After the relatively focused early contests, the surviving candidates enter a dizzying array of primaries.  They must decide where to concentrate their efforts and resources as they jump around the country trying to hit key media markets and win enough delegates to gain the party nomination.

Overview of the Primary Process

To secure their respective parties' nominations, candidates compete in a series of state primaries and caucus/convention processes that select delegates to the national conventions.  The calendar of primaries and caucuses has been and continues to be based on the premise that several early retail contests serve to winnow the field in advance of the great mass of primaries and contests.  The theory is that the early retail contests allow even a candidate with modest funds to compete against better funded and more well known contenders.  The four early "carve out" states are Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada.  The Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary have fairly lengthy traditions, South Carolina is first in the South, and Nevada is a relatively new early state, providing for demographic and geographic balance. 

Rules governing primaries and caucuses and their timing are set out in national party rules and state laws.  Caucuses are multi-step, party run processes that generally start at the precinct level and work up through county and district levels to a state convention.  Caucuses generally have very limited participation because of the time commitment involved.  Presidential preference primary elections are usually run by the state, meaning state laws apply (there are party-run primaries, but they are rare because it is expensive).  Some states hold their presidential preference primaries on different dates than the regular state primaries while in others both the presidential primary and the state primary occur on the same date.  Some states allow unaffiliated voters to participate in party primaries (these are open primaries) and some do not (closed primaries).  Dates of Democratic and Republican contests generally but do not always coincide.  The two parties have different rules governing their processes.  Democratic delegates are allocated proportionally, whereas Republican rules allow for winner-take-all contests.

An endemic problem in the primary calendar is frontloading, wherein state party officials or legislators seek to go earlier in the process so their state will have more influence.  Every election cycle there seem to be a few rogue states willing to violate the rules and risk penalties in order to go early.  For example, in the 2012 Republican presidential primaries, Florida moved its primary up to Jan. 31, 2012 prompting South Carolina to move its primary forward; Arizona and Michigan also went in advance of the window, on February 28; all four states were penalized, as was New Hampshire. 

When one looks at the primary season as a whole, for the candidate and his or her campaign, there is always another contest a few days or a week or two away.  Working with limited resources, campaigns sometimes have to cobble together a state organization in just a few weeks, and then it is on to the next contest.  The leading candidate or candidates may be up one week and down the next.  Eventually one of the candidates will start pulling ahead in the delegate tallies.  [2012 summary page]

The Rules

The DNC rules are very similar to those used in 2012; one change in the Democratic process was a reduction in the number of base delegates from 3,700 to 3,200 in order to give the party a bit more flexibility in selecting a host city for its convention.  At their 2014 winter meeting Republicans adopted what were termed "historic" rules changes,  designed to counter shortcomings in the 2012 process.  These weaknesses included six months of candidates "slicing and dicing" each other in myriad debates, states disregarding penalties, and the several-month period between the time when the nominee was determined and when he could start spending on the general election campaign. 

Republicans made changes in hopes of improving upon their 2012 process, which some felt went on for too long, but there is always the possibliity the rules changes they adopted could have unforeseen consequences.  Recall that in 2008 Democrats had concerns about a divisive primary, but the long primary battle between Obama and Clinton ultimately helped Obama by getting issues such as the controversy over Rev. Wright aired, and by allowing him to build the strong field organization and finance capabilities he took into the general election.

Both parties' rules specify March 1, 2016 as the first date when states other than the early carve outs can hold their contests, and that will clearly be a big day on both parties primary calendars.

Party Rules Set Windows for 2016 Delegate Selection Contests
No primary, caucus, convention, or other process to elect, select, allocate, or bind delegates to thenational convention shall occur prior to March 1 or after the second Saturday in June in the year in which a national convention is held. Except Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada may conduct their processes no earlier than one month before
the next earliest state in the year in which a national convention is held and shall not be subject to the provisions of paragraph
(c)(2) of this rule.

