In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Presidential Primaries and Caucuses

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews and Theoretical Perspectives
  • National and State Parties and Their Rules
  • Participation and Representation in Nomination Contests
  • The Invisible Primary and Party Coordination
  • Predictors of Candidate Success
  • Money and Campaign Finance
  • Early States
  • Media
  • Voting Behavior in Nomination Contests
  • Campaign Strategy and Competition

Political Science Presidential Primaries and Caucuses
Corwin D. Smidt, Dino P. Christenson
  • LAST REVIEWED: 10 January 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 November 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756223-0194


American presidential nominations hold a peculiar place in American politics. Their practical effects on policy are clear because new policy positions and priorities often originate from the nominee who enters the presidency. They also can be immensely important as a mechanism for changing the balance of power within each party or for redefining the dominant representation of the party to the mass public. Despite these consequences, our understanding of presidential nominations remains somewhat clouded and disparate by constant changes to the rules and features of party nomination contests. Nearly every cycle we find candidates, journalists, voters, and scholars readjusting their beliefs in how the process works. Moreover, the different types of rules and contexts specific to nomination contests also make them attractive to study for a variety of scholars whose primary interests are outside understanding the nomination process. Some scholars study presidential nominations for what they can teach us about how American parties operate, whereas others study them because they provide insights into voting behavior when party labels are absent or because they are interested in the differences in effects by party rules. Many of these works remain instructive and are discussed here but still produce uncertainties concerning how their findings integrate within the workings of a complete nomination system or with subsequent changes to the nomination system. Indeed, a common conclusion to the literature reviewed here is that the behavior of party insiders, candidates, and voters within nominations is often motivated and caused by the uncertain nature of the process or is a reaction to unintended consequences of past actions. The party reforms of the 1970s certainly accelerated a change in the nomination process to greater public influence from voters and the news media. But subsequent changes in rules, campaign finance laws, mass communication, and campaign technology have further modified this influence as well. Depending on the stage in the nomination process, party insiders, candidates, donors, the news media, and voters have varying levels of influence. But at each stage there is evidence of the lasting consequences of party reforms, where parties and candidates now have to act in response to, or anticipation of, the primary electorate’s input before the convention.

General Overviews and Theoretical Perspectives

McCormick 1982 provides a historical account of the features of and changes to presidential nominations prior to party reforms. Reiter 1985 considers alternative theories of what changed nominations, suggesting the move to primaries and caucuses was more so a reflection than a cause of a decline in local party organizations and power. Aldrich 1980 discusses the strategic aspects of the post-reform system from the viewpoint of the candidates. Cohen, et al. 2008 exclusively focuses on presidential nominations before and after reform to provide a new conception of American parties and to illustrate the influence that party insiders have over candidates. Norrander 1996 comments on the commonalities and inconsistencies in studies of post-reform nomination politics up to that point. Steger 2015 discusses the features of modern nomination politics, with an emphasis on intraparty coordination and competition, and Norrander 2015 reviews what we know about primary politics to clarify misconceptions and engage criticisms about the process.

  • Aldrich, John H. Before the Convention: Strategies and Choices in Presidential Nomination Campaigns. Political Science. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980.

    DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226922447.001.0001

    In this book, Aldrich presents one of the first arguments that nominations are best understood in dynamic terms. His focus on candidates and the features to how they decide to compete, depending on the types of rules and competition they face, remains applicable today.

  • Cohen, Marty, David Karol, Hans Noel, and John Zaller. The Party Decides: Presidential Nominations before and after Reform. Chicago Studies in American Politics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008.

    DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226112381.001.0001

    Mainly proposes a theory of American political parties as organizations, but to date this is the most comprehensive theoretical treatment of presidential nominations before and after reform. It establishes endorsements, an indicator of party insider support, as an important component to the invisible primary predicting post-reform nomination success.

  • McCormick, Richard P. The Presidential Game: The Origins of American Presidential Politics. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982.

    A historical categorization and exploration of presidential nominations prior to reform. Provides a key account of the uncertainties surrounding nominations prior to the election of 1824, as well as a historical account and analysis of how party conventions and party primaries grew and developed.

  • Norrander, Barbara. “Presidential Nomination Politics in the Post-reform Era.” Political Research Quarterly 49.4 (1996): 875–915.

    A review article that is one of the first attempts to come to terms with the myriad of research findings published on the emergence of primaries and caucuses up to that point. Its framework for organizing, categorizing, and evaluating nominations research remains valuable today.

  • Norrander, Barbara. The Imperfect Primary: Oddities, Biases, and Strengths of U.S. Presidential Nomination Politics. Controversies in Electoral Democracy and Representation. New York: Routledge, 2015.

    A lucid review and analysis of how modern nominations work and what that means for American politics. It is notable for its extensive discussion of the perceived problems with the system and how nomination politics connect to the general election.

  • Reiter, Howard L. Selecting the President: The Nominating Process in Transition. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1985.

    An in-depth analysis of nominations and conventions prior to and following reform. Its analysis of nomination patterns, delegates, and elections before and after reform suggests that reforms and subsequent rule changes were more so a reflection of declining local party power than a cause.

  • Steger, Wayne P. A Citizen’s Guide to Presidential Nominations: The Competition for Leadership. Citizen Guides to Politics and Public Affairs. New York: Routledge, 2015.

    Analyzes multiple features of early-21st-century nominations. Most notable for its focus on the role that party unity and candidate opportunism play in determining the level of campaign competition and the dynamics of the nomination campaign.

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