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Understanding the Nomination Process


The Founding Fathers created a republic, “a government which derives all its powers directly or indirectly from the great body of the people.” Because they were concerned that presidential elections would become occasions for “tumult and disorder,” they agreed upon a system for electing presidents indirectly. The original electoral process established in Article II included the Electoral College and a complicated set of rules by which these electors cast their votes. The increasing role of parties had led to complicated election results in 1796 and 1800, so by 1804 Americans passed the 12th Amendment which loosened the rules to allow political parties to play a much greater role in presidential elections.

Presidential candidates are generally determined through a political party’s nomination process. The broad rules of the nomination process are set by the national committee of each party, which means the candidate selection processes can vary between different political parties.

Nomination processes consist of two main types of elections held at the state level: primaries and caucuses. The party committee in each state determines the rules that will govern their particular election contest. Primaries and caucuses can be binding or non-binding, winner-take-all or proportional, and open or closed. (Read the glossary below to see what these terms mean in the context of an election.) Each candidate’s goal in these contests is to amass the most delegates prior to the party’s national convention, and thus to win the party’s nomination.


  • Primary: Like in “regular” elections, participants go to local polling stations and vote for their preferred candidate in the privacy of a single person voting booth.
  • Caucus: Essentially, caucus-goers gather in a local meeting place to determine who will be awarded their delegate(s). The voting process for caucuses differs between political parties and between the states, but in most instances, they are more public and include deliberations and discussions among the caucus attendees. These discussions and deliberations can occur before, during, or after voting. It also isn’t uncommon for caucuses to have multiple rounds of voting.
  • Delegates: Representatives who cast votes at a political party’s national convention.
  • Binding: If a primary or caucus is “binding” that means the delegates won in that contest are legally bound to vote for a particular candidate at the party’s national convention.
  • Non-Binding: If a primary or caucus is “non-binding” that means the delegates won in that contest are not legally bound to vote for a particular candidate at the party’s national convention.
  • Winner-take-all: The winner in this type of contest (which is generally a primary) is awarded all the delegates in that state.
  • Proportional: Delegates are awarded to each candidate based on how well they performed in the contest. Most proportional contests have a minimum threshold that candidates much reach to be awarded delegates.
  • Open: Persons of all political affiliations can vote in this type of contest.
  • Closed: Only persons registered as affiliated with the party holding the contest can vote. But wait, there’s more! Delegates won via a state contest are known as pledged delegates, in other words, they are pledged to a particular candidate. There is another category of delegates known as unpledged or super delegates. Unpledged delegates are mostly comprised of current and former party leaders and officials. They have the ability to support any candidate they wish.

Questions to Consider

  1. How does the party nomination process mesh with the constitutional principles of consent of the governed of representative government?
  2. In your opinion, should the party nomination system fall outside the spectrum of the constitution?
  3. Who determines the rules for the nomination process?
  4. Who determines the rules for a primary or caucus?
  5. Which type of election contest described above do you see as the best? Explain why.
  6. How does the party nomination system compare to the Electoral College? How do they differ?