RNC Rule 16(c)(1) >
No meetings, caucuses, conventions or primaries which constitute the first determining stage in the presidential nomination process (the date of the primary in primary states, and the date of the first tier caucus in caucus states) may be held prior to the first Tuesday in March or after the second Tuesday in June in the calendar year of the national convention. Provided, however, that the Iowa precinct caucuses may be held no earlier than 29 days before the first Tuesday in March; that the New Hampshire primary may be held no earlier than 21 days before the first Tuesday in March; that the Nevada first-tier caucuses may be held no earlier than 10 days before the first Tuesday in March; and that the South Carolina primary may be held no earlier than 3 days before the first Tuesday in March. In no instance may a state which scheduled delegate selection procedures on or between the first Tuesday in March and the second Tuesday in June 1984 move out of compliance with the provisions of this rule.

DNC Delegate Selection Rule 11(A)

For 2016 the Republican National Committee has adopted strict penalties for states holding contests outside the window:

“If any state or state Republican Party violates Rule No. 16(c)(1) of The Rules of the Republican Party, the number of delegates to the national convention shall be reduced for those states with 30 or more total delegates to nine (9) plus the members of the Republican National Committee from that state, and for those states with 29 or fewer total delegates to six (6) plus the members of the Republican National Committee from that state.  The corresponding alternate delegates shall also be reduced accordingly."  (Rule 17 - Enforcement of Rules)

The RNC rules also have a bit of an incentive to encourage states not to all bunch up on March 1.  States holding contests between March 1 and March 14 must use proportional allocation of delegates, while states going later can choose a proportional or winner-take-all system.

The Democratic National Committee has less strict penalties than the RNC:

“...the number of pledged delegates elected in each category allocated to the state pursuant to the Call for the National Convention shall be reduced by fifty (50%) percent, and the number of alternates shall also be reduced by fifty (50%) percent."  (Rule 20(C)(1.a.) - Challenges)

The DNC has incentives to encourage a more orderly process.  States holding contests in April will get a 10% bonus in the number of delegates, and states going in May and June will get a 20% bonus.  Additionally there is an incentive to encourage regional clustering; three or more states holding contests on or after March 16, 2014 will get a 15% bonus.

Finally, another important provision of RNC rules is 40(b):

"Each candidate for nomination for President of the United States and Vice President of the United States shall demonstrate the support of a majority of the delegates from each of eight (8) or more states, severally, prior to the presentation of the name of that candidate for nomination."

Setting the 2016 Calendar

The national parties' rules alone do not set the calendar.  Individual state legislatures, secretaries of state and state parties determine when to hold their contests.  For example, Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp worked to put together a Southeastern Regional Primary to be held on Super Tuesday, March 1, 2016 (>), and quite a few Southern states will be holding the primaries on that day. 

New Hampshire Secretary of State Bill Gardner always waits until he is absolutely certain of his state's first status before finalizing the primary date, but Feb. 9, 2016 is on everyone's calendars and it would be a huge shock if that were changed.  In the 2012 cycle, for example, not until Nov. 2, 2011 did he annouce Jan. 10, 2012 as the date of the first-in-the-nation primary, and Texas' primary date of May 29 was not set until March 1, 2012 due to legal battle over redistricting.  In the 2008 cycle (>), it took until Nov. 26, 2007 for Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick (D) to sign into law a measure setting the state's February 5 presidential primary. 

For 2016 the parties' rules on timing actually held, and the Iowa caucuses occured on Feb. 1, 2016 as planned; observers point to the penalties the RNC imposed on the Florida delegation in 2012 as a major factor (>). 

Tight budgets can be a factor in scheduling a state's presidential primary.  An early, stand-alone presidential primary can generate more presidential campaign activity, but consolidating presidential and statewide primaries on the same day saves money. 

Josh Putnam's Frontloading HQ tracked all the developments on presidential primary scheduling.  

For Republicans a Big What If?

How Donald Trump vanquished a field of 16 other candidates will be a subject of analysis for years to come.  Underlying voter anger was a major factor, and Republican voters divided their support among a number of mainstream/establishment candidates clearing a path for the brash New Yorker.

Normally, for both parties as the primaries and caucuses unwind candidates drop out along the way and eventually a candidate emerges with enough delegates to win that party's nomination.  These are the presumptive nominees.

