The Difference In Primary vs. General Election: All You Need To Know

Published on May 4, 2024

If you wanted to know the difference between the primary vs. general election, this is the article for you.

The US Presidential Election seems like a long, drawn-out process, with campaigns running over a year compared to other countries. Over the course of the year, the parties would have their state primaries and caucuses leading up to a single Presidential candidate being elected for each party.

While the US election process can be complicated to grasp when beginning, this article explores the difference between a presidential primary and general elections.

To begin briefly, primaries are a party event. The RNC (Republican National Committee) and the DNC (Democratic National Committee) organize and run their primary elections. The Federal Election Committee merely oversees these events to ensure no fraud occurs.

This is not the only variation between a campaign for a primary election and a general election campaign. Below are some general terms to be aware of when it comes to presidential primary vs. general elections and the major ways campaigns differ between them. Read on.

What is a primary election?

In a primary election, the focus would be on party supporters at the state level. All the candidates are members of the same party, and their political stance adheres to the party’s values. Presidential primaries are held across the various states and territories of the United States, including its capital in Washington, D.C. Primaries are held to determine a party’s candidate for the general election. 

The process of conducting a presidential primary is not governed by the US Constitution but established by the parties themselves.

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The Democratic and Republican parties follow their own processes to pick their party’s nominee.

Candidates need to win an absolute majority to become the party’s nominee for the general election. If only one candidate is running, they are nominated by acclamation. In the general election, a candidate can win by a plurality or even less than a plurality through the electoral college.

Read Next: How to Determine Your Win Number and Create a Perfect Voter Outreach Plan

Majority and Plurality – What’s the difference?

Here’s the difference between the two:

  1. In a majority victory, more than 50% of the voters vote for a candidate, and they are declared the winner. This is the case in elections where only two candidates are running.
  2. A plurality victory occurs when a candidate obtains less than 50% of the vote but still more than any other person running in the election.
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In the USA, winning the presidential election requires winning a majority of the electoral vote and not the popular vote.

Read Also: A Compilation of the Latest Election Campaign Communication Research

Did you know?

In 2012, Barack Obama was re-elected, winning the majority of the popular vote at 51.06%, over Mitt Romney’s 47.20%, as well as the electoral college.
An example of a plurality victory in a presidential election occurred in 1996 when Bill Clinton won the election with less than 50% of the vote due to a third-party candidate, Ross Perot.
In 2016, Hillary Clinton won the majority of the votes but lost the electoral college, which led to Donald Trump winning the general election by less than a plurality of the vote. 

What is the general election?

The general election has one nominee from either party facing the other (and a handful of independent or third-party candidates), so the campaign would re-align to appeal to voters nationwide. Each party’s final nominee and running mate stand for the general election. 

In the US, the presidential election is held on the first Tuesday after the first Monday of November every 4 years. 

It is an indirect election where the people of each state vote for members of The Electoral College.

What Is the Electoral College?

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Unlike many other countries, the presidential election in the US is an indirect election. That means voters do not cast their votes directly for their candidate but for the members of the electoral college, known as electors, who in turn cast votes for the president and vice president candidates.

A candidate must win an absolute majority of the electoral college votes to be elected as president. (At least 270 of the 538 possible votes.)

Read Also: What Affects Voter Turnout? The 8 Most Influential Factors

Strategies for primary vs. general election

Inclination to party ideology

During the primaries, candidates often focus on core issues within the party. This also means they take an extreme position to attract voters with similar values. Democratic campaigns try to win over Orthodox liberals and position themselves as more liberal. The Democratic primary election, as a result, is a test of liberal ideology and a fight among divisions on the left. The Republican primary is similar to the stress of conservative ideology. During the primary campaigns, the candidates position themselves further apart to win over the staunch supporters.

Once they are elected party nominees, the candidates mellow their stance. So, in the general election, the campaigns track back to the middle. This is to draw in casual and swing voters who would not support any highly partisan candidate.

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The outsider vs the insider

Campaigns aim to engage local voters who feel unrepresented during the primary vs. general election. They would play up the candidate being a Washington outsider and their lack of involvement with special interest groups. This is seen as a chance to elect someone focusing on local issues that tend to be overlooked nationally.

A party candidate for President would claim that their experience at the local level makes them better equipped to be at the center. The campaign then shifts the message to assert that an insider representing local issues can influence change from the top.

Coalesce the stand-outs: primary vs. general election

Candidates in the primaries often present themselves as the standout who would take the party in a new direction. This helps them win over supporters who feel the party needs to improve or focus on particular issues. However, all the campaigns seem pretty divided on their policies and messages, which fractures the party and presents the members as unaligned.

However, the general election campaign sets everything straight. The elected candidate’s campaign moves to unite the other standouts. They come on board with their key supporters and grassroots leaders following suit. The party presents a united front under a single campaign through media comments and public events. In the general election campaign, all party supporters are quite clear that the interests and policies of their nominee are the best discourse and that the opposing party is the real threat.

Delegates and electors: primary vs. general election

The party nominee for POTUS (President Of The United States) is elected at their National Convention. Delegates from all states vote for the candidate who won their state primary.

Credit: Electoral Vote Map

Here it gets a bit different for both parties. Democratic candidates, generally, are entitled to several delegate votes proportional to the votes they won in that state’s primary. For Republicans, the winner in the state takes all the delegate votes for that state. So, the campaigns in the primary strategize to focus on states where they can win a majority of the delegate votes.

In the general election, the President is elected by the Electoral College. Every state appoints several electors equal to the whole number of Senators and Representatives from that state in Congress. However, a winner in a state gets all the electoral votes for that state. The general election campaign, therefore, appeals to voters in swing states. The campaign trail is also laid out according to the party’s foothold in the state.

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How are delegates/electors chosen in a primary vs. general election?

The process of choosing electors varies from state to state. As of the 2016 election, 33 states chose electors based on party convention. The other 10 states chose electors based on appointment by party nominees, gubernatorial appointments, state chair appointments, presidential nominee appointments, and other hybrid methods.

Read Also: The All-in-one Guide for Get Out The Vote (GOTV) with Process, Tactics, and Strategies

Securing an early lead: primary vs. general election

The date for the general election is fixed. It is the first Tuesday after November 1 for those who don’t know. However, the road to that is through a win in the primary. An early lead in the states that hold their primaries first is a good way to strengthen your place in the final run. The general election campaign actually begins at the end of the primary race.

Before the primaries even kick-off, hopeful candidates start their campaigns in what is called the “Invisible Primary.” They court influential political figures, donors, and party insiders to build the resources needed in the campaign. So, the primary campaign takes off even before the candidates make a public announcement of their candidacy.

Even though the primary and general elections are part of one large race, the campaigns are very different. They target different voter groups and tweak their messages to relate to those demographics. The campaign strategy for specific states also changes between the primary and the general. Ultimately, the candidate with the best interests and greater support takes office as the President of the United States. Mostly.

What’s Next?

Want to learn more about politics and how it affects a democracy? Read our latest article on how young people vote to understand the relationship between age and political participation.