Posted by: Janine Balekdjian, Consular Intern
August is an exciting time for U.S. presidential campaigns. Although candidates have been campaigning for the presidency since last year, it is only in August, at the party conventions, that they receive the official endorsement of their party. Both parties have known who their nominee will be for months, but the convention is more important for Republicans, because there was a heated primary campaign to determine who would be the nominee. Mitt Romney achieved enough primary votes to become the nominee in late May, whereas President Barack Obama had no serious primary challengers. Traditionally, incumbent presidents do not face contested primaries, although this is not always the case.
Presidential nominees are chosen through a mix of popular vote and party input. When a party does not have an incumbent president to nominate, a series of primaries and caucuses are held from January through June (these are technically held even when a party does have an incumbent president, but they are not seriously contested). Primaries are elections, in which voters go to the polls and vote for a nominee. Primary ballots will typically also include primary candidates for congressional, state, and local office campaigns, in addition to the presidential race (and may even include referenda). Caucuses are more complicated – they’re meetings in which party members committed to a candidate try to convince undecided party members to support their candidate. When the results of a state’s primary or caucus are in, candidates are awarded delegates at their party’s August convention based on how they did. Some states have a winner-take-all system, where the winner of the primary or caucus gets all the state’s delegates. Other states have a proportionality system, in which a candidate gets the same percentage of delegates that he or she did votes, and some states use a combination of allocation systems. For example, Michigan awards 2 delegates to the winner of each Congressional district, and allocates the remaining delegates proportionately to any candidate who wins more than 15% of the vote.
In addition to delegates allotted through the primary and caucus system, both parties have “superdelegates” – uncommitted party leaders who have votes at the convention and can choose to vote for whoever they want to. Some superdelegates announce who they are voting for early in the process, while others wait until there is a clear frontrunner.
In many years, such as this one, one candidate has enough delegates before the convention to win the nomination. In such years, the convention is more of a campaign event and a chance for rising party members to showcase themselves than it is a serious nomination of a candidate. Prominent politicians in a party are asked to make speeches at the convention, which can be gateways to future prominence. One of President Barack Obama’s first major moments in the national spotlight was when he made a speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, when Senator John Kerry was the Democratic nominee for president. Bill Clinton came to prominence in the same way at the 1988 convention. The last event at a convention is usually the nominee’s acceptance speech, which is widely broadcast on live TV and gives the candidate a chance to reach a large audience with his or her platform.
This year, the Republican National Convention will be held in Tampa, Florida from August 27 to August 30, and the Democratic National Convention will be held in Charlotte, North Carolina from September 3 to September 6.