Do U.S. parties have to hold primaries/caucuses?

In general, I understand what this whole primary/caucus business is all about, I I also understand how these both work. What I’d like to know is: Are these mandatory?

Since the caucuses and primaries are part of the party’s internal candidate nomination procedure, one should expect that it’s up to the party to decide how, and if, to hold them - the decision-making bodies of the Republican and Democratic parties can, and do, set up the rules and modalities of the process. But could they skip it altogether and nominate their candidates by, say, a vote of the national committee? Again, I’d say yes, since it’s the internal procedure of the party. But then I read that various states in the U.S. have legislation regulating primaries or caucuses, and this would indicate that they are compulsory. I also read that at least the mahjor third parties in the U.S., such as the Libertarians and the Greens, do hold their own primaries. So what’s the deal?


There’s no constitutional mandate on how a party is to choose its nominee. Not even a nominating convention is required (They didn’t exist prior to 1831). States may have legislation, but it’s up to the party to decide whether to go along.

For instance, this year, the Democratic Party will not be seating delegates from the Florida and Michigan primaries because they broke party rules about when their primaries were to be held. They could easily do that for any primary.

So, in theory, the party heads can get together and point to someone and say, “You’re the nominee.” In practice, the party would be pretty damn pissed off if they tried that and it would make it next to impossible for the candidate to win.

So, in theory, the party heads can get together and point to someone and say, “You’re the nominee.” QUOTE]

Actually no, they probably can’t. States do have some degree of control over party processes per many Supreme Court rulings.

A political party has a First Amendment right to limit its membership as it wishes, and to choose a candidate-selection process that will in its view produce the nominee who best represents its political platform. These rights are circumscribed, however, when the State gives the party a role in the election process—as New York has done here by giving certain parties the right to have their candidates appear with party endorsement on the general-election ballot…And then also the State acquires a legitimate governmental interest in assuring the fairness of the party’s nominating process, enabling it to prescribe what that process must be…We have, for example, considered it to be “too plain for argument” that a State may prescribe party useof primaries or conventions to select nominees who appear on the general-election ballot."

Yeah in the 1800s there was this whole thing with teh Democratic Republicans (a party of the time) and “King Caucus” which out and out assigned the candidate without any input from the lower party members. Since they’re private organizations any such requirement would be akin to them telling you you need to elect the president of your book club a certain way (to a point there are some cases I could probably get behind some federal legislation). Although I think some states do have laws which exercise SOME degree of control over parties since thought ehy are private, they’re also undeniably political in nature.

In fact, private candidates wouldn’t be able to run at all if primaries were needed. If I met all the requirements I could just say “I’m running for pres by the way… just for the hell of it” I’m not going to win by any stretch of the imagination, but since there’s no real restrictions on this (that I know of at least) that would prohibit me from doing provided I’m 32 or over, natural US citizen etc I could do it just for kicks without any need for a primary or anything.

The intersection between state parties, national parties, and state governments with respect to the American nominating process is never easy to describe. The state needs to have some oversight over the nominating process, because it needs to certify who appears under each party’s name on the state-printed general election ballot.

(Before the late 1800’s, this wasn’t an issue; parties printed their own election tickets and did as they pleased. All the state did was read the tickets and count the votes.)

For most non-presidential offices, most states have extended this oversight to the point of actually conducting a primary election to determine the nominee. Naturally, in conducting the primary election, the state sets the rules. Recent court decisions have placed a few constraints on how far states may carry this–for example, states may no longer require that independents be allowed to vote in a primary against the wishes of the affected party. And certain state laws could violate other constitutional requirements–for example, the “white primary” mandated by Southern states in the early Twentieth Century was a clear violation of the Fifteenth Amendment.

But within these bounds, again, states set the rules. And parties have to comply if they want their candidates to appear on the general election ballot. (States provide alternative ways to get on the ballot, by petition, but this is an arduous and expensive process.)

For the presidency, the national parties add another layer of complexity. Could a national party nominate a candidate for president by vote of its national committee? Maybe, but some states might balk at granting it ballot access; it would depend on state law. Does the state determine whether to hold a presidential primary? Yes, but state parties (subject to national party rules) determine how to translate the vote into delegates. And a state party can ignore the primary if it wishes (although this seldom happens), and hold a caucus or convention. The national party retains ultimate authority over the process, by determining whom to seat in cases of dispute at the national convention.

So as you see, this is a matter of checks and balances, like so much of American government.