The Imperfect Primary: Oddities, Biases, and Strengths of U.S. Presidential Nomination Politics, 3rd Edition (Paperback) book cover

The Imperfect Primary

Oddities, Biases, and Strengths of U.S. Presidential Nomination Politics, 3rd Edition

By Barbara Norrander


240 pages | 12 B/W Illus.

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The complex and ever-changing rules governing American presidential nomination contests are continuously up for criticism, but there is little to no consensus on exactly what the problems are, or on how to fix them. The evolving system is hardly rational because it was never carefully planned. So how are we to make sense of the myriad complexities in the primary process, how it affects the general election, and calls for change?

In this thoroughly updated third edition of The Imperfect Primary, political scientist Barbara Norrander explores how presidential candidates are nominated, how that process bridges to the general election campaign, discusses past and current proposals for reform, and examines the possibility for more practical, incremental changes to the electoral rules. Norrander reminds us to be careful what we wish for—reforming the presidential nomination process is as complex as the current system. Through the modeling of empirical research to demonstrate how questions of biases can be systematically addressed, students can better see the advantages, disadvantages, and potential for unintended consequences in a whole host of reform proposals.


  • Fully updated through the 2016 elections with an eye toward 2020.
  • Tracks the changing role of key primary features including superdelegates, PACs, debates, rule changes, open and closed primaries, caucuses, and the electoral calendar.
  • Includes new discussions of the impact of multicandidate contests and "The Good, Bad, and Ugly of Social Media."
  • Continues the discussion of Electoral College challenges and reforms.


"Barbara Norrander’s new edition of The Imperfect Primary confirms the book’s status as the first place to look for anyone wanting to understand the complex and often arcane process used to nominate American presidential candidates. It provides a lucid, thorough, and concise account of the system’s origins, current configuration, and strengths and weakness as a way of selecting national leaders. This new edition will serve as an authoritative guide for students and others who want to follow the action heading into the 2020 election." - Gary Jacobson, University of California--San Diego

"Barbara Norrander’s updated edition of The Imperfect Primary is an eminently readable and authoritative book on the presidential nomination process. The Imperfect Primary is an excellent book for the politically engaged reader as well as for the reader looking for a place to begin to understand the process by which the major political parties select their presidential nominees. The book takes readers through a concise history of the evolution of the process, the kinds of candidates who run, the signaling that goes on among party elites and aligned groups, how money and media influence the campaign, as well as astutely covering how the rules and the primary calendar affect candidates and the selection of the eventual nominee. The Imperfect Primary frames these topics as problems to be solved with discussion of the pros and cons of aspects of the process. It serves as an authoritative resource for students and is framed in a way that is excellent for generating discussion as we approach the 2020 nomination cycle." - Wayne Steger, DePaul University

Table of Contents

1. Happenstance and Reforms

2. Presidential Nomination Politics at the Dawn of the 21st Century

3. Is This a Fair Way to Select a Presidential Nominee?

4. The Nomination Calendar: Problems and Imperfect Solutions

5. Connections to the General Election

6. Oddities, Biases, and Strengths of U.S. Presidential Nomination Politics

About the Author

Barbara Norrander is a professor in the School of Government and Public Policy at the University of Arizona. She has been writing about presidential nominations since the 1980s.

About the Series

Controversies in Electoral Democracy and Representation

The Routledge series Controversies in Electoral Democracy and Representation presents cutting edge scholarship and innovative thinking on a broad range of issues relating to democratic practice and theory. An electoral democracy, to be effective, must show a strong relationship between representation and a fair open election process. Designed to foster debate and challenge assumptions about how elections and democratic representation should work, titles in the series present a strong but fair argument on topics related to elections and the institutions shaping them, voting behavior, party and media involvement, representation, and democratic theory.

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Subject Categories

BISAC Subject Codes/Headings:
POLITICAL SCIENCE / Political Process / Elections
POLITICAL SCIENCE / Government / Executive Branch