Presidential Primaries: WDET’s Quiz

What’s a Super Delegate? Caucus vs. Primary? Test your knowledge of how we elect a President.


How much do you know?

It’s the season of primaries and caucuses, delegates and superdelegates. The attention is on the polls and the winner, but what’s the process for the voters that produces the Republican and Democratic presidential candidates?

Photo courtesy of Tim Bledsoe

WDET went to our own studio civics class with Tim Bledsoe, professor of political science at Wayne State University, with some common questions about just how primaries work.

Why do some states hold primaries while others have caucuses? What’s the difference?

Listen to the answer

Well, first of all, it’s up to the state Legislature and the political parties themselves to determine how they go about public input into the nomination process, so it varies a lot both from state to state and from party to party. Now with a primary, it’s sort of like a regular election where people just show up at some point during the day and cast a ballot.

Whereas a caucus is more of a meeting which usually takes place in the evening, although it could sometimes take place on a weekend afternoon, and people meet at these various sites and then they register their support for the candidates and work out who has the most support and how many delegates go forward from the caucus.

Has Michigan always been a primary state and is that for any particular reason?

Listen to the answer

Michigan has gone back and forth. Michigan started having some, using presidential primaries in the early 1900s and used them for a while and then abandoned the process for a while and then went back to it and then abandon it and now we’re back to using primaries. We’ve been using primaries for a number of election cycles now.

Why do some states hold primaries as early as February, and others as late as June?

Listen to the answer

Well, again, it’s up to the states and the political parties themselves. Now, Iowa and New Hampshire have sort of obtained a monopoly on being the first states to register their support, and they’ve actually got state laws that stipulate that they will be first, and if some state tries to move ahead of them then they will automatically move theirs to precede that state so those two states are always going to be first. They’ve been first for a number of years now, and then after that it’s really up to the Legislatures and the political parties to decide.

The national political parties?

Well, the national political parties and the state political parties. So really there are three groups here that have a role to play in how this works out. The national parties have their rules. The state parties have their rules and then the state governments, especially the Legislatures have their laws.

What does it mean for a candidate to win a state by a percentage of the vote versus by the number of delegates?

Listen to the answer

Well, that’s kind of complicated. The Democrats mostly, in fact I think entirely now, use a proportional representation system for allotting delegates based on votes at a caucus or a primary. Republicans have a variety of means of selecting their delegates.

Republicans will use a proportional representation system. They’ll use a Congressional district system whereby the candidate with the most votes within the Congressional district gets the delegates from that district. They’ll even have some states that are winner take all states where the candidate getting the most votes statewide gets all of the delegates from the state.

Who are the delegates? And why are some of them “super”?

Listen to the answer

Well, the delegates are people chosen by the political parties so they are party loyalists, people who have been faithful party supporters and workers for years and years. There are two kinds of delegates. There are regular delegates and there are superdelegates.

The people that we are selecting when we go to vote in a primary or participate in a caucus are regular delegates. Then the so-called superdelegates are people who are statewide elected officer holders of the political party or members of Congress of the political party or people who hold a position that allows them to be identified as a superdelegate.

Can superdelegates determine who the nominee is, which would be in contrast to who the voters selected?

Listen to the answer

Potentially, yes. There are several hundred superdelegates. The Democrats have more superdelegates. The Democrats have more delegates period than the Republicans. The Democrats have a much larger convention than the Republicans have. Absolutely.

The superdelegates have a vote that counts just the same as regular delegates do. So the candidates for president have to work hard to win the support of those superdelegates, just like they have to work to win the support of regular delegates.


This feature was produced in partnership with the Ravitch Fiscal Reporting Program at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. Learn more about this special project and explore all the content here.

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