The primary season in the 2024 United States presidential election is officially underway. But what are primaries and what role do they play in deciding the next President of the United States?
Political Science professor Matthew Lebo spoke with Western News to provide some context and analysis on what to watch for over the coming months south of the border. Lebo is an expert in American domestic politics with an emphasis on the presidency, Congress and elections.
Western News: What role do primaries play in U.S. presidential elections?
Matthew Lebo: In the U.S., party conventions are used to choose who will run in the general election in November, otherwise known as the party’s nominee. Delegates from each state at those conventions formally choose who the nominee will be from the party.
Both the Republican and Democratic parties hold primaries, or caucuses, in each state. This allows party members to vote on which candidate they want to see become the party’s nominee. Who can vote in primaries is determined state-by-state. Some states allow only registered members of their party to vote in primaries while others have open primaries, meaning non-party members can vote.
Delegates from each state (and which nominee they will vote for at the party convention) are allocated based on the results of the state’s primary. Each state allocates a different number of delegates depending on its size. Candidates are battling to get the support of a majority of delegates at the party’s convention.
Over the next five months all the delegates will be allocated and eventually the parties will settle on one nominee each to battle it out in the general election in November. Usually, it is pretty clear who the nominee will be before the convention, based on primary results.
WN: Are the primaries equally important to both parties in 2024?
Lebo: The Democratic nominee is all but assured to be Joe Biden unless he drops out, so really, we’re looking at the Republican nomination process this year, though the Democrats will still need to go through the formal process. The real test will be to see if any Republicans can challenge Donald Trump.
WN: Iowa and New Hampshire are up first, how important are they?
Lebo: Iowa and New Hampshire are particularly important on the Republican side. If a candidate can win both, that puts them on course towards the nomination early.
Party leaders and donors put a lot of stock in what goes on in those first two states. A person can quickly build momentum if they do well, but they can also be left behind if they underperform. Candidates will drop out either before or after Iowa and New Hampshire if it appears they will not have the support.
WN: What is “Super Tuesday?”
Lebo: Super Tuesday is March 5, 2024. Sixteen states will be holding their presidential primary on that date with a huge number of delegates to the summer national conventions allocated based on the results. Usually by the time the results are tabulated it is clear who the presumptive nominee is for each party for the fall presidential election.
WN: Do the primaries matter if it appears to be heading to Trump versus Biden?
Lebo: There are a lot of things that could still derail the possibility of Trump versus Biden in November. If we assume it is Trump versus Biden again, it’s hard to imagine that most people’s minds aren’t already made up and the primaries would not do much to sway public opinion.
However, there are still outcomes that could be consequential to the general election. For example, a losing candidate could get angry and decide to run as a third-party candidate. Theoretically, if someone like Chris Christie decided to run as an independent, that could threaten to split some of the vote.
WN: Is there a realistic path for another Republican to be the nominee?
Lebo: What got Trump the nomination in 2016 was other candidates refusing to drop out. The people who didn’t like Trump couldn’t consolidate their support behind one person.
Nikki Haley is the only realistic alternative I can imagine the Republican Party turning to. There could be a bit of a contest between them, but I expect Trump will do better. The third primary is South Carolina, which is Haley’s home state.
WN: What could derail a rematch between Trump and Biden?
Lebo: This is an incredibly unusual election. Trump is the first ex-President to run for President since 1912, and he is the first candidate to come back from losing since Nixon in 1968. It’s incredibly unusual to have two presidents fighting it out.
Their combined age is 158 years, so either one of them could have a health problem. You have an 81-year-old (Biden) and 77-year-old (Trump) going through rigorous campaigns.
There is also the possibility that Trump could be convicted of a felony. He is facing 91 felony charges in four different jurisdictions, and some of those cases could conclude before the conventions. It’s possible the Republican Party would see a conviction or the trials as a problem and try to choose someone else.
Expert Explainer reflects the perspective and scholarly interest of Western faculty members and is not an articulation of official university policy on issues being addressed.