What Just Happened? The 2016 U.S. Elections

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On Monday, February 1, 2016, the long and complex process in which the two major American parties choose their candidates for president began in Iowa. One of those two candidates will be the 45th President of the United States. What exactly are the presidential primaries? What makes them so long and complicated? What is their timetable and who, for now, are the main candidates?

The Presidential Primaries: The Elections before the Elections

Though the U.S. presidential elections will be held on November 8, 2016, the election year began on Feb. 1 with the Iowa caucuses. This was the first of a long series of competitions that will ultimately determine who will be the Democratic and Republican candidates for President of the United States.

Basically, this long series of contests is meant to choose each state's delegates to the national nominating conventions of the two parties, which will be held at the end of July. These conventions officially select the candidates of the two parties. To become a party candidate for president, the candidate must win the support of an absolute majority (more than 50 percent) of the delegates. While it appears that the conventions have great importance, in actual practice they lack suspense and almost always serve a dog and pony show, a party ritual intended to launch its presidential campaign. This is because by the time the conventions meet it is already known which candidate has won the support of an absolute majority of delegates.The two parties also have a minority of delegates who are not bound to support a specific candidate. These delegates (known as "super-delegates" in the Democratic Party and "unpledged delegates" in the Republican) usually hold some kind of official position in the party: a member of the House of Representatives, a senator, a governor, etc. Theoretically, if the race is close and none of the candidates has succeeded in guaranteeing the support of an absolute majority of delegates before the convention, these delegates, who are free to choose, could determine the winner. These kinds of conventions, which are called "brokered conventions" in the American lexicon,  are rare; the last time one took place was at the middle of the previous century. 

Most delegates in the convention are not free to choose which candidate to support. They are "pledged" to support a particular candidate, as determined by their state's primary. The people who essentially decide are the voters who participated in the primaries. The delegates are, to a certain extent, no more than messengers or "vote carriers."

For example, South Carolina sends 47 delegates to the Republican National Convention. If candidate X received the largest number of votes in that state, then all 47 delegates representing South Carolina at the national convention must support candidate X's candidacy. In this manner, long before the convention takes place, one of the candidates almost always succeeds in ensuring enough support from delegates to guarantee his or her nomination. That is how Mitt Romney ensured his election as the Republican candidate in 2012 some three months before the convention, and how John McCain ensured his election as the Republican candidate in 2008, some six months before the convention. Even the tight race between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton in 2008 was decided two months before the convention.

Primaries: Not One System but Several

Choosing delegates to the national convention takes place at the state level. Every state is allocated a number of delegates in advance. This number is derived mainly from the size of its population, and/or the average electoral support for the party in this state's presidential elections. For example, the small state of Vermont will be represented by 16 delegates at the Republican convention, while Virginia will send 49 delegates, and California will send 179.

Because states in the United States have extensive control of their internal affairs, each can decide:

  1. Who can participate in the primaries
  2. How the vote will take place
  3. In what way to divide support among the candidates.

These possibilities create a great deal of variety, which makes the U.S. primaries one of the most complicated democratic processes in the world.

Who Can Participate?

There are two main options regarding the right to vote in primaries. In certain states, only registered party members can vote in the primaries. This process is called "closed primaries." In other states, any resident, regardless of party affiliation, can vote; this system is called "open primaries." In a small number of states there is a third option, which is called "semi-open primaries" or "mixed primaries." In this process, anyone can vote in the primaries as long as he/she is not registered as a member of the rival party.

The Voting Process: Primaries or Caucuses?

There are two main systems of voting: "caucuses" and "primaries." A caucus, what was just held in Iowa last week, is not an election in which ballots are cast and the votes for each candidate are then counted. Instead, the decision is made in public gathering places, where supporters of each candidate try to persuade the participants to join their group and reach a majority. About a dozen states use this system; in the rest, the primary system, which involves a direct vote, is used.

Distributing Support among the Candidates

There are two main principles of dividing support among candidates: proportional and majority-based. In the majority system, the winner takes all; that is, the candidate who receives the largest number of votes gets all the delegates allocated to the state. For example, in a state that sends 50 delegates to the convention, if candidate A won 51% of the votes and candidate B won 49%, all 50 delegates must vote for candidate A. In the proportional system, the delegates are divided up according to the proportion of support for each candidate. For example: In a state that sends 50 delegates to the convention, if candidate A receives 60% and candidate B 40%, then 30 delegates will support candidate A and 20 delegates will support candidate B.

