You will have no doubt seen a flurry of articles in the last week about the Iowa Caucus and the New Hampshire Primary in the lead-up to the November’s US presidential election, but for those of us not born in the United States, the process is confusing, to say the least.

The US process for choosing presidential nominees and ultimately their president is a fascinating mix of updated procedures to fix perceived failings amongst immutable historical requirements.

The process where the two main political parties, Republican and Democratic choose their nominees starts in February and can last for five months in party-sponsored contests called primaries and caucuses.

US 2016

Why primaries?

The modern primary and caucus process began after the 1968 election with the McGovern-Fraser Commission shifting from nominations controlled in the back rooms by party power brokers to a system where rank-and-file party voters would have a direct say in nominating their preferred candidate.

Since then, registered party members vote in a series of contests that give candidates a proportion of delegates’ votes cast in a roll call at the parties’ national conventions later in the year. The delegates are bound by the initial primary process to vote for a particular candidate, working similarly to the electoral college delegate voting system in the ultimate general election.

Iowa and New Hampshire begin the process early in the year, usually February, and are in fact required by law to start the primary process but candidates have usually spent nearly a year beforehand beginning their campaigns. There is no law that governs how early a candidate can announce intention to run for president, and Ted Cruz, contender for Republican nomination, signalled his tilt at the top job in March of 2015.

Primaries and caucuses

There are two methods states can use to collect party members’ votes: primaries and caucuses.

A primary is run and funded by state governments, while state parties run the much more complicated caucus process.

Primaries are easier to understand for those not initiated into US political manoeuvring: registered voters attend a polling place and vote for preferred candidates with a ballot. There are closed primaries and open primaries, where open primaries do not require voters to be registered members of their preferred candidate’s party to vote in the primary.

Caucuses, however, are events that could take place in a home or public space (depending on the size of the caucus) and involves active communal participation and sometimes debate, including requiring candidates to physically stand with others who support a particular candidate then persuade others to join if they haven’t met the minimum needed to contest the caucus.

Why would you choose to pay for the much more complicated caucus process, you may ask?

State-run primaries are required to abide by state laws governing the process such as whether it is a closed or open primary, but most importantly the date of the primary. States that prefer an earlier date in the process to influence the policy agenda for the election must conduct a caucus process and pay for it themselves, much like Idaho did in 2012 to jump the queue and secure an earlier date than their allotted May primary.

States clamour to have their contests early on in the process before the field of candidates has been winnowed down, where they can have the biggest influence on policy topics of debate.

Why then is New Hampshire a primary but always the first primary?

Before the system changed in 1968, New Hampshire was historically first to hold its primary, but after the shift New Hampshire proactively enacted state law requiring the primary to be before any ‘similar contest,’ giving date-setting control to the Secretary of State so the state could move its primary to the first in the election calendar. Other changes in the calendar have been brought about to inject the process with more racial and regional diversity, as the Democratic National Committee (DNC) did in moving Nevada and South Carolina forward in the process for 2008.

Having smaller states at the beginning of the process is deliberate, thought to avoid a better-funded candidate winning early in a larger state over whomever may be the ‘best’ candidate. There are four so-called ‘carve-out’ states in the beginning of the process, winnowing the field considerably before other primaries. This year, we’ve had Iowa and New Hampshire, and next cab off the rank for the Democrats is Nevada on February 23rd, followed by South Carolina on the 27th. Republicans face off in South Carolina first on the 20th, and later in Nevada on the 23rd of February.

You may have heard the term ‘Super Tuesday’ in news reports in reference to the primaries, and this refers to the first Tuesday in March when thirteen states and territories hold their caucus or primary, and with the vast numbers of delegates at play can signal major shifts in the race.

As mentioned earlier, states like Idaho change their process to maximise what they see as the perceived benefits of holding their primary at different stages of the race, and the national parties respond with rules and changes to fix what they see as weaknesses in the process from the previous election. This results in a highly variable process where it’s difficult to determine what differences caused outcomes within the process.

Delegates voting at the convention are bound by the primaries or caucuses that sent them, and for the Democrats, the DNC mandates what proportion of delegates each state receives. The thresholds for what proportion of the state’s delegates are allocated to each candidate are set by the state, however, such that some are a percentage of the overall state, others district by district.

State Republican parties can allocate delegates and set rules as they see fit, including proportional, winner-take-all or variations in between.

But do all these primaries matter? Historically, there is a strong relationship between the candidate who receives 50 per cent of the delegates early on and those who later ‘clinch’ the nomination at 75 per cent of delegates. Often this process is fraught early on and a result is known sooner because candidates drop out of the race after losing primaries.

On this year’s calendar, it is likely that the presumptive nominee will largely be known by both parties in late March, early April.

So what happens if there’s no clear winner at the convention? Some are raising the idea of a ‘brokered convention’ due to the lack of clear frontrunner in the Republican field, but this is a perennial think piece written at each election. A brokered convention refers to the process where party ‘bosses’ at the convention wheel and deal in back rooms to choose a nominee. In the unlikely event this does occur this year, it will be interesting to see who steps forward to negotiate as the old party bosses have long since been replaced by campaign staffers, consultants and groups operating very differently from years ago.

The election

Once delegates have voted at the conventions mid year in the roll call, the candidate campaigns furiously until the general election on the first Tuesday in November, this year November 8.

Interestingly, the reason the date of the general election was set as the first Tuesday in November in 1834, was because a Tuesday was far enough from Sundays spent in church and Wednesdays spent at the market allowing for travel to the polling places by farmers. November was also determined not to interfere with spring and summer planting seasons or early autumn harvests or require travel during harsh winters.

Much like the primary process, the vote in the general election is delegated to electors as part of the Electoral College set up by the founders. States are allocated the same number of electors as they have Senators and Members of the House of Representatives. Each state has two Senators, and Congressmen and women are determined by population, so states broadly have electors in proportion to their population. The two electors from Senator numbers do distort the count somewhat in favour of the smaller, less populous states, but this was seen as valuable to ensure smaller state issues are heard.

Just two states, Maine and Nebraska, have proportional allocation of electors – in all others it’s a winner-take-all system. That means if a candidate wins 51% of the votes in Illinois, they receive all of the Illinois electoral college votes, and in some cases presidents have lost the nationwide popular vote but won the general election as happened in 2000 with George W. Bush.

The magic number of electoral college votes to win the election is 270, and unlike Australia candidates can spend unlimited sums in the race to the finish. Presidential campaigns have been known to cost up to $1 billion, not counting money spent by outside groups.

We’ll wait to see what next week’s primaries bring, but either way, public attention on the marathon race to the White House will only grow as the year progresses.

Click here to read The Agenda Group’s analysis of 2016 election social media changes.