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I keep hearing newscasters refer to this week's New Hampshire primary as "the first in the nation primary". While I understand this is technically true, the way they emphasize "first in the nation" makes it seem like last week's Iowa caucus was less important.

While I understand that the primary and caucus processes are different, in the end they both involve citizens voting for a party candidate. Tuesday night they just reported the percentage of the vote that the candidates each received, just like they would if it had been a primary election. Why does it matter that it's not a primary?

I'm not asking what the difference is between them. I'm asking why this difference is important to anyone other than the people actually going to the polls/caucuses.

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5 Answers 5

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Background: In the United States, the nominees of the two major parties are determined in a series of state by state primaries or caucuses starting in January and spanning about six months, at which candidates get delegates who are sent to the major party national conventions in the late summer of the Presidential election year. Each party allocates its delegates differently, they aren't exactly aligned with electoral votes and include some delegates from places that have no say in the general election for President. High political party elected officials and party organization members, called "superdelegates" also have a say in addition to those elected in primaries and caucuses. For reasons discussed below, the order in which primaries and caucuses are held greatly impacts the outcome and the amount of a say that a state's voters have in selected a Presidential nominee for the major two U.S. political parties (that have always won when the U.S. has had two major political parties).

Joe W's answer is correct, but not complete. He notes that:

The New Hampshire primary is like a normal election with polls that are open throughout the day. A caucus on the other hand is a gathering of voters at a specific time to decide who to support.

One major difference is that the caucus happens at a set time and anyone who is unable to make it or is late is unable to participate. During this process the people who meet decide which candidate to support and choose delegates to send to the next level up to vote for them. This continues until the state level where they elect delegates for the party convention.

The first in the nation caucus last week was in Iowa (a small, rural, mostly white state in the Midwest). Ohio (a Midwestern, medium sized, mixed rural and urban, and more ethnically diverse state than Iowa or New Hampshire that has gone from being a battleground state to a red state) has a primary in March.

New Hampshire is the most conservative and independent minded of the New England states (and very white) and is very small (making it less expensive to campaign in). South Carolina's early primary is also very influential, as the first context in the South, and also comes early. South Carolina's Republican primary (usually the second primary in the nation) is almost exclusively white anyway (but has Southern whites instead of Northern whites), while South Carolina's Democratic primary is one of the first in the nation with a significant number of non-white voters.

Both Iowa's first caucus, and New Hampshire's first primary have an outsized impact. The first primaries and first caucuses are important because they quickly thin out candidates with a poor chance of success.

Since most states have primaries, primaries tend to be more representative of later nationwide results than caucuses. It is more common for a candidate who makes a decent showing in the first caucus and first contest of primary season Iowa to fizzle out than it is for one who makes a decent showing in the first primary in New Hampshire.

Candidates who don't make a solid showing in one or the other or both of these contests usually drop out of the race and aren't nominated. Usually only 3-5 candidates have viable campaigns once these two contests are over. South Carolina usually takes at least one more candidate out of the running.

Later primaries and caucuses are usually a long war of attrition between the top two candidates for a while and then usually become a cakewalk for the front runner at some point before the end of the process with the last primaries and caucuses just ratifying the result that is already nearly certain.

This could happen earlier than later this year, unless the race is disrupted by a disqualification of Donald Trump from office, a health emergency for Mr. Trump, or a felony conviction of Mr. Trump who has four pending criminal trials before the election (which isn't disqualifying but which many independent voters have said in surveys is key to electability).

A failure to thrive in either Iowa or New Hampshire means that donors stop giving to that candidate, volunteers stop supporting that candidate, and the media stops reporting about that candidate.

After the Republican Caucus in Iowa, these are the results:

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And DeSantis has dropped out of the race and endorsed Trump.

The candidates other than Trump and Haley are almost completely out of the running at this point (except for a chance to be picked as someone else's VP candidate). The latest polling suggests (as of January 21, 2024) that Nikki Haley is the only candidate other than Trump who will meet the 10% threshold to receive delegates in the New Hampshire primary. So the GOP primary and caucus season will be reduced to two candidates as soon as Tuesday once these initial two contests are over.

