Presidential primaries: What you need to know

Here’s a quick primer on the upcoming primaries, containing the most important things you need to know based on the most frequently asked questions.

SOURCERobert Reich

Every four years, our country holds a general election to decide who will be our next president. Before that happens, though, each party must choose its candidate through primary elections.

But our system of primaries can be a bit confusing. So here’s a quick primer on the upcoming primaries, containing the most important things you need to know based on the most frequently asked questions:

Are primaries, caucuses, and conventions written into the Constitution?

No. The Constitution says nothing about primaries or caucuses. Or about political parties.

So where did primaries and caucuses come from?

From the parties themselves. The first major political party convention was held in 1831 by the National Republican Party (also known as the Anti-Jacksonian Party). The first Democratic National Convention was held in 1832.

Who decides how primaries are run?

It’s all up to the parties at the state level. Political parties can even decide not to hold a primary. This year, five states have decided not to hold Republican presidential primaries and caucuses, a move designed to stop Donald Trump’s long-shot primary challengers.

Can state laws override party decisions?

No. In 1981, the Supreme Court held that the Democratic Party wasn’t required to admit Wisconsin delegates to its national convention since they hadn’t been selected in accordance with Democratic Party rules. The court said that a political party is protected by the First Amendment to come up with its own rules.

Why did we start holding primaries?

In the 19th century, the process for deciding on a party’s nominee was controlled by party bosses, who chose the delegates to the party conventions.

In the early 20th century, some states began to hold primaries to choose delegates for party nominating conventions.

Although the outcomes of those primaries weren’t binding, they sent a message about how a candidate might do in a general election. In 1960, for example, John F. Kennedy’s victory in the West Virginia primary [archival footage] was viewed by Democratic Party leaders as a strong sign that a Catholic like Kennedy could win the votes of Protestants.

As recently as 1968, a candidate could still become the Democratic nominee without participating in any primaries, as Hubert Humphrey did that year. But since then, both parties have changed their rules so their presidential nominees depend on the outcomes of primaries and caucuses. They made these changes to better ensure their candidates would succeed in the general election.

What’s the difference between a caucus and a primary?

States that hold primaries allow voters to cast secret ballots in support of candidates. States that hold caucuses rely, instead, on local in-person gatherings at a particular time and place – maybe in a high school gym or a library – where voters who turn up openly decide which candidates to support. Here are the states that will have Democratic primaries in 2020 and those that will have caucuses: Iowa, Nevada, Kansas, North Dakota, Wyoming, and Maine.

What’s the advantage of one over the other?

Primaries are the easiest way to vote. Caucuses are more difficult to participate in, so the people who turn out for them are usually the most enthusiastic and engaged voters. In caucuses for the 2008 and 2016 Democratic nominations, for example, Hillary Clinton lost to Barack Obama and then to Bernie Sanders. Fewer than 5 percent of pledged delegates will be awarded by caucuses in the upcoming Democratic primary, down from 14 percent in 2016.

Are Democratic and Republican primaries the same?

No. One of the biggest differences is in how delegates are allocated. In the Democratic Party delegates are allocated proportionally – so that, for example, a candidate who wins 40 percent of a state’s vote in the Democratic primary will win 40 percent of that state’s delegates. The Republican Party allows each individual state to choose how its delegates are allocated, with some states allocating delegates proportionally and some giving all their delegates to the winner of the primary.

Another difference involves what are known as “superdelegates” – typically elected officials and prominent party members like former presidents or congressional leaders. These superdelegates are automatically seated at the party’s national convention and can vote however they like. Superdelegates are still used by the Democratic Party but the Republican Party eliminated superdelegates in 2012. In 2018, the Democratic Party reduced the power of superdelegates, allowing them to vote only in contested conventions, when no candidate has a majority of votes going into the convention.

What’s the difference between an open, semi-closed, and closed primary?

Some states have closed primaries, where the only people who can participate are those that have registered as members of a political party. Independents and members of another party are not eligible.

Other states have semi-closed primaries, in which both registered party members and Independents can vote. Different states also have different rules about when voters must choose which primary they wish to vote in – for example, registering with a party on the day of the primary or even at the time of voting.

In open-primary states, any registered voter can participate in whichever party’s primary they choose.

Why is Iowa first? Why is New Hampshire second? How is that order determined?

It may seem odd that the first two primaries occur in tiny overwhelmingly white rural states – and it is. But hey, here we are. Iowa’s caucus is first, by tradition. New Hampshire’s primary must occur at least seven days before any other primary, according to New Hampshire state law. Originally held in March of a presidential election year, the New Hampshire primary has repeatedly been moved forward in order to maintain its status as the first primary.

What’s “Super Tuesday?”

That’s the Tuesday during primary season when the greatest number of states hold primary elections. This year, Super Tuesday will be March 3 – coming after the Iowa caucus, the New Hampshire primary, the Nevada Democratic caucus, and the South Carolina Democratic primary. And Super Tuesday will be really super because two huge states with lots of delegates – California and Texas – have both moved their primaries to March 3. All told, 9 states will hold primaries that day, including 6 of the most-populous – meaning almost 29 percent of the U.S. population will have a chance to get in on picking the presidential candidates that day.

So once a state’s voters have decided on their candidates, how are the specific delegates to a party convention chosen?

The national parties have left that up to their state parties, so it varies from state to state. Delegates are typically party activists or insiders who have been supporters of the candidate they’re chosen to represent at the national party convention.

Do delegates to a national party convention have to vote for the candidate they’ve pledged to support?

Both parties’ rules require that they do, at least on the first ballot.

What’s a contested convention?

A contested convention is one where no candidate has a majority of delegates going into the convention.

When was the last contested convention?

A while back, but we could see one again this year. In 1984, Vice President Walter Mondale entered the Democratic convention only a few delegates short of a majority. In 1976 Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan competed for the Republican nomination, and at the start of the convention neither had a majority.  

What’s a brokered convention?

A brokered convention occurs when, after the first round of voting, still no candidate has a majority of delegates. If that happens, delegates are then free to vote for whomever they want.

When was the last brokered convention?

You have to go all the way back to 1952 to find a brokered convention. That year both conventions were brokered. Adlai Stevenson finally emerged as the Democratic nominee and Dwight Eisenhower, the Republican. But here again, it might happen in 2020.

Which party’s convention comes first? And when and where?

By tradition, the party that holds the White House holds its nominating convention after the party that seeks the White House. So this year, the Democratic National Convention will be July 13 through 16 in Milwaukee. The Republican National Convention will be August 24 to August 27, in Charlotte.

Are vice presidential candidates chosen or announced at the convention?

Not necessarily. Presidential nominees often announce their choice of running mates in the days or weeks leading up to the nominating conventions.

So what do we do?

Make sure you’re registered and be sure to vote – in your state primaries or caucuses, and in the general election November 3!


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Robert B. Reich is Chancellor's Professor of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley and Senior Fellow at the Blum Center for Developing Economies. He served as Secretary of Labor in the Clinton administration, for which Time Magazine named him one of the ten most effective cabinet secretaries of the twentieth century. He has written fourteen books, including the best sellers "Aftershock", "The Work of Nations," and"Beyond Outrage," and, his most recent, "Saving Capitalism." He is also a founding editor of the American Prospect magazine, chairman of Common Cause, a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, co-founder of the nonprofit Inequality Media and co-creator of the award-winning documentary, Inequality for All.