There are two methods of choosing the state’s winning nominee: the primary and the caucus. Each state chooses which system it uses. After the vote, delegates selected from each state attend the party’s national convention, where the party officially chooses its candidate. The national conventions of each major party take place a few months before the presidential election, around August and September.
The primary is the most common system of electing party nominees, and is the most typical kind of election. Voters take their pick of candidates on secret written ballots. They can choose among all registered candidates or write in the name of another person.
There are two main types of primaries: closed and open. In closed primaries elections, voters can only vote in the primary of the party in which they have registered. Voters must be officially registered as a member of the specific political party in order to cast their vote. For example, a registered Republican can only vote in the Republican primary Some states allow voters registered as independents to choose which political party’s primary in which to vote, which is known as a semi-closed primary. An open primary allows any registered voter to choose which primary to vote. Each voter is only allowed to cast one ballot in one primary. Each state determines whether its primary will be closed or open, or semi-closed.
The names on the primary ballots also differ from state to state. Some states use the names of the candidates, while others have the names of delegates for the convention. Both types of ballots accomplish the same thing: choosing delegates to represent the state in the party convention. But delegates can be pledged, or bound, to a specific candidate, or unpledged. Unpledged delegates are uncommitted to any of the candidates.
The caucus differs from the more common polling style of election. Rather than casting an anonymous vote on a ballot, voters in states which have caucuses attend a meeting in their district. Only registered voters of each party are able to vote in the meeting. Some precincts, or election centers, allow observers.
Voters arrive at the caucus and join the group that supports their candidate. Undecided voters group together. Then the floor is opened for speeches and debates, in order to persuade the undecided voters to join one preference group or the other.
At the end of the caucus, the members of each group are counted, and the candidate with the largest group is declared the winner and the party nominee. Some states divide their delegates proportionately, while others use the winner-take-all model. A minimum of 15 percent of the total voters in a precinct is required to remain viable and receive delegates. If a candidate does not receive 15 percent of the precinct voters, those voters might be able to join a different candidate's preference group. The other option is to remain uncommitted.
An alternate method of running a caucus involves a secret ballot, which is held after the persuasive speeches and debates, much like the other type of caucus. The public declaration of support required by many caucuses has been criticized, as the public pressure can sway voters away from their beliefs.
There will be three phases of 2012 primaries beginning in January and ending in June, though these dates might still be changed before that time. Iowa will kick off the process for both parties, with a caucus scheduled for January 3. The final state to hold its Republican primary will be Utah, on June 26, 2012. The 2012 Republican National Convention will follow shortly after, beginning on August 27, 2012 in Tampa, Florida. The 2012 Democratic National Convention will occur the week of September 3, in Charlotte, North Carolina.
States typically compete for the earliest election days during the primary season. Earlier primaries and caucuses have a greater influence on the selection of a candidate, and some candidates may drop out of the race throughout the process. Some states, such as California, have moved up their election date to earlier in the year in hopes of gaining influence, but California has decided to move the election back it its normal time in June in an effort to save the state money on an extra election.
The Election Day in which many states hold their elections is known as Super Tuesday. Super Tuesday 2012 will be held on March 6, but this election’s Super Tuesday will be much smaller than that of previous years, with around 10 states participating.