A candidate that can't come in one of the top three spots in New Hampshire at this point, with some meaningful percentage showing, is irrelevant and will not be mentioned again.

This is reliably the case even though Iowa and New Hampshire account for only a tiny percentage of the delegates to the Republican National Convention (about 2.5% between them), and turnout is only 1-2% in Iowa and maybe as much as 40% of GOP voters in New Hampshire, both of which are small states. Effectively, these two states cull the race down to the finalists that are seriously considered by the rest of the country.

The full Presidential primary and caucus calendar for 2024 (which isn't exactly the same for Republicans as it is for Democrats where it is irrelevant in any case) can be found here.

Turnout for caucuses is typically about 1% of eligible voters, and is typically limited to the real party faithful. Turnout of 20-30% of eligible voters is typical in a primary. People with interests intense enough to caucus generally favor more extreme ideologies than people who would cast a primary vote, but would not caucus.

Another big difference between a primary and a caucus is that a primary is administered by the state, at state expense, and isn't necessarily limited to party members (depending upon state law), while a caucus is administered by a political party at its own expense, and is generally limited to party members.

Thus, in many states unaffiliated voters can vote in the primary. In some states, even people who usually vote for Democrats can vote in the primary as there is no public declaration of party affiliation except through the voter's choice of ballot to vote when it is filled out.

A primary election is always conducted with a secret ballot, while a caucus is frequently conducted with an openly revealed ballot.

A primary election's sole purpose is to select nominee's for the political party in a general election, while a caucus is also used to recruit political party officials, to solicit input on the party platform, and to raise money.

It is common for candidates or their proxies to make speeches to caucus goers, while there is not generally any on site campaigning in a primary election.

A state doesn't necessarily have only one or the other. For example, for many offices in Colorado, a candidate can make it onto the primary ballot either by receiving sufficient support in the caucus process or by petitioning onto the ballot. And, a candidate who attempts to make it onto the ballot via the caucus process and receives too little support may not petition onto the primary ballot.

Differences in the process materially impact who is favored to win. Caucuses have peer effects and the effects of candidate proxies personally appealing for the vote of those present and don't have non-party members and are limited to those with intense interest. Primaries don't have peer effects, are less affected by grass roots campaigning, often include non-party members, and include voters with less intense interest in the campaigns.

The strategy for campaigning is very different for a caucus v. a primary as well. A primary campaign is focused on mass media and putting up signs, much as it is in a general election. The style of campaigning is different for a caucus which is more targeted to the small number of voters likely to attend.

It is also much harder to accurately survey caucus goers in advance than it is to survey primary voters, so a caucus outcome is less predictable.

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  • Let us continue this discussion in chat.
    – supercat
    Commented Jan 23 at 18:27
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    The language aspect is a bit overlooked here: Caucuses and primaries are different things that work differently and there's not a single common term to cover them both. Commented Jan 23 at 18:41
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It matters because of the law in New Hampshire, which states that "The presidential primary election shall be held on the second Tuesday in March or on a date selected by the secretary of state [of NH] which is 7 days or more immediately preceding the date on which any other state shall hold a similar election, whichever is earlier."

This law (which is a state law, not a federal law) requires New Hampshire to move its primary election to a date earlier than any other state. No other state has a similar provision (and the consequences of another state passing a similar law has not been tested)

However, in the judgement of New Hampshire, the Iowa caucuses are not a "similar election" and so the Secretary of State is not required to move the Primary forward to be before the Iowa caucuses.

So the only reason that that it matters that Iowa is not a primary, is because of this NH law.

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    That makes it important to NH and IA, not clear why the rest of us would care.
    – Barmar
    Commented Jan 21 at 23:13
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    There is no other reason that it matters. If you don't care, then you are probably like most people who dont' care that much. It seems to be a matter of concern to newscasters, who probably are "into" this kind of hairsplitting.
    – James K
    Commented Jan 21 at 23:15
  • What happens if another state passes a similar law requiring its primary to be held a week before New Hampshire's? Does it just logic-bomb the whole system?
    – dan04
    Commented Jan 23 at 3:22
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    @dan04 Alreasy addressed, in the answer "the consequences of another state passing a similar law has not been tested"
    – James K
    Commented Jan 23 at 6:36
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The New Hampshire primary is like a normal election with polls that are open throughout the day. A caucus on the other hand is a gathering of voters at a specific time to decide who to support.

