Political Nomination: Definition & Process

Instructor: Mary Deering

Mary has a Master's Degree in History with 18 advanced hours in Government. She has taught college History and Government courses.

Have you ever thought about running for political office? Discover the political nomination process and learn how it works. Explore the role of political parties in this important phase in the modern election cycle.

What is a Political Nomination?

Imagine for a moment that you're thinking about running for political office. What would happen? Whose votes would you need to campaign for? During any election cycle the first step is to gain the approval or nomination of a particular political party. The political nomination, or the announcement of party support for a candidate is the first of several hoops that a successful politician must jump through in order to obtain election or re-election.

How Does It Work?

The first part of the process of gaining the nomination is called the prenomination phase, where many candidates explore the possibility of running for office and try to gauge the likelihood of success. As soon as the last election is ended, many candidates will be thinking about running during the next cycle. So let's imagine the last election is over and you are thinking about running next time. During this part of the process you would talk to friends, family members, coworkers, and anyone you think might support you and ask what they think about you as a political candidate.

If that's successful, you would move on to political party officials for whichever party is most likely to support you. It's important to understand that during this phase, many candidates will determine that a political run is not a good idea. Candidates who lack public or political support, or who've found the campaign process overwhelming will often drop out of the cycle at this point, but let's assume everything goes well for you and several important party members agree that you are an ideal candidate. Political scientists sometimes call this informal process of drumming up support from the party and the public, the invisible primary.

What happens next? Well, you'll officially announce your candidacy! Traditionally candidates have waited until the spring of the election year to officially announce their candidacy but in the last two open election cycles, many candidates have chosen to announce earlier. For example, as of June 2015, fourteen candidates from the major parties have announced their candidacy for the presidential election in 2016.

After you officially announce you're running, several things are going to happen. The media is suddenly going to become deeply interested in what you have to say. For some candidates, like Fred Thompson, one of the 2008 candidates, this can be a little intimidating; however, let's assume you are attractive, well spoken and the media loves you. Remember those important party members from the earlier? You need to get them and as many other party members as possible to support your candidacy. You'll also need to persuade as many of your supporters (hopefully you've attracted some wealthy ones) to make donations to your campaigns. Running a campaign is expensive and you will need all the support you can get in order to win the ultimate test in the nomination part of the process, the party primary or caucus, where the many candidates will be narrowed down to one winner.

This photo shows candidate Fred Thompson in the press room after the 2008 Republican candidate
2008 Candidate Fred Thompson

A primary election is a statewide election in which all the candidates running for a party are put on a ballot. Party members in the states then vote for the party candidate that they like best.

The states may choose to have an open primary where the voters chose which party primary they want to vote in on primary election day. Many states use this option because it increases voter participation. Other states use a closed primary where voters must register which party they are ahead of time in order to vote in the primary election. In either case, at the end of the primary, one candidate has typically emerged from each party as the front runner.

While most states use the primary method, a few states used the caucus method, where party members are invited to attend party conventions and choose a candidate at the local, regional, and state level. Just as with the primary, by the end of the caucus, each state using this method will have chosen one candidate for each party. Typically states that hold their primaries and caucuses earlier in the year will receive more media attention than later states.

This map shows how each state voted in the Democratic primaries and caucuses of 2008.
Map of Democratic Primary votes 2008

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