The political process in the United States to pick the candidates to run for president is a long one, and the next stop is the primary election in the northeastern U.S. state of New Hampshire. On January 10, the state holds the campaign's first regular primary after the opening caucuses in Iowa. Primary elections set the stage for the November, 2012 showdown between the Democratic and Republican parties.
New Hampshire is small in size and population, but when the state votes, it commands the attention of the entire nation. And, the results reverberate all the way to the White House.
In most states, voters registered with a political party can only vote for that party's candidates. But in some states, such as New Hampshire, voters not registered with a party are allowed to take part.
Candice Nelson is an elections expert.
"The purpose of the primary season is to enable candidates to introduce themselves to the voters, to let the voters get to know the candidates, to think about the candidates over the course of three or four months," said Nelson.
Candidates have always campaigned person-to-person in what pundits call retail politics. They go from town to town shaking hands, attending rallies, and other means of contacting the electorate. And, the candidates use these contacts to try out their issue positions with voters. Iowa State University political scientist Steffen Schmidt.
“It’s like a stage, or it’s like a convention center where the candidates come and they try to sell their wares," said Schmidt. "And, you know, we let them do that. The ones who sell a lot of their wares go on.”
Candidates are sellers, and voters are buyers. People who go to political events such as campaign rallies not only want a handshake, but also want their concerns addressed.
“They go to these events," said Associated Press political reporter Phil Elliott. "They pack the coffee shops. They wait for hours to meet the candidates and ask them very serious and substantive questions.”
The traditional three- or four-month period of states holding primaries and caucuses has been shrinking in recent presidential elections, as states schedule earlier and earlier in hopes of gaining greater visibility and power in determining the party's presidential nominee. Some people have proposed that all states conduct their primaries or caucuses on the same day.
"The main advantage of a national primary is that the voters, the votes from individuals across the nation, would count equally toward choosing the presidential candidates," noted Mark Rom, a political scientist at Georgetown University. "That would be a good thing. The bad thing about a national primary is [that] it would give special advantages to those [candidates] who have raised the most money, and those who have the highest popularity when the race starts."
In primary elections and caucuses, a vote cast for a presidential candidate is actually a vote for that candidate's delegates to his or her political party's national convention, which takes place about two months before the final vote. The candidate with the greatest number of delegates overall becomes that party's presidential nominee in the November 2012 general election that leads to the White House.