November 2015

Primaries 2015

We’re in the final months of 2015. In the United States, that means the presidential election is about to kick into high gear. Get ready for non-stop ads and news coverage of the race all the way through next November.

Unlike in Canada, where the campaign for federal Parliament lasts only a few weeks or months, the election for the presidency of the United States is a drawn-out slog to the finish line. Part of this is due to the outsized role of money in U.S. politics. With unlimited corporate money, campaigns can afford to keep ads running and canvassers knocking as long as they want. Largely, though, the long campaign is due to a unique feature of U.S. presidential politics: The presidential primary elections.

Primaries are the elections American political parties use to select their presidential candidates. At the beginning of the campaign, many different people all compete to be the Republican or Democratic Parties’ standard bearers. Primaries serve to test these candidates and winnow away the ones who can’t take the heat of the national campaign trail. In the end, only one candidate is left standing in each party, and these two candidates compete for the presidency in the general election.

Why Primaries?
The primaries weren’t always the way major U.S. political parties nominated their candidates. Power used to rest entirely with party insiders who chose candidates at conventions, away from the public eye. Backroom deals were common and the nominee was indebted to the party elites who chose him. People voted in primaries, but the results were only used to prove to party bigwigs their favored candidate could win votes. Everyday people didn’t have much voice in the process.

That changed in 1968. Television news coverage had brought the formerly-secret action of party conventions into light. The incumbent Democratic President, Lyndon Johnson, had decided not to run again, and the candidate who had performed best in the primaries, Robert Kennedy, had been assassinated. Democratic Party bosses strong-armed their favored candidate, Hubert Humphrey, to the nomination, even though Humphrey hadn’t received any primary votes. Convention floor fights and massive protests were an embarrassment to the party, and Humphrey lost badly in the general election to Richard Nixon.

After the 1968 convention, both parties realized that the old way of nominating candidates had to go. Party reforms increased the power of voters, leading to the primary system we have today.

How it Works
The primaries are a series of elections from January to July, one for each state and U.S. territory. Voters choose between the various candidates fighting for each party’s nomination. Candidates compete in small states like Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada first, where grassroots campaigns can get out and talk to voters directly. Large states, and large groups of states, have their elections next. Voters in later states watch the results of early primaries to see if their favorite candidate can compete. Weak candidates drop out throughout the process. Usually one candidate is the clear winner by the end of the primary season.

Since the point of primary elections is to choose a party’s standard bearer, Republicans and Democrats usually have separate primaries. The rules for these elections vary from state to state. Some states have “closed primaries” requiring voters to register as members of a party beforehand to vote. Other states have “open primaries,” and voters can vote in whichever party’s election they like. Either way, people can only vote in one party’s primary each year – no double dipping!

Unlike in presidential general elections, where only two candidates have a real chance at winning, primaries usually offer many candidates in each party to choose from. This is good for voters, since we have a better chance of finding a candidate who represents us. If you want to make your voice heard in the political process, voting in your state’s primary is a great place to start.

This system isn’t perfect. One of the biggest problems is that the first two states to vote, Iowa and New Hampshire, don’t represent the American population very well. Voters in larger, more diverse states don’t have their voices heard until later in the campaign. By that time, many candidates may have dropped out. That doesn’t make late state voters meaningless, but it does give early state voters an outsized influence over the nomination process.

The Republican and Democratic Parties had not published their official primary calendars by the time this article went to press. Contact your business manager to find out when your party’s primary will happen in your state, and where the candidates stand on issues that matter to us as ironworkers.

Primary voters cast their ballots for presidential candidates, but the final choice of nominee comes down to delegates at the convention. Each party holds a convention at the end of the primary season, and each state sends delegates based on the size of its population. State delegates are usually pledged to support the candidate their state’s voters chose during the primary. This is opposed to the old system, when delegates were pledged to support the candidates favored by their local party bosses and political machines.

How are these delegates chosen? That varies by state and political party. Sometimes delegates are chosen by caucuses after the primary or at a state convention. For example, Iron Workers Political and Legislative Director Dave Kolbe was chosen as an Ohio delegate to the Democratic conventions in 2008 and 2012 during state party caucuses. Whether you are a Democrat or a Republican, becoming a delegate to your party’s convention is a way to represent the interests of your fellow ironworkers. If you are interested, look up the rules for your state party’s delegate selection and see if your local and central labor council can help you get elected.

There is a second type of delegate: “unpledged” or “super delegates.” Super delegates are party leaders and high-profile elected officials who are automatically granted delegate status based on their office. They are outnumbered by pledged delegates from the states, but are free to support any candidate they choose. Super delegates usually don’t sway the outcome of the nomination, but can serve as a tiebreaker if primary voters are split between two or more candidates.

The Convention
The primary season ends with the party national conventions. Delegates from the states and territories gather to officially nominate their party’s candidate for president of the United States. In 2016, Republicans will hold their convention in Cleveland and Democrats will hold theirs in Philadelphia.

The last convention in which the nominee wasn’t known beforehand was the 1976 Republican convention, when Ronald Reagan came close to beating unpopular President Gerald Ford in the primaries. These days, primaries are more of a publicity event for parties to advertise their nominees. Delegates also use the convention as a chance to vote on policies in the national party platform. Ironworkers and other unions go to party conventions to speak out for policies benefitting working families.

After this long process, the nominee is only halfway done. He or she still has to face the other party’s nominee in the general presidential election. With such a long and difficult series of primary elections, only the most determined candidates make it to this stage. Our union will be engaged throughout the primaries and the general election to make sure the next president of the United States is a friend to ironworkers and all working people.