One of the primary challenges of studying abroad is understanding cultural norms of your host country. These may involve culture, history, food, or even common sayings and phrases. There are things that natives take for granted, but may be confusing and bizarre from the outside. This knowledge is rarely taught past a certain point, leaving international students behind in some ways. This series aims to help students understand things that many Americans take for granted.

Every four years, the world’s attention turns, often in an understandably begrudging way, to U.S. elections. The President is going to be chosen, and for better or worse, the man or woman whom Americans elect is going to cast a huge shadow upon the rest of the globe. It’s no wonder the coverage of the election is breathless, constant, and very often maddeningly trivial.

Of course, the Presidency isn’t the only office included in the election. In our previous article about the three branches of government, we talked about the U.S. Congress. The members of the House of Representatives are elected every two years, and Senators every six.  These elections are also held in November. You may have also heard on the news about elections in Texas, or depending on what state you are in, you might be bombarded with cheaply-made and darkly-insinuating negative political ads, and wondering what they are for.  These are primary elections, the untrammeled, unpredictable, often madcap, and bizarre side of American electoral politics.

US Elections

The future of America is often decided in gymnasiums and libraries across the country.
Image from Flickr Creative Commons user JimDuncanCville

Almost Uniquely American

Primaries, put simply, are the elections to decide who gets to run in an election. Instead of being a contest held between the parties, they are held within a party.  Let’s use an example.

Say there is an open seat in Congress- the old Congressman is retiring, so there is a spot to fill.  Four Republicans want the job, as do four democrats. Sometime before the general election in November, usually in the spring, there is the primary election. Registered Republicans vote on which of the Republican candidates they want to represent them, and the same is done on the Democratic side. The winners of these elections will face each other in the fall. Or, if there isn’t an open seat, the party out of power holds a primary to see who will challenge the incumbent (the person currently holding the position). In some cases, as we’ll talk about below, the incumbent themselves have to face a primary challenger.

This is a quirk that is rarely found in parliamentary systems of government, in which the ballot is decided by the party (America may be the oldest democracy in the world, but its system isn’t often imitated). However, there has been some movement in other countries, particularly the United Kingdom, toward having an open primary system.

The Benefits

The main benefit in having a primary election is to gauge the direction of a party. Any primary will have people who represent the extreme and the moderate wing of a particular party. A good example of this is the recently concluded Texas primary, which included voting for state Senator. Incumbent Texas Republican, John Cornyn, was facing off with a man far more conservative, Steve Stockman.

Texas Republicans had to decide what kind of person they wanted for the job. Cornyn was a long-time Washington hand, steady, and reliable- or was he entrenched and part of the system? Stockman was an outsider, with new energy and a drive to shake things up- or was he unreliable and an extremist? These are questions that a primary forces voters to answer, and, in doing so, shapes the direction of a party from the ground up.

Another benefit of a primary election is that it tests a candidate. Politics is a grueling business, and being elected takes both an uncompromising drive and a willingness to adapt oneself to any challenge. A general election is hard work, and in the primary, one can see if a candidate can withstand the daily pressure of striving to get votes. You don’t necessarily observe this if someone is just appointed to a seat.

The Downside

Of course, being able to do anything to get votes isn’t always a particularly admirable trait, so it could be argued that a primary just rewards the most ambitious and ruthless, but unless our conception of politics changes entirely, that will always be the case (and has always been the case).

The larger downside is that primary elections have sparse turnouts, even by America’s already relatively-low standard. The upshot of this is that it allows for more extreme voices to flourish, as only the really passionate tend to turn out for these elections.  For Democrats and Republicans, the challenge is to not let a small band of driven extremists take over the primary process and force an unpalatable candidate onto the rest of the party. This does work, sometimes- Cornyn easily defeated Stockman in the Texas primary. Having money helps in this process (but money and elections is a topic for a future article).

So that’s what primary elections are, and by reading this you may already know more than a lot of your American classmates. Primaries are wide open, and allow for a more colorful cast of characters before a relatively managed general election.  In the increasingly homogenized and consultant-choked world of big-time American politics, the primaries represent an electoral Wild West. It’s rarely pretty, but it is never dull.



The international student experience is both challenging and exciting. Whether you are a student considering studying in America, their parent, the host family, the Head of School, an international coordinator, or even a potential classmate, there are as many opportunities for confusion as there are to learn. The ISPA is here to help bridge that gap, to ensure that this opportunity and adventure is met with the highest level of success.