In 2016 it appeared quite possible that on the Republican side no candidate would achieve the requisite number of delegates, the magic 1,237.  The last time a contested convention occurred was in 1976 in Kansas City when President Gerald Ford narrowly edged out former Gov. Ronald Reagan.  By late 2015 the large Republican field and the uncertainty created by frontrunner Donald Trump led observers to start considering this possibility, that there could be a contested (open, deadlocked or brokered) convention in Cleveland.  For example, The Washington Post reported on a Dec. 7, 2015 meeting of Republican leaders over dinner in Washington where the subject "dominated the discussion." (+)  Many in the GOP establishment remained uncomfortable with the prospect of Trump as their nominee.  Trump signed a loyalty pledge (+), but in March 2016 backed away from that, and there were concerns that he might find a pretence for mounting an independent bid.  However, following Trump's win in the May 3 Indiana primary his last two challengers, Sen. Ted Cruz and Gov. John Kasich, bowed out, making Trump the presumptive nominee. 

Given the stakes, more attention than usual focused on the selection of the delegates themselves and on what the delegates can or cannot do.  In some states the campaigns work to put together delegate slates and the primary results determine which of those delegate candidates will become actual delegates to the Republican National Convention.  In others the primary determines the delegate allocation, but the delegates are chosen over the next several months; often precinct caucuses lead to county conventions followed by congressional district conventions (where the CD delegates are selected) and a state convention (where the at-large delegates are elected).  In some states the winning candidates select their delegates.  Delegates are seen as bound on the first ballot, although there is a countering reading of the rules that says the delegates are not bound and are free to vote their consciences (+). Shortly before the Republican National Convention started in Cleveland, the 56-member RNC Standing Committee on Rules considered the rules, taking the rules used for the 2012 Convention as its starting point.  Trump supporters prevailed in those meetings.

For Democrats a Protracted Coronation

Hillary Clinton, long seen as the inevitable nominee, found herself facing a surprisingly strong challenge from Sen. Bernie Sanders.  Clinton launched her campaign with a huge organization, fit for an incumbent, as well as the support of much of the establishment.  Sanders started as almost a fringe candidate, but his authenticity and clear message appealed to a significant portion of the Democratic electorate, most notably young voters.  Benefitting from unprecendented success in small dollar contributions, Sanders was able to wage a strong and competitve campaign.  However, the math for Sanders was always difficult.

Throughout the primaries Clinton's campaign emphasized its lead in pledged delegates, who are chosen proportionally in primaries and caucuses (12).  There is another category of delegates, the unpledged superdelegates, consisting of DNC members, party leaders and elected officials who are automatically delegates by virtue of their position and who are free to support whichever candidate they choose.  These account for 15-percent of the total delegates (714 of 4,765), and they overwhelming supported Clinton (one tally in Feb. 2016 put the balance at 360 to 8).  Sanders supporters and others saw this as un-democratic, and emphasized pledged delegate counts.  “We believe any accurate read of pledged delegate counts show that Sen. Sanders is closing fast on Secretary Clinton and that neither candidate will have a pledged delegate majority of 2,383 at the conclusion of voting," Sanders campaign chairman Jeff Weaver stated on April 9 (+).  Sanders continued his campaign, but on June 6 AP reported that Clinton had obtained the requisite number of delegates, and on June 7 Sanders fell short after an all-out effort in California.  Sanders worked to see that some of his ideas were included in the Democratic platform before finally endorsing Clinton on July 12 (+).

The belief among some Sanders supporters that the DNC was biased toward Clinton proved to have some justification.  On July 22, just in advance of the Convention, WikiLeaks released thousands of emails (>) from top DNC officials which appeared to show that some of them had not been entirely neutral in the primary campaign.  Also unsettling to Sanders supporters, a group called Election Justice USA reported "multiple instances of voter suppression and election fraud have occurred throughout the 2016 presidential primaries."  According to their report, "Democratic and Republican candidates have been affected, but demographics favoring Senator Bernie Sanders (e.g., younger voters, independent/ unaffiliated voters) have been most heavily affected." [PDFAcademics can debate these points and our democracy can always be improved, but Clinton headed to the Convention as the presumptive and all-but-certain nominee.

High Turnout in the Primaries

Pew Research Center reported that, "More than 57.6 million people, or 28.5% of estimated eligible voters, voted in the Republican and Democratic presidential primaries...close to but not quite at the record participation level set in 2008 (>)."  In particular, there was record turnout in a number of Republican contests due to interest in Donald Trump; GOP turnout dropped markedly after the Indiana primary, when he became the presumptive nominee and only remaining candidate.