In practice, however, there is a wider variety of models that include a combination of the two systems or various electoral thresholds. The Democratic Party has the same delegate distribution system in all states: a proportional system with a 15% threshold. In other words, delegates are divided proportionally among the various candidates as long as the candidate received at least 15% of the votes. The Republican Party allows each state to determine its own distribution system. Table 1 shows a number of delegate distribution systems that will be used in the upcoming elections.

Table 1: Examples of Delegate Distribution in the 2016 Primaries 

State Number of Delegates System of Distribution of Delegates
All states (Democratic) -  Proportional (15%) – Delegates distributed proportionally among candidates who received at least 15% of the vote  
Hawaii (Republican)   16 Proportional, without a voter threshold 
 Massachusetts (Republican)  39  Proportional (5%) – Delegates distributed proportionally among candidates who received at least 5% of the vote
 New Hampshire (Republican)  20 Proportional (10%) – Delegates distributed proportionally among candidates who received at least 10% of the vote  
 Texas (Republican) 152  Proportional (20%) – Delegates distributed proportionally among candidates who received at least 20% of the vote. If a candidate receives more than 50% of the vote, all the delegates back him. 
 Florida (Republican) 99  Majority System – winner takes all 



The primaries are held over four months. In addition to Iowa, in February, there will be voting in New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina. These early races are significant;   winning them can give important momentum to candidates and even eliminate some candidates.

Success in these early races is critical for two reasons:  1) Major donors could already decide whether to continue contributing funds or withdraw their support. Given that the election campaign is so long and spans the entire United States, funding is extremely important. Candidates who do not raise enough money could decide to stop their campaigns. 2) A surprising success or resounding victory in one of these early contests could give a candidate and his/her campaign significant momentum and generate more support. In contrast, failure and disappointment in the early races could take the wind out of the sails of a candidacy that was initially considered promising. In this respect, the primaries in New Hampshire are generally seen as a litmus test of the chances of the candidates. Although these primaries are conducted in a small state, the timing of the New Hampshire primaries and the extensive media coverage that they receive could seal fates.  

Table 2. The 2016 Elections: Key Dates for

Date Event
February 1 Iowa caucuses
February 9 New Hampshire primaries
February 20-27 Nevada and South Carolina primaries
March 1 Super Tuesday: Primaries in over 10 states
Throughout March Primaries in 10 more states
Throughout April Democratic primaries in nine states and Republican primaries in seven states
By June 14 Primaries in remaining states
July 18-21 The Republican National Convention, Cleveland (OH)
July 25-28 The Democratic National Convention, Philadelphia (PA)
September 26 The first of three televised debates between the presidential candidates
November 8 Election Day


After the early races in February, March 1 is Super Tuesday. The Republicans will hold primaries in 12 states and the Democrats will hold primaries in 11. In the past, there have been cases in which candidates sealed their nomination right after Super Tuesday, when one of the candidates opened a large lead that pressured rivals to withdraw from the race. Super Tuesday will be less significant this year than in the past, both because fewer states are holding primaries on that day and because most of the states are southern states and other conservative states, and are not representative of the country as a whole.

By the end of March, primaries will be held in many other states. There is a good chance that the races will have been decided by then, or at least it will be clear which candidates are poised to win in each party. The process culminates in the party conventions, which will convene at the end of July in Cleveland, Ohio (Republican) and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (Democrat).

Prominent Candidates

In the Democratic Party, President Barack Obama is unable to run for president again because the U.S. Constitution does not allow a president to serve more than two terms. Vice President Joe Biden, who considered running, announced in October 2015 that he will not join the presidential race.

The candidate considered to have the best chances of winning the Democratic nomination is Hillary Clinton. This is Clinton's second campaign, after she lost in 2008 in a close race against Obama. She is the candidate with greatest political experience. After eight years in the White House as First Lady to former president Bill Clinton, she served as a New York senator and was later appointed Secretary of State. Clinton is considered a centrist candidate accepted by most of the party establishment, in sharp contrast to her main challenger, Bernie Sanders, who holds socialist views, a rarity in the American political scene. Sanders, who had been an independent congressman and senator from Vermont for many years, joined the Democratic Party about a year ago. Despite his unorthodox views, which are perceived in the U.S. as radically leftist, Sanders has received a surprising amount of support in recent months. The third candidate, Martin O'Malley, dropped out after a distant third place finish in the Iowa caucuses.

