The NCSL Blog


By Ben Williams

For most of American history, parties chose their nominees at party conventions, with rank-and-file party members and unaffiliated voters having little to no role in candidate selection.

Illustrated | Ramziya Abdrakhmanova/iStock, Screenshot/Amazon, omyos/iStockPrimaries and caucuses through the 1960s—to the extent state parties bothered holding them—were ways to gauge public preference for nominees in a non-binding manner.

Not until the 1970s did the two major parties begin holding primaries and caucuses in all 50 states. The winners of these new primaries and caucuses secured delegates sworn to support them at their parties’ national conventions, transforming primaries and caucuses from popularity contests to binding selection processes.

While this shift to binding primaries and caucuses democratized the nomination process, the national parties did not set a date for holding a single primary. Instead, the timeline developed organically. The states that were already holding non-binding primaries and caucuses did so at random dates. As the rest of the states began to join the fray, they interspersed their primary and caucus dates around those already participating.

The result was a primary system in which some states have historically gone before others. Quickly, states realized that holding a primary or caucus earlier on the calendar increased that state’s importance in the nominating process.

The constant jockeying for time slots is why New Hampshire now has a state law mandating that its primary be first in the nation (as was mentioned in a blog last week).  Even if they can’t go first, some states schedule their primaries and caucuses for the same date to create important inflection points on the calendar, such as Super Tuesday, on March 3 this year.

Arguments for scrapping this staggered system in favor of a single national primary have been around for some time.

Proponents say such a system would ensure that every voter’s say is equally counted at once, as earlier states would no longer have greater influence over the process than later states. Opponents argue that a national primary would simply favor better-funded candidates and larger population states. Organizations such as the National Association of Secretaries of State have proposed middle-of-the-road solutions, in which regional blocs of states would hold primaries in a rotating schedule.

While there is no indication the parties are moving in any particular direction, the continuing fallout from the Iowa caucuses may nudge legislators around the nation to consider their state’s place in the primary schedule.

Ben Williams is a policy specialist in NCSL's Elections and Redistricting Program.

Email Ben

Posted in: Elections
Actions: E-mail | Permalink |

Subscribe to the NCSL Blog

Click on the RSS feed at left to add the NCSL Blog to your favorite RSS reader. 

About the NCSL Blog

This blog offers updates on the National Conference of State Legislatures' research and training, the latest on federalism and the state legislative institution, and posts about state legislators and legislative staff. The blog is edited by NCSL staff and written primarily by NCSL's experts on public policy and the state legislative institution.