The Calm after the Storm

During the period between the end of the primaries and the conventions, the presumptive nominee seeks to position for the general election.  Typically he or she bolsters his or her campaign organization and places key people in the national party committees to prepare for the general election.  Conventional wisdom has it that the presumptive nominees must move back to the center after playing to more committed or extreme elements of their respective parties to win in the primaries.  How effectively a candidate uses this time can have important consequences on his or her success in the fall.

 By most measures the Trump campaign fell short in this period.  He continued to provoke controversies and raise doubts about his temperament and qualifications to be president.  Quite a few prominent Republicans refused to support him.  Trump's campaign organization made some additions but remained a fraction of the size of Clinton's team.  The advertising imbalance was staggering.  Whille Clinton and allies, particularly Priorities USA Action, made significant buys in battleground states, the Trump campaign itself ran no ads and allies made only minor buys. NBC News reported on July 6 that Clinton and allies had outspent Trump allies in TV and radio by more than $40 million.  Center for Public Integrity's Michael Beckel reported on July 12 that from June 8 the Clinton campaign had aired 30,719 ads compared to zero for the Trump campaign and the pro-Clinton super PACs had aired 17,162 ads to 1,368 by pro-Trump groups.  Also in the lead up to the convention the Clinton campaign effectively used the platform process to build bridges with the Sanders camp.

In 1992 Bill Clinton used the month of June to regroup following a tough passage through the primaries. 

In 1996 Bob Dole had essentially won the nomination by mid-March, but he faced the period from April to the convention with virtually no funds.  In June, Dole gained much attention when he surprised everyone by resigning his Senate seat.

Again in 2000 the post-primary period proved important.  Gov. George W. Bush effectively secured the Republican nomination on March 7, 2000; during late March and April he introduced a reading initiative, a plan to clean up brownfields, a "New Prosperity Initiative" to help people move from poverty to the middle class and a health care plan.  More such proposals followed in the months leading up to the convention.  For Vice President Al Gore, however, there were some bumps.  He moved his campaign headquarters to a third location and brought on a new campaign chairman, while weathering concerns about his polling numbers.  In June Gore launched a "Progress and Prosperity" tour.

In 2004 the calendar again led to early selection of the Democratic nominee.  Sen. John Edwards, the last major challenger to Sen. John Kerry, withdrew from the race on March 3.  In the months leading up to the convention Kerry engaged in record-breaking fundraising efforts.

In 2008, on the Republican side, Sen. John McCain wrapped up the Republican nomination on March 4, leaving almost six months until the convention.  In early April McCain did a week-long "Service to America" tour designed to highlight elements of his biography; later in the month he toured "forgotten places."  McCain also did a lot of fundraising in this period.  Sen. Barack Obama took a risk in his trip to the Middle East and Europe from July 18-26.

In 2012, although former Gov. Mitt Romney was seen as the frontrunner from the start of the campaign, there was a lack of enthusiasm among some Republicans, and he endured ups and downs.  Former Sen. Rick Santorum finally suspended his campaign on April 10, former Speaker Newt Gingrich suspended his campaign on May 2, and Rep. Ron Paul continued to May 14.  Romney devoted a lot of attention to fundraising, doing more than thirty fundraisers a month in May, June and August.  From June 15-19 he did a stretch of retail campaigning in an “Every Town Counts” bus tour, visiting six states that Obama carried in 2008.  A highlight of Romney's pre-convention activity was his overseas trip in late July; he travel to London for the opening ceremonies of the Olympics, and to Israel and Poland.

For 2016, RNC chairman Reince Priebus pushed to hold a relatively early convention so that the several-month period between the time when the Republican nominee is determined and when he (or she) can start spending on the general election campaign is reduced.

Vice Presidential Picks

An undercurrent of vice presidential speculation occurs throughout the presidential campaign cycle (+).  Even some individuals running for president may be seen running not so much to win the nomination as to advance their vice presidential prospects.

Once a presidential candidate gains enough delegates to become the presumptive nominee, speculation on possible running mates accelerates markedly.  People advocate for or against various prospects.  All sorts of rumors develop, but there is little reliable information.  Behind the scenes the campaigns do extensive vetting of vice presidential prospects, for the presumptive nominee does not want any unpleasant surprises as happened with Tom Eagleton in 1972 or the Dan Quayle choice in 1988. 

