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How to be nominated by your favorite political party

| Friday, January 15, 2016

Twenty-four million people watched the first Republican debate in August, and 15.3 watched the first Democratic debate in October. These numbers set the records for the most watched primary debates of all time. The American people are clearly interested in the presidential election, and yet that election is still 11 months away. Why do we start the madness so early?

It is important to remember that nothing is actually decided until the beginning of February. It is then the delegate process begins, which is basically a scaled-down version of the electoral college the candidates will face in November. Each state is assigned a number of delegates by the party’s national committee, and then independently decides how to dole out these votes.

On the Republican side, there are 2,472 delegates up for grabs. Each state gets a base of 10 at-large delegates, three delegates for each of its congressional districts, and three to represent each state’s party leadership. Bonus delegates are then awarded to states that either voted for the Republican party in 2012, or have elected Republican governors, senators, congressmen or state legislators since. On the Democratic side, there are 4,764 delegates, awarded to states based on a complex formula that is basically computed half by the number of electoral votes and half by the percentage of people from that state who voted Democratic in the 2012 elections. In order to win the nomination, a candidate needs a majority of these delegates: The magic number for a Republican is 1,237, and for a Democrat, 2,383.

The question you must be asking now is how candidates can win these delegates. The good news is that it is just as complicated as the delegate appointment process. Basically, a state can either choose to hold primary elections or caucuses. Primary elections are more common and are exactly what they sound like: a normal state-wide election in which voters pick their preferred candidate for president.

The caucus system complicates things even more. Often described as a “gathering of neighbors,” it is an event held across the state in hundreds or thousands of local schools, churches or homes. Any interested people from the “precinct” may attend and lobby for their preferred candidate(s). At the end of the discussion, a poll is held, and a representative is selected who supports the winning candidate. This representative is then sent to the county convention, where the process is repeated, sending representatives to the district convention, and so on, until the state delegates are decided.

So where does this all leave us in the current cycle? Iowa is famously the first state in the nation to decide on its candidates, with its caucus for both parties taking place Feb. 1. New Hampshire is not far behind with its primary taking place Feb. 9. The only other February contests take place later in the month in Nevada and South Carolina.

“Super Tuesday” is then the first nation-wide test of the candidates, with 14 states holding their nominating contests on the first Tuesday of March. By this point, the nominees of both parties are usually all but assured, although nominating contests continue until early June.

In this cycle, there will be a few things to watch out for in the coming months. On the Republican side, the contest will likely come down to an “outsider” candidate against an “establishment” candidate, with Donald Trump as the wild card. Iowa, a state heavy with white, evangelical voters, should decide the “outsider” candidate. If Ted Cruz, who currently leads in the polls there, can stay on top and fend off a challenge from Donald Trump or Ben Carson, then the more conservative wing of the GOP will likely coalesce around him.

In New Hampshire, meanwhile, Donald Trump currently leads in the polls, while Marco Rubio and Chris Christie are in a tight race for second. Jeb Bush and John Kasich are not far behind. Whoever can edge out amongst these four will likely be seen as the “establishment” candidate moving forward, benefitting from increased financial support as the party’s big donors unite to try and beat down the more conservative wing.

The wild card, of course, is the Donald. No one knows if his current poll numbers can translate into actual primary success, and no one will find out until after the votes are cast. Trump is a candidate unlike any other in recent times, and no pundit has been able to predict him correctly.

On the Democratic side, Bernie Sanders will have to edge out Hilary Clinton in both Iowa and New Hampshire to have any realistic shot at the nomination. Unless he is able to do this, his candidacy (although not his ideas) will fade into oblivion.

In the end, as tired as you may already be of the non-stop coverage of the presidential race, the fun has only just begun. We are still far away from finding out who the nominees will be, and even further from the Nov. 8 election that will decide the 45th president of the United States. It’s a complicated process for an even more complicated job.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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