic one – in essence the state is paying for part of the party’s internal selection processes and handling the membership rolls of those organisations through the electoral roll – if the Republicans (or Dems) don’t want members of the other parties voting in their primaries they should maintain their own rolls and hold their own elections

    Note that parties don’t have to use the primary system – small parties choose their own mechanisms to choose candidates – however the PR value of being on the ballot means parties aspire to using it.

  2. Carol 2

    It seems to me that primaries are a US president idol show, with the candidate that can gain the strongest combination of positive media coverage and influential financial donations being the winner.

  3. ghostwhowalksnz 3

    Obama won the New Hampshire primary for democrats with 82% of the vote. But the strange part was about 10% voted for the Republican candidates Romney, Paul etc. These are ruled as invalid so Obama goes to about 90% of valid democratic votes. How did this happen ? Apparently in New Hampshire you can vote in another parties primary.

    • Matt 3.1

      There are closed primaries (limited to your party) and open primaries, it varies depending on where you are.

  4. Pete 4

    I recommend this 5 minute video explaining the primary system.

  5. randal 5

    a primary is simply a method of selecting a candidate american style.
    now that campaigns are permanent then they have become a method of keeping the republican party party in the news 24/7.
    at the moment they are like a cattle call for a remake of the seven dwarves!

  6. muzza 6

    The sick part about the primaries is that the world gets a first hand view at the following

    1: Media bias at its absolute naked worst
    2: The shit quality of American Politics, and its corruption laid bare
    3: The moronic public who buy into it
    4: The next arseholes who is going to wage war on the planet (same puppet arseholes)
    5: A tragic view of how far we have fallen

    Thats about as many as I wanted to give energy to…

    • happynz 6.1

      From muzza’s list…

      1: Media bias at its absolute naked worst

      The US media is shit, to be sure. However, I wouldn’t use the superlative here. New Zealand’s media hasn’t covered itself in glory during the past few years either. It’s not the worst though. There are dozens of nations with far worse examples of media bias. The UK and its tabloid press maybe?

      2: The shit quality of American Politics, and its corruption laid bare

      No argument there. However, if you’d like to experience totally balls out corruption you ought to spend an election season in Latin America, Southeast Asia, or just about anywhere in Africa.

      3: The moronic public who buy into it

      Same-same just about everywhere from my own experience.

      4: The next arseholes who is[sic] going to wage war on the planet (same puppet arseholes)

      erm…yeah…self interest and a lot of deadly hardware. Not a good combination.

      5: A tragic view of how far we have fallen

      Who are you talking about, the human race, or one or more nationalities in particular?

      Thats about as many as I wanted to give energy to…

      Yup, hauling generalisations out of the prejudice box is indeed some heavy lifting and a break may indeed be called for.

      • muzza 6.1.1

        Happy – The discussion is about the GOP primary held in USA, so I was not about to go into long winded comparisons with other countries, of those you mention I have travelled extensively and lived for more than a decade, so I know a bit about them!

        “Yup, hauling generalisations out of the prejudice box is indeed some heavy lifting and a break may indeed be called for.” – Last thing on earth I am is prejudice….I DONT LIKE CNUTS of any nationality, clear enoug!
        And frankly the American Administration has proved over many decades that their agenda is very fucken prejudice, and backed up with the media propaganda, and military to execude that prejudice..

        Maybe try another tact there eh!

        • McFlock

          “Tack”, not “tact”, methinks. A nautical term – not entirely sure, something about wind – which is appropriate for political discussions 🙂

      • To be fair to Muzza, while the USA is indeed not as corrupt as other countries, it is allowed to get away with its corruption to a far greater degree- this is partially due to the usual tricks, where corrupt countries wrap themselves in elections and play good cop/bad cop with the country and try to distract the electorate from the legalised theft going on, but it’s also partly because the USA has the corroboration of right-wing parties around the world praising its broken “democracy” as a model.

        In short, the US has the worst ratio of perception of freedom to corruption in the world, far outstripping many outright authoritarian regimes in their pretension to democracy- for instance, compare it to China, with similarly oppressive methods and similar dreams of empire.

  7. insider 7

    I’m not sure why US primaries are even news in NZ let alone the second item on the 6pm news on TV1 and 3 as they were on Monday. Most of these people we’ve never heard of and never will again. How can that possibly be considered the second most important story of the day in NZ?

    It’s all about slickly packaged images and soundbites, meaning news is about what is cheap and entertains not what is relevant.

    • Lanthanide 7.1

      Because the president of the US wields significant power in the world.

      Also not a lot of note is happening in NZ at the moment.

