Don't Know Your Primaries From Your Caucuses? Here's A Primer On Preliminary Elections

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A poll worker hands out "I Voted Today" stickers. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images)
A poll worker hands out "I Voted Today" stickers. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images)

In a few short weeks, U.S. citizens will cast the first votes of the 2020 election season.

The Iowa caucuses will be held on Feb. 3, followed by the New Hampshire primary on Feb. 11 and the Nevada caucuses later in the month.

The rules for preliminary elections change every four years, which can add to the confusion about how these complicated processes work. For starters, how are primaries different than caucuses?

In a primary, voters cast a ballot in private, says political scientist Josh Putnam (@FHQ), founder of the election website FrontloadingHQ and writer for Rasmussen Reports, FiveThirtyEight and The Washington Post. Caucuses are a little bit different.

“Unlike a primary — where you're going in, your time there is only as long as it is to sign in and wait in line to vote — at a caucus, you're there for a meeting on a weekday evening,” Putnam says. “Folks go in there not to cast a secret ballot, but instead, they can congregate and persuade each other in some cases to come and join a particular candidate's group.”

For both primaries and caucuses, a candidate has to get 15% of the vote in order to win the delegates. This year, the Democratic Party reduced the number of delegates that can be won at caucuses to 3%, effectively encouraging states to flip from holding caucuses to primaries, Putnam says.

“Now we're down to basically Iowa, Nevada and Wyoming as the lone remaining caucus states,” he says.

Interview Highlights

On why the Democratic Party is discouraging states from holding caucuses

“They’ve talked for years now about being more inclusive in terms of bringing people into the process and caucuses to some extent run against that. And in terms of participation, they tend to be lower in turnout and so on and so forth. So the party adopted some rules this past go round for 2020 to encourage states basically to shift to a primary format, a state-run primary format rather than parties running caucuses in an effort to increase participation.”

On the criticism of Iowa and New Hampshire being the first states to hold preliminary elections

“Both are overwhelmingly white, over 90% white in both cases. Again, that's something that is kind of counter to the philosophy of the Democratic Party being more inclusive on a whole host of demographic dimensions, race being one of them. But ... this isn't a new question that the party's been dealing with. The whole impetus for adding states to the early lineup back for the 2008 cycle, which was what drove South Carolina and Nevada being added early on to bring, in South Carolina's case, some African American voters, [and] in Nevada's case to bring in Latino [voters], but also union support in an early state, an effort to mitigate some of that [racial disparity]. But nonetheless, these same sorts of diversity issues have persisted.”

On the idea of Super Tuesday being mostly southern states

“Historically speaking, the idea of a kind of a southern Super Tuesday has been one that has ebbed and flowed over time. So certainly kind of the beginning part of starting Super Tuesday was a southern phenomenon back in 1988. We saw that kind of repeat itself four years ago in 2016, when a number of Republican secretaries of state across the South tried to coordinate a southern-flavored Super Tuesday last time around. But we've certainly seen Super Tuesdays where California has been involved. New York's been involved in past cycles.”

On why California’s participation in Super Tuesday will delay the results

“Well, I see it even now, it's not going to be the next day because of the way that California counts votes. They've got vote by mail for a large proportion of their electorate there. So as we saw in 2016, we didn't get a final tally on California until, gosh, it was nearly a month after that June primary back in 2016. So I think that what's talked about this time around is that California voters are going to be able to vote early this go round and that may have some impact. But we're also going to have to wait on the back end for what these results are going to be.”

On what to watch this presidential primary season

“So much of this, I think from the voter's perspective, is about going into a voting booth or going into a caucus site and casting their lot with a particular candidate. But we often lose sight of what the real metric of winning this nomination is going to be — and that's true on the Republican side as well — but that's accruing delegates. So, again, I think what I've spent the better part of a year or more now talking about is let's — as much as we can focus on the umpteen candidates that threw their hat in the ring and the winnowing we've seen to this point — it's very likely that we're going to see the field winnow down to a smaller and smaller number of candidates as we get into the voting phase of this. And a large factor in that is going to be that 15% threshold that we mentioned earlier. It's really a high bar and it's going to determine who qualifies for delegates and who is able to legitimately move on and say, I'm actually viable for this nomination. Sure, candidate X remains in the race, is still continuing to get votes, but they're not qualifying for delegates. And again, that's the lifeblood of any nomination campaign.”

On if he expects a contested Democratic convention

“I think my line for the last four years has been, you know, if we were going to see a contested convention, it would have been four years ago on the Republican side. It remains to be seen whether we'll see any similar sort of chaos on the Democratic side in 2020. Certainly there are some earmarks that it may be in the offing, right? I think we mentioned Super Tuesday before. It's a date where a third of the delegates, the pledged delegates, are going to be at stake on that day. So if you've got three or four candidates coming into Super Tuesday with some delegates and get through Super Tuesday with even more delegates and splits them in such a way that that's going to prevent one candidate from getting to a majority. So a lot of that's California joining with Texas and some other states on Super Tuesday to make that happen. And that also kind of overlaps with the Democratic Party's proportional method of allocation, that if you win 20%, for instance, you're going to get about 20% of the delegates out of that state.”

On the firehouse caucuses being held by Kansas and Alaska

“So a firehouse caucus, again, this is kind of a response to some of the changes to the Democratic Party's rules for 2020. We can make a distinction between caucuses on the one hand, that are run by state parties and state government run primaries. What Kansas and Alaska are trying to do is kind of thread the needle between those two and have a state party run primary. So essentially what it is, is what it says it is. Most of the voting places are firehouses, schools and so on and so forth. Folks go in. It operates pretty much like a primary would. The only difference being is that the state party is the one that's paying for it and implementing it. … Not the state government. There's some funding issues that go along with that. That makes it harder for parties to pull that off.”

Correction: An earlier web version of this article mistakenly said New Hampshire's primary is on Feb. 10. It's on Feb. 11. We regret the error. 

Karyn Miller-Medzon produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Kathleen McKenna. Samantha Raphelson and James Perkins Mastromarino adapted it for the web.

This segment aired on January 23, 2020.

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