At the start of the primaries, most leading analysts predict that Clinton will secure the nomination. That, however, was also the assumption eight years ago, before Obama managed to create a wave of early enthusiasm that ultimately enabled him to defeat her. It is estimated that even if Sanders manages to create momentum in the early stages of the primaries, his chances of winning the nomination remain low.  

Table 3. The Main Candidates of the Republican and Democratic Parties

Candidate Year of birth

Political experience

Bernie Sanders (D)


Senator from Vermont (since 2007)

Member of Congress (1991–2007)

Hillary Clinton (D)  1947

Secretary of State (2009–2013)

Senator from New York (2001–2009)

The First Lady (1993–2001)                                                    

Jeb Bush (R)  1953   Governor of Florida (1999–2007)
Donald Trump (R) 1946 -
Chris Christie (R) 1962   Governor of New Jersey (since 2010)
 Rick Santorum (R)  1958

Senator for Pennsylvania (1995-2007)

Member of Congress (1991-1995)

Ben Carson (R) 1951 -
Ted Cruz (R)     1970   Senator from Texas (since 2013)
  Marco Rubio (R) 1971      Senator from Florida (since 2011) Member of Florida State Legislature (2000–2008)   

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                            Senator                             1951 —                                                                                                                        

The Republican race looks more wide open than the Democratic race. This stems from a combination of factors: the inability of candidates from the party center such as Jeb Bush and Chris Christie to garner substantial support; the plethora of candidates, and the success of Donald Trump, an external and provocative candidate, in establishing himself as a legitimate candidate who was leading in the polls until the Iowa caucus. Trump's biggest contenders are Senator Ted Cruz (who won the Iowa caucus) and Marco Rubio. Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee (who suspended his campaign after Iowa), who also ran in previous primaries, are not considered to have realistic chances at winning the nomination.

The early contests in February will have great importance. They will confirm or refute the trends currently emerging in public opinion polls (whose limits are acknowledged by the pollsters themselves), and it can be assumed that toward the end of the month, the field of candidates will narrow. Beyond that, it will be interesting to see whether the Republican Party establishment will throw its weight against Trump if he emerges as a front-runner after Super Tuesday. Such a scenario, in which Trump wins the primaries and becomes the Republican candidate for president, is of concern to many in the party. The prevalent assumption is that Trump will lead the Republicans to a historic defeat.

When Two Fight, the Third Wins?

The primaries have just begun, and at this point it appears that many in both parties' mainstream establishments are concerned about their results. The concern among the Republicans is more substantial because of the emergence of Trump and Cruz as front-runners. Neither of them represents the positions of the median Republican voter. While there is less concern among the Democrats, there too there is concern that Sanders will win substantial support, which can cause real damage to Clinton's candidacy, even if it doesn't lead him to victory.

It is therefore no wonder that American analysts have recently raised the following scenario: In a situation in which Trump is chosen as the Republican candidate and Sanders is chosen as the Democratic candidate, or in a situation in which Clinton is nominated but reaches the home stretch after her standing and popularity have been damaged, Michael Bloomberg will consider entering the race as an independent candidate. Bloomberg, a multi-billionaire who was a very popular mayor of New York from 2001 to 2013, could be perceived as the "responsible adult"—a "savior" who will win broad public support. His aides have said that he is prepared to invest up to a billion dollars in a presidential campaign. Such a scenario could create a very surprising twist in the elections, but history is not behind Bloomberg. In the last 150 years, all American presidents have been candidates of one of the two major parties. While independent candidates have had good showings, ultimately they were never elected. Ross Perot, for example, got 19% of the vote in the 1992 election, and George Wallace received 13% in 1968.

Thus, Bloomberg's chances of winning as an independent candidate are not particularly high. It also cannot be ruled out that in the moment of truth, the big parties will parachute in a popular figure who will be "called to the flag" to save the party. The Democrats could call on Joe Biden and the Republicans on Mitt Romney. As the primaries begin, the uncertainty is very great.