The presidential candidate weighs many factors.  The most obvious criteria is that the vice president should be capable of ascending to the presidency in the event of the unexpected.  Compatability is a concern.  The vice presidential pick should also add balance to the ticket geographically, ideologically or in terms of experience. 

At least seven names figured in Donald Trump VP speculation.  These included Sen. Joni Ernst (IA) (Trump met with, but did not seem to go further), Sen. Bob Corker (TN) (withdrew from consideration), retired Lt. Gen. Michael T. Flynn, and Sen. Jeff Sessions (AL) (seen as more of an advisor, but recall that Dick Cheney headed George W. Bush's search).  Former Speaker Newt Gingrich (+), Gov. Chris Christie (NJ) and Gov. Mike Pence (IN) appear to be in the final three, but only Trump knows for sure.  Hillary Clinton VP speculation included Sen. Elizabeth Warren (MA), Sen Tim Kaine (VA), Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, Labor Secretary Tom Perez, HUD Secretary Julian Castro, and retired Admiral James G. Stavridis.

The timing of the announcement must be considered as well.  In recent election cycles the VP announcement has most frequently been done a couple of days to a couple of weeks before the convention.  This draws the period of speculation out and creates further interest in the candidacy, in addition to allowing for a triumphal tour into the convention.  In 2012 Mitt Romney announced his choice of Rep. Paul Ryan a bit more than two weeks ahead of the convention. 

One can envision a scenario where an early VP announcement might help a candidate pursuing the party's nomination.  The most notable example of this occurred in 1976.  Ronald Reagan, on July 26, 1976, challenging Gerald Ford for the Republican nomination, announced that he would pair with Sen. Richard Schweiker (R-PA).  This cycle Sen. Ted Cruz reportedly tried to form a "unity ticket" with Sen. Rubio but was rebuffed; he then selected Carly Fiorina ahead of the Indiana primary, but it did not help.  In March 2013 Bloomberg Businessweek's Joshua Green reported that Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum had engaged in negotiations to form a "Unity Ticket" starting in early Feb. 2012, but they could not agree upon who would head the ticket.  During the 2008 primaries, there were suggestions that Sen. Clinton, trailing in the Democratic race, might try this approach.

In 2010 there were a number of musings that President Obama might or should replace Vice President Biden.  A number of commentators suggested that he be replaced by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, but nothing came of it.  

Often extraordinary measures are taken to keep the selection secret until the announcement, and that certainly was the case with the Ryan pick.  The location of the announcement can also have significance; in many cases the presumptive nominee has opted for his home state.  In 2008 John McCain made the Palin announcement in the battleground state of Ohio; Mitt Romney had planned to make his announcement in New Hampshire but the shootings at the Sikh temple in Oak Creek, WI pushed that off, and the event ended up in another battleground state, Virginia, fittingly in front of the battleship U.S.S. Wisconsin.

Recent Vice Presidential Annoucements

Conv. Start

New York, NY
July 15
July 18


July 25
Norfolk, VA
Aug. 11 (1)
Aug. 27
Springfield, IL
Aug. 23 (1, 2)
Aug. 25

Dayton, OH
Aug. 29 (1, 2)+
Sept. 1
Pittsburgh, PA
July 6 (1, 2)
July 26
'00 Bush
Austin, TX
July 25
July 31

Nashville, TN
Aug. 8
Aug. 14
Russell, KS
Aug. 10
Aug. 12
Little Rock, AR
July 9
July 13

Observers described Romney's choice of Ryan as bold.  Conventional wisdom was that Romney would probably choose a "safe" pick such as Sen. Portman or former Gov. Pawlenty.  More than anything, the Ryan choice signaled an emphasis on fiscal responsibility.  Ryan, chairman of the House Budget Committee, was best known as the architect of "The Path to Prosperity" budget proposal (+).  Choosing Ryan was seen as likely to motivate conservatives and Tea Party activists, but on the downside may have helped Democrats turn out their supporters, particularly on the Medicare issue.  Ryan brought youth to the ticket, he may have helped affect the Catholic vote, and he put Wisconsin firmly into the battleground state category.