Washington — Even though the presidential election is still months away, candidates are working feverishly to win over voters in key states to gain an early edge in receiving their party’s nomination ahead of the November 6, 2012, national vote.
“Primaries and caucuses allow the ordinary American to influence the selection of a president and the policies that he will follow,” presidential historian Richard Norton Smith said in a phone interview December 13. He said that while these early races can seem confusing and even unnecessary, they are a “defining process” for U.S. democracy.
Held by some state political parties, caucuses take the form of public meetings where people speak to persuade others to back their chosen candidate. Those in attendance then vote. Results from caucuses across the state then are gathered, and the most popular candidate overall is said to have won the state’s caucus. The first such caucus takes place in Iowa on January 3, 2012.
Primaries, on the other hand, are races in which registered voters mark down their preferred candidate on a ballot. The chosen delegates then attend the national parties’ conventions, where voters’ preferences as expressed in primaries and caucuses across the country determine who will run as the party’s nominee for president. New Hampshire holds the first primary in the nation on January 10, 2012.
The process is sometimes criticized for lasting too long and costing too much money. But Smith says these early votes, while “messy and loud,” are critical in the democratic process of determining a leader.
“Democracy does not fit neatly into any labels or pigeonholes because democracy, when it works, is a perfect reflection of humanity itself, with all of its contradictions and its appetites and its demands and its resentments and its ideals all jumbled together,” Smith said.
He said primaries and caucuses serve both as a “safety valve for the anger and opposition people sometimes feel” as well as a “platform for means of channeling the idealism, conviction and passion that people feel.”
Presidential historian Allan Lichtman said that at this early stage, presidential debates are “extremely important” for voters and candidates alike. Speaking December 6 at the Foreign Press Center in Washington, he said debates offer a great way for voters to get to know the full field of candidates before selecting one to support.
President Obama is currently uncontested for the nomination of the Democratic Party, but at least seven Republican candidates will compete for their party’s nomination to challenge Obama in the November 6, 2012, vote. The most prominent Republican candidates currently are:
• Michele Bachmann, U.S representative from Minnesota.
• Newt Gingrich, former speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives from Georgia.
• Jon Huntsman Jr., former U.S ambassador to China and former governor of Utah.
• Ron Paul, U.S representative from Texas.
• Rick Perry, governor of Texas.
• Mitt Romney, former governor of Massachusetts.
• Rick Santorum, former senator from Pennsylvania