Primaries, caucuses and superdelegates: the language of US presidential elections

by Liz Walter

Ariel Skelley/Blend Images/Getty
Ariel Skelley/Blend Images/Getty

On November 8th, Americans will choose their 45th president. This post aims to explain the system – which is complex to say the least! – and in particular to explain the often baffling vocabulary connected with it.

The reason that US elections seem to go on for an incredible length of time is that they have two distinct phases: first a protracted period of selecting presidential candidates for each party and then the election itself.

Candidates are selected through a system of primaries and caucuses, which varies from state to state. In general, caucuses are run by political parties and consist of a series of actual meetings at which votes are cast, while primaries are run by the state or local governments and consist of a state-wide vote.

In an open primary, all registered voters can vote for candidates of any party. In a closed primary, only registered voters affiliated to a particular party may vote for that party’s candidate. And in a semi-closed primary, anyone other than those registered with an opposing party can vote.

The point of primaries and caucuses is to select delegates who pledge to support a particular candidate. These delegates attend their party’s nominating convention, which is where the presidential nominee is finally selected. In addition to delegates, there are a number of superdelegates – people who have been selected to vote, but who are not bound to a particular candidate. These people are usually party leaders or other elected officials.

Each presidential candidate then chooses a running mate, the person they hope will become their vice president.

On election day itself, all registered voters can cast their vote. However, they are not voting directly for a candidate, but for electors who make up the electoral college. Each state has a number of electors, roughly based on its population. In all but two states, the candidate who receives the majority of the vote gets all the electors for that state.

In many states, the outcome is pretty much a foregone conclusion. However, there are several swing states, and these are where much of the campaigning will be focused. In fact, the result of the 2000 election between George Bush and Al Gore came down to a tiny and disputed margin in the state of Florida.

After the election, Barack Obama will become a so-called lame duck president, serving out the remainder of his second term until the new president is inaugurated in January next year.

8 thoughts on “Primaries, caucuses and superdelegates: the language of US presidential elections

  1. Pingback: Primaries, caucuses and superdelegates: the language of US presidential elections – Cambridge Dictionary About words blog (Nov 02, 2016) | Editorial Words

  2. Pingback: Primaries, caucuses and superdelegates: the language of US presidential elections | Editorials Today

  3. Pingback: Primaries, caucuses and superdelegates: the language of U.S. presidential elections | thebuzzinsider

  4. Emel

    Dear Liz and Kate
    I’d really like a few posts about ships, sailing and nautical terms. There are also many expressions which have entered the language and are of nautical origin. Gervais Phinn in his book “The heart of the Dales” makes use of this fact as part of the plot in a comical way. I think several blogs will be required!

  5. Pingback: Behind the US Elections | Iberlingva

  6. Janaina Kowalski

    Hello, I’m a fan and reader of your posts. Would you please consider writing a post about how to use expressions (e.g. to make sense, add up, help out, clear up…) in a formal way? That would be highly appreciate and would make it so much easier to go through law documents.

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