Primary Election Versus General Election: Definition & Differences

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  • 0:01 Primary Elections
  • 1:45 Types of Primary Elections
  • 3:35 General Elections
  • 5:00 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Ashley Dugger

Ashley is an attorney. She has taught and written various introductory law courses.

In the United States, we use two different types of presidential elections. Both primary and general elections are used to determine a winning candidate. This lesson explains primary and general elections, including the differences between the two.

Primary Elections

In the United States, we use two different types of presidential elections. The elections form a two-step process and are used together to determine the winner. The first of these is the primary election. This election serves as a party nomination for the political office. The primary elections serve as the preliminary step in the process of selecting the United States president.

Each political party holds a primary election. The winner of a party's primary election goes on to represent that party in the presidential election. After a primary winner is determined, the political party will officially nominate that winner at the party's national convention. This is simply a political party's official meeting, where a presidential candidate will be nominated. The Democratic and Republican national conventions are typically held the summer of an election year. The conventions are normally large, televised events.

For example, let's say that Roe, Roberts and Ramey are all Republican presidential candidates. These three candidates will first run against each other in the Republican primary election. The winner will be officially nominated at the Republican national convention and go on to represent the Republican Party in the presidential election.

Each political party is allowed only one candidate in the presidential election. Therefore, the primary election is the means to determine the party's one official presidential candidate.

Types of Primary Elections

Different states have different rules regarding their primaries. There are four basic types of primary elections. These are:

  • Open primaries, where anyone of any political party affiliation may vote
  • Closed primaries, where only those voters registered with that particular political party may vote
  • Semi-open primaries, where anyone of any political party affiliation may vote but can only vote in one primary
  • Runoff primaries, where a few states hold a second primary between the two candidates with the most votes

Let's take a look at the two most common types of primaries. Many states, like Texas and Ohio, use semi-open primaries. Like most other types of primary elections, each voter is allowed only one vote.

Let's say Victor is our voter in a semi-open primary. Victor must choose a primary election in which to vote. He may not vote in more than one primary election, but he can choose any party's primary. So, even if Victor has always voted in the Democratic primary, he can choose to vote in the Republican primary instead.

Many other states, like Oklahoma and Florida, use closed primaries. In a closed primary, Victor must be registered with a particular political party in order to vote in that party's primary election. So, Victor must already be registered as a Republican if he wants to vote for Roe in the Republican primary.

General Elections

After the primary elections, a general election will be held. This is the main election, held between the winners of the various primary elections. This election typically results in a much higher voter turnout than the primary elections.

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