      • Carol 7.1.1

        Also not a lot of note is happening in NZ at the moment.

        Huh? Ports of Auckland, Occupy evictions, Rena and Christchurch issues continuing, Crafar Farms, mining issues, selected visibility of Key & National, Labour caucus, Mr Mega Dotcom, National subtle media censorship/control, Stratos gone off air, decreasing public service media… etc, etc…

        • muzza

          Carol, EXACTLY. The GOP primaries are a circus, another distraction from real issues, both in NZ, and abroad…

          Its like when the Yanks fawnicated over the royal wedding last year…why would they do that you think!

          • Matt

            Probably for the same reasons Kiwis did?

            • muzza

              Most people do not even know why they like the monarchy – Most have no idea who they are or where they came from. They just know that they are shown via glossy mags, the Royals are special people, and that you can’t have what they have, because, well, you are just a peasant.

              Its just a case of monkey see monkey do, which is about all the mind can cope with these days. Just keep those “idols” be it, sport, tv, film, music, politics, royalty, reality BS coming, the people , they love it, and grow dumber and more subserviant every day!

              We on the same page? 😉

        • Lanthanide

          None of those are ‘new’ stories except for Dotcom and they haven’t had any interesting new developments (like the primary races in the US have, with Gingrich storming into the lead). Crafar farms will be widely covered once National officially announce their decision to allow the sale.

          • muzza

            Shows the fact that there is little appetite to give the stories the indepth coverage they deserve!

            Dotcom is nothing more than a sideshow issue as well..

            Gingrich in the lead, IOWA ballots going missing, 8 of them….bodes well doesnt it!

      • insider 7.1.2

        But this is not a presidential election, it;s an in-house bun fight.

        • McFlock

          AKA a collection of prepackaged horse-race bulletins that make the news team look like they have international depth. All bought for a song off the wire. 

  8. Lanthanide 8

    My boyfriend has pointed out that the primaries do something that NZ politics really doesn’t. It gets many top contenders from each party to duke it out. Obviously a lot of them go in it with the hope of winning, but some of them are just there to raise public awareness about their particular issues. This leads to a lot more debate within the party and in the public at large about exactly what it is the party should be doing; look at the waves Ron Paul has been making with his foreign policy for example.

    We sort of saw a very abridged version of this with the recent Cunliffe vs Shearer saga, and that was probably the first time anything like that had happened in NZ.

    • insider 8.1

      it’s interesting but we don’t vote for the head of state like they do. If the Democrats lose faith in Obama they can’t drop him mid term.

      • Well, Obama is a bad example, because he’s committed a lot of impeachable offenses, so the Democrats could drop him, if they actually believed in their constitution and the rule of law.

        • happynz

          That’s interesting. In your opinion, which impeachable offenses have Obama committed?

  9. ianmac 9

    By the way. Open Mike 26 Jan is just a very black blank page to me. Just me is it?

  10. Rich 10

    Also, “registered party member” isn’t the same as here. You don’t have to pay dues or sign up to their values – you just tick a box when registering to vote: http://www.wikihow.com/Become-a-Registered-Democrat

  11. randal 11

    insider you are on the money when it comes to why primaries are news here.
    the answer is so creeps like ipredict can make a book on it and cozy up to fox news who think we should all be plastic people of the universe anyway.

  12. Irascible 12

    Interesting campaign being run by the Tea Party groupings in the GoP has concentrated on stressing the positive aspects of slavery over the realities that led to it being banned and including in the social studies / civics curriculum the statement that the founding fathers legislated for a republic not a democracy.

  13. Colonial Viper 13

    The bankers already have their inside man in the White House and they will return him, they don’t give a stuff about the Republicans.

    The positioning they are going for is the term after – when Obama will be out.

    Obama’s popular talk about dealing with US income inequality – will turn out to be more of what he does best – giving good speeches and then caving to the billionaires.

    • To be fair, Obama isn’t the bankers’ man. He’s not exactly a leftie by our standards, but the problem is more one of institutional capture of a man with reasonably progressive centrist beliefs- he listened to the corporate wing of his party on who to appoint, (which are the real operatives of Wall Street on the inside of the administration- look at his chiefs of staff!) and now he’s been convinced by them to act like a liberal republican, against the advice of his re-election campaign and the only bloody progressive in the White House, Michelle Obama.

      (It’s too bad America has been convinced it’s not ready for a woman as President- Michelle Obama would be an amazing President)

  14. randal 14

    according to dave (david letterman) the republican primary is where they line up to see who is going to lose the election to Obama.
    hot news off the MSN wire is that the Neut has been endorsed by Heman Cain. I dont think that will do it somehow.

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