February in the United States equates to the true beginning of any presidential election cycle. This is the month in which the first primaries are held and voters are given the opportunity to begin choosing their party’s candidate for the presidency. During the primary process, states are allocated a number of votes based on their population, and primaries are spaced out nearly ad-hoc through the four-month long process. At the end of the primary process, each party holds its national convention where the presidential candidate for each party will actually be chosen. The main role of the conventions is for delegates, who are registered volunteers for the party, to make the final decision for their party’s presidential candidate. Based on the earlier primary votes, most of these delegates (about 80 percent) are already allocated to a specific member of the party. In other words, if a candidate wins 40 percent of the primary votes, they are allocated 40 percent of the delegates’ votes. For these delegates, their presence at the conventions is mostly ceremonial, and is one reason why states want to be earlier in the primary schedule. Voting in earlier states tends to influence later states’ voting, and this influence often translates to influence at the convention. However, the remaining 20 percent of delegates, so-called superdelegates, are free to choose whatever candidate for president they would like. These superdelegates consist of party leaders, such as governors and members of Congress, as well as members of the party national committees. Today, many question the influence such individuals have on the electoral process. This is particularly important in a close presidential race, which by all accounts is certainly the case for the 2016 election. When candidates are nearly evenly split in vote shares,superdelegates can end up deciding the fate of the election – even if their choice is not the candidate who won the majority of support from the voters.
So far this month, primaries have been held in New Hampshire and in Iowa. Within the next two weeks, primaries will be held in Nevada and South Carolina. Then in the first week in March so-called ‘Super Tuesday’ occurs, when over a dozen states will hold their primaries on one day. Super Tuesday is easily one of the most important days in the entire primary season for the sheer number of primary votes that are at stake in a wide variety of states. It may be less clear why such states such as New Hampshire, Iowa, South Carolina, and Nevada should be so influential as to kick off the primary season. To understand why these early primaries are so important, one must think about the demographics of these states. Iowa and New Hampshire are made up of primarily white rural voters, and Iowa’s meat and agricultural industries are incredibly important in the Midwestern United States. Voters in New Hampshire are mostly Democrats, while those in Iowa are mostly Republicans. South Carolina also has a primarily white, rural population that largely supports the Republican party. However, South Carolina also has a large black population that primarily supports the Democrat party. This means members of both parties are working diligently to gain votes in South Carolina. Finally, Nevada has a much more diverse population in terms of both demographics and voting. The state has a large Hispanic population as well as native American population, and has voted for two Democrats and two Republicans in the last four presidential cycles. So these four states are particularly influential as they represent a large diversity of backgrounds and political leanings – an important test for a presidential candidate that must appeal to millions of Americans.
This year the primary season is particularly important for the Republicans, as the field of candidates was so broad at the beginning of the campaign it was difficult for any one candidate to stand out. Though as the field begins to shrink it will become increasingly obvious who has the best shot at winning the Republican nomination. In fact, since the first primary in Iowa, five Republican candidates have dropped out of the race for President. On the Democrat side, there was a significantly smaller starting cast. Since Martin O’Malley withdrew soon after Iowa only Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton remain to fight for their party’s nomination. And while it is no surprise that Clinton is still a contender for the Democrat ticket, the vote share for Bernie Sanders in Iowa shocked many journalists and politicians following the primary. A large number of polling groups had projected a significant lead for Clinton in Iowa, by even as much as 10 points, only three days before the primary. Instead, Sanders and Clinton split Iowa’s delegates with each candidate getting approximately 49.5 percent of the vote. Some of the same polls had projected Sanders with a 20 point lead in New Hampshire, and here the polls were much more accurate as he won the state with 60 percent of the vote. One important caveat to this win, however, is that no presidential candidate from a state bordering New Hampshire has ever lost the New Hampshire primary. In this case it would have been more of a shock for Sanders, a Senator from neighboring Vermont, to have lost this primary than for him to win it. These primary wins have translated to a significant gain in national approval. At the beginning of the year, many polling groups had Clinton ahead by more than 20 points. Some polling groups even left out the question of Democrat presidential nominee. Clinton now holds between a 2 and 8 point lead, which continues to decline.
In New Hampshire, Donald Trump – the surprising front-runner for the Republicans so far – handily won the most delegates with over 35 percent of the vote. Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, and Jeb Bush trailed behind with approximately 10 percent of the vote each. The Iowa results were more surprising, with Ted Cruz winning 27 percent of the vote followed by Trump and Rubio at approximately 23 percent each. Since Iowa, many pundits have pointed to this result as indication that Trump could be facing more serious challenges from Cruz and Rubio than previously considered. On the other end of the primary ranking, Jeb’s dismal 4 percent of the vote presents a real challenge for his campaign. Even if voters are showing increasing reluctance to consider Donald Trump as their party nominee, there is no evidence that Bush’s campaign is gaining any real ground in the primary. This is a true shock for the candidate that was the presumptive nominee on the Republican ticket only six months ago, and potentially is reflective of a larger shift within the Republican Party. As opposed to putting their faith in a candidate that was governor of Florida during his brother’s controversial run for president in 2000 and whose family has occupied the White House for two of the last four presidencies, Republican voters are supporting young outsiders who echo the anti-government sentiment of the Tea Party.
Many have argued that the support that Sanders and Trump have managed to achieve is a sign of the two parties becoming increasingly polarized, with Sanders representing the far left and Trump representing the far right. This is a real fear for the American public that has become weary of partisan rancor in Washington DC. As the primary process continues, it is clear that by the middle of March we are likely to see a field of five candidates, three Republican and two Democrat, to battle for their party’s nomination. The biggest question now is whether a relative outsider like Sanders or a complete outsider like Trump will be able to win out over the more established politicians of Cruz, Rubio, and Clinton. While the American people seem ready for an outsider to take the White House, it still remains to be seen if such a candidate can be prepared for the outstandingly difficult job of governing 350 million people.