The frenzy of town halls, panels and debates make it seem as if the general election is tomorrow, not eight months from now. And yet, the processes that will charter a new American presidency are already in place, and have been for no short period of time. An extensive selection process determines which Republican and Democratic candidates will appear on the ballot in November, a process which continues to baffle many voters.
How does it work?
Presidential candidates compete in a series of state contests in the winter and spring prior to the general election to gain their party’s nomination. These contests are critical because the candidate who amasses the most delegates wins the nomination. Delegates are individuals who represent their state at the national party conventions. They are chosen through state-level caucuses.
Parties then hold national conventions in the summer. This year, the Republican Convention will be held in Cleveland, Ohio, from July 18-21. The Democratic Convention will assemble in Philadelphia from July 25-28. At these conventions, the group of delegates will officially select their nominee for president.
Primaries are significantly different than caucuses—they formed early in the 20th century to give more selection power to citizens. In a primary election, voters participate by way of secret ballot. Caucuses, in contrast, are like a public forum. Some states implement a combination of primary and caucus systems. While primaries do measure public opinion, delegates are not obligated to abide by the results. A delegate from South Carolina, for example, is not obligated by law to vote for Donald Trump at the convention (but they probably would anyway).
The Republican and Democratic parties use two distinct methods for awarding delegates. The Democratic Party uses a proportional method, in which the percent of delegates that each candidate is awarded mirrors the overall results of the caucus or primary. Contrastingly, the Republican Party allows each state to choose either the winner-take-all or proportional method. The winner-take-all method stipulates that the candidate with the most support from caucus participants or voters receives all the delegates for the state.
Who is closest to the nomination?
2,472 delegates will attend the Republican convention this summer with 1,237 of them needed to win a nomination. 4,765 delegates will attend the Democratic convention and 2,382 of them are needed to win a nomination.
Aaron Bycoffe and David Wasserman of the website FiveThirtyEight developed projections to estimate how many delegates each Republican candidate needs in each primary and caucus contest to win the nomination.
Trump is exceeding those projections—he currently holds 338 of the 1,237 delegates needed for nomination. According to FiveThirtyEight, Trump will perform best in states with recent college graduates, Southern, Midwestern and industrial Northeastern states. 155 delegates are at stake in the upcoming contests in Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, and Maine on Mar. 5. In order for Trump to remain on his projected track for the Republican nomination, he’ll need to win 69 delegates on Mar. 5.
Meanwhile, Cruz holds 229 of 1,237 delegates. His ideal path would rely on evangelical voters in the Deep South, conservative areas in the Midwest and Texas. Cruz’s target for the Mar. 5 contest is 71 delegates, in order to reach the goal of 1,237 to win the nomination.
Rubio currently holds 113 of the 1,237 delegates needed for the Republican nomination. According to FiveThirtyEight, his ideal path would rely on highly educated parts of the Mid-Atlantic, West Coast and Great Lakes regions, and relies mostly on winner-take-all states.
What about the Democrats?
Unlike the Republican candidates, Democrats need 2,383 delegates to win the nomination at their national convention. So far, Clinton’s delegate stockpile is 1,052 strong, while Sanders is considerably behind with 427. Clinton has won the majority of voters in 11 states, including 78 percent of voters in Alabama, 66 percent in Arkansas, 71 percent in Georgia, 66 percent in Tennessee and 65 percent in Texas. Sanders has won only four—Colorado, Minnesota, Oklahoma and Vermont. There are 109 delegates at stake on Mar. 5, at caucus events in Kansas, Louisiana, Nebraska and Maine.