Primary & General Elections: Explained

What is a primary?

Think of a primary election as the playoffs to the championship. Both parties hold primaries, in advance of a general election, for the purpose of deciding the strongest candidate to represent the party’s values and ideologies. This candidate then progresses onto the general, where they battle it out with the opposing party’s nominee. 

A primary is an intra-party election, so all the candidates are within the same political party. Sometimes their differences are minimal, like if they both agree on a policy but have different economic approaches on how to achieve it. Sometimes their differences are large, like if one candidate believes in minor improvements and the other believes in a complete overhaul of a system. It is up to the primary voters to decide which of the candidates best represent the party and will stand the best chance against the opposing party’s nominee.

Who can vote? 

Everyone and also, not everyone – it largely depends on the state. In a closed state primary, only those who are officially registered as members of a specific party can vote in that party’s primary election. For example, in a state holding a closed Republican primary, only those who are formally registered Republican can vote. If a state has an open primary, independent and unaffiliated voters can cast a ballot. In that case you would not have to be a registered Democrat to vote in the Democratic primary. Sometimes, in an open primary, you also have something called a “crossover”. Which basically means that voters registered to a different party can still vote in the primary. As an example, during an open primary with a crossover, a Republican voter can vote in a Democratic primary. 

When do you register your party?

You register to be counted among a specific party when you register to vote. Sometimes people put undecided or registered independent but they lean Democrat or Republican. This is 100% acceptable and commonly practiced, but the downfall is these people might be shut out of the primary process if their state has a closed primary. If you register unaffiliated, and then decide you would like to vote for a primary candidate, you still can. Each state has a deadline to declare, or change, your voting party affiliation. 

Regardless of party, if you are a registered voter , you can and should vote in the general election!

What is the general election?

The general election takes the winners from the primary and puts them head to head for the ultimate “win.” Again, if we’re thinking of the primaries as the playoffs, then the general election is the championship. After the general election, whoever wins becomes the elected official. 

When can a primary election occur?

Elected officials in City Government, State Government, U.S. Senate, U.S. Congress, and all the way up to the Presidency are typically chosen through a general election. In any election where there will be a general, there is typically room and usually is a primary. Each political party vying to fill an elected governmental position wants to ensure they are putting their best candidate forward. This is why primaries happen, and why they are so important.

Primaries are skipped only if the party’s incumbent is believed by the party to be the best candidate to go up against the opposing party in the general election. This decision is made when no one decides to challenge the incumbent. Alternatively, during a presidential election, each state may choose to cancel a party’s primary if the person currently holding the Presidency is a member of that party, thus, fully supporting the incumbent in the primary election. Using the current 2020 election cycle a number of states have canceled their Republican primaries to fully support the incumbent, Donald Trump, during the primary phase. 


Incumbent– Someone currently holding the sought after position. (Example: Current President, current Senator, current Mayor)

Challenger During a primary election, someone who is going up against the incumbent for their position and is also a member of the same party. (Example: A Democratic challenger seeks to beat out the current Democratic Senator.)

Crossover- An open primary that allows all registered voters, regardless of party, to vote, even if they are registered as members of an opposing party. (Example: A registered Democrat voting in a state’s open Republican primary).

Copy edited by Megan Lachman

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s