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What Is a Primary Election?

By Sherry Holetzky
Updated May 21, 2024
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A primary election is the preliminary step in the process of electing a candidate running for office in the United States. Many other countries follow different systems, but primaries are often held in the U.S. to see who will receive the nomination from his or her political party during the convention. The candidate who receives the nomination, will run against the candidate nominated by the other party — or parties as the case may be.

Many voters don’t seem to realize that the primary is one of the most important phases of an election. This is when each vote counts the most, because it gives people the ability to decide who the best candidate is. Unfortunately, many people skip the primary election and only vote in the general election, many of them complaining that their party’s candidate is not the one they would have chosen. People who take their vote seriously need to find out when the primary is held in their state so they have a voice in selecting the candidate.

There are four basic types of primaries: open, closed, semi-open, and runoff. An open primary means anyone can vote, despite his or her political party affiliation. A closed primary, on the other hand, allows only those registered with the party to vote for its candidate. A third type is the semi-open primary, which still allows people of all political persuasions to vote in it. The semi-open structure limits each voter to a single primary, however, and the voter must state in advance which party's primary he or she will vote in.

The reason for limiting the vote to a single primary election is to prevent “raiding,” which is a form of political sabotage. Under the open primary structure, some voters will gather others from their own party to go and participate in a rival party’s election in order to vote for the candidate who is least likely to win. Then, they are still able to vote for the strongest candidate in their own party’s primary. The semi-open structure helps keep partisan sabotage from being implemented.

The final type of primary election is the runoff. This system is the least used but most favored by voters who are less than pleased with the two party control of the election system. They may be independents, registered third party voters, or people simply looking for something different from the status quo. As more voters become disenchanted with Republicans and Democrats, and the political climate continues to change, the run off primary may become more popular. If not, more voters may simply decide to stay home rather than continuing to vote for what they see as the “lesser of two evils.”

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Discussion Comments
By anon249874 — On Feb 23, 2012

Thank you for your information page. I had to search several times to get clear, direct information like this.

By Moldova — On Sep 15, 2010

BrickBack- Sometimes I think polling data does tend to influence some people. I know for a while in the early part of that race, he was the front runner.

But, as the press continued to hammer him, his numbers declined. I agree with you that the strength of his character is amazing considering how he cleaned up New York and made it a safe city again.

He also proved his leadership skills again on 9-11, and I too have the most respect for him. He said that he is not interested in running again. I think he makes too much on his consulting firm. That is really a shame.

By BrickBack — On Sep 15, 2010

SauteePan- The primary election polls all showed Marco Rubio leading substantially, but according to all majoring polling data Republicans are expected to make substantial gains.

There was an interesting race in Delaware in which O’Donnell was running against Castle a six term Republican for the Republican nomination for senate.

O’Donnell the Tea Party supported Republican pulled an upset with Mike Castle who is viewed as a liberal republican. The trends seem to indeed lean conservative.

New conservative Republicans are beating establishment candidates. I know for the primary election of 2008 when we were voting for the Republican candidate for the presidential election,

I voted for Rudy Giuliani because I thought he would have made the best president. He was polling third, but I did not want to vote for Mc Cain because I did not view Mc Cain as a real Republican, but I eventually supported him in the general election of that year.

By SauteePan — On Sep 15, 2010

Oasis11-This was considered an upset, but the same thing happened in the senatorial race for the Republican nomination.

Marco Rubio and Charlie Crist at one point were running against each for the Republican senatorial nomination, and Crist was leading the race early on, but Rubio started to surge and eventually overtook Crist so much so that Crist changed his party affiliation to Independent and in a three way race Marco Rubio still has a strong lead among all of his opponents.These primary election results mirror current polling data that seems to still be favoring Rubio in November.

By oasis11 — On Sep 15, 2010

Somerset-I heard that the primary election returns were the most shocking in the gubernatorial race in Florida. Bill Mc Cullum, the states’ attorney general served the state of Florida for his entire career which is about twenty-five years.

He was beat by a political novice who threw his hat late in the race. Most of the political analysis revealed that voters do not want establishment Republicans in office and want to see someone new to politics that leans more conservative.

By somerset — On Feb 20, 2008

Modified Closed Primary Elections are those where independent voters can vote for their candidate of choice. In case they do not want to declare their affiliation, they will than receive a ballot with measures and nonpartisan candidates only.

One of the states with Modified Closed Primary Elections is California.

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