One major difference is that the caucus happens at a set time and anyone who is unable to make it or is late is unable to participate. During this process the people who meet decide which candidate to support and choose delegates to send to the next level up to vote for them. This continues until the state level where they elect delegates for the party convention.

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    Does this mean there's usually less participation in caucuses than primaries, because it's not as convenient? But even if so, the impact on the nomination seems the same.
    – Barmar
    Commented Jan 21 at 22:37
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    As I said, I understand the difference in the process. I just don't understand why it's newsworthy. As an analogy, if I go to a chain restaurant, I don't care whether it's company-owned or a franchise, the food is still the same.
    – Barmar
    Commented Jan 21 at 22:41
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    @Barmar the entire process is different as an election counts the votes from the entire state while a caucus only counts the votes at the individual caucus level. After that a new set of votes happens at each level until the delegates are decided at the state level though you generally know the outcome since it is just electing pledged delegates at each level.
    – Joe W
    Commented Jan 21 at 23:16
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The distinction is important to the people who write the news.

The New Hampshire primaries are important enough to report on (see e.g ohwilleke's answer). Being able to call it "the first in the nation" makes it sound more exciting; making news sound more exciting (or in general eliciting other emotions, e.g. anger, fear, etc) is a near-universal strategy of news as a profit-making business.

If news writers decide the distinction between a caucus and a primary is a technical distinction that doesn't matter, then they can't call New Hampshire's primary "the first in the nation". If they decide it's an important distinction they can hype up both Iowa's caucuses and New Hampshire's primary as "the first in the nation".

That is honestly the main reason you hear about it. There are genuine reasons to think a primary is different from the caucus process in terms of applicability to forecasting who is ultimately going to win, so people being doing deep political analysis do draw information from the distinction. But the overwhelming majority of times you hear New Hampshire's primary talked up as being "the first in the nation" is not deep analysis; it is just to hype up the news.

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  • I wonder if it's due to the conflict over moving the first Democratic primary from NH to SC. That makes this "first-in-the-nation" an issue this year.
    – Barmar
    Commented Jan 23 at 16:47
  • @Barmar Definitely not solely due to that. As a non-American who occasionally follows US politics I remember being confused by this years ago, when I realised that New Hampshire's primary was often being talked up as the first but Iowa's voting actually happened earlier.
    – Ben
    Commented Jan 24 at 0:08
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This is all in ohwilleke's answer, but maybe hard to understand the implications if you aren't already very familiar with the US political system.

They think the first primary will be closer to the outcome on election day than the first caucus.

Why, you ask? Because caucuses have a lower turnout and that turnout isn't necessarily a random sample of the electorate but (theoretically) tends to favor more extreme candidates. So an extreme candidate who had a strong showing at a caucus may have less impressive results in a primary which would indicate less impressive results in the general election, and vice-versa for a moderate candidate.

Since an extreme candidate with a strong showing and a moderate candidate with a weaker showing is the situation we are in after the first caucus, it's understandably interesting if the first primary will match the theory or not.

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  • The first primary certainly isn't representative of the rest of the country, either. The rest of the country is younger and much less white than the New Hampshire voters.
    – shoover
    Commented Jan 22 at 23:59
  • @shoover Republicans in general are older and more white, so I don't think there's any Republican primary or caucus that will help with that. But working with what we've got, a primary gives a better idea about what people who care a little bit think and there are a lot more of those people than there are people who care a lot about politics. Commented Jan 23 at 20:47
  • My point was not primary vs. caucus or Republican vs. Democrat vs. other. My point was that any sort of contest in New Hampshire is likely not going to be, in a statistical sense, a good random sampling to represent the population that is the United States.
    – shoover
    Commented Jan 23 at 21:10

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