President Barack Obama’s days in the Oval Office are counting down, but the 2016 presidential race is just getting started. While Republican voters will have the weekend off, Democrats in South Carolina will decide whether to vote for Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders in a primary election that could have dramatic implications for the rest of the race.
Here’s a breakdown of when all the primaries and caucuses are being held and how you can follow the results. Also, don’t forget to vote! We’ve added in voting location links to help you out and a link to register to vote if you haven’t yet.
What are primaries, caucuses, and delegates?
Before the Democrats and Republicans square off for the presidency, they each select a candidate, which they do through a long, rigorous process of primaries. By the time the two big parties convene for their conventions to officially nominate candidates, said candidates will have spent months fighting for delegates to support them in each of the fifty states. Not only is it a lengthy process, but for observers not versed in politics, it can be a convoluted one.
Securing a party’s nomination comes down to securing delegates. Delegates are members of the party — often activists or important party leaders at the local level — who convene to nominate a party’s candidate. Both Democrats and Republicans have long held public conventions in which they appoint their nominees for the presidential election. At these conventions, delegates nominate a candidate to represent the party in the general election. In the early days of American politics, these conventions were contentious events, with delegates deliberating on the convention floor about who should represent the party. This led to occasional surprises, such as James K. Polk being nominated by Democrats as a compromise.
Today, the conventions are largely for show; by the time the delegates have gathered, they have already pledged their support for a candidate. This is because of the primary system, in which individual states pledge their delegates to candidates in the lead-up to the conventions. This is where the election cycle can get complicated. The two big parties dole out delegates to each state based on various factors. The biggest factors in allocating delegates are the state’s population, and their support for the party. Republicans, for example, give each state 10 delegates to begin with, then additional delegates based on how that state has supported Republicans in higher offices such as the Senate.
The Democrats have a total of 4,763 delegates, and a candidate needs to win 2,382 in order to secure their nomination. Republicans have 2,472 delegates, and the Republican candidate wins the nomination with 1,237 delegates. How exactly do candidates win delegates? The local party in each state holds a primary or a caucus to decide which candidate will receive their delegates. Primaries are essentially just ballot elections, while a caucus is reminiscent of a town hall meeting; members of the community gather together to discuss issues that concern them and decide which candidate would better suit their interests.
One would think at this point that the delegate process is clear: a candidate wins a state, they get that state’s delegates. However, like everything else in the presidential election, it’s not that simple. Not only does each state have its own number of delegates, but some states award delegates based on percentage of votes. For the Democrats, this is the way it works in every state. A candidate gets a portion of the total delegates based on their share of the votes. Republicans make things a bit more complicated, implementing a proportional system in some states and a winner-take-all system in others.
In theory, delegates at the convention vote based on the will of their state’s constituents. However, there is an additional wrinkle in that “unbound” delegates can technically vote for any candidate they want. In the Democratic Party, these are known as “superdelegates,” generally high-ranking members of the party who can support whom they please, regardless of results. The addition of superdelegates was a reaction to the messy 1980 election, with many Democratic elites upset at what they perceived as the disorder of grassroots campaigns. The theory is that through superdelegates, the Democratic party can establish order in elections where the party is too fractured.
The recent New Hampshire primary is a good example of superdelegates at work. Although Sanders won the Democratic vote by 22 points, thus getting the bulk of the normal delegates, many of the state’s superdelegates pledged their support to Hillary Clinton. As such, the two candidates could end up getting roughly the same number of delegates from New Hampshire. It is important to note that superdelegates do not formally vote until the convention, and thus are not bound to a candidate despite pledging their support.