• 1

    1980: Ronald Reagan wins New Hampshire, erasing doubts about his candidacy.

  • 2

    1992: After coming in second in New Hampshire, Bill Clinton sweeps the south, with big wins in Texas and Florida.

  • 3

    2000: After getting trounced in New Hampshire, George W. Bush wins big in South Carolina, the first Southern state to vote.

  • 4

    2008: Barack Obama handily wins the Iowa caucuses, defeating Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton.

Primary Matters


After almost a year of polls and speculation about the 2016 presidential election, the actual voting begins next month with the Iowa caucuses on February 1 and the New Hampshire primary on February 9. With so many contenders still in the race—3 Democrats and 14 Republicans at press time—it’s unclear at this point whether nominees for each party will emerge quickly, or if the battle will continue into the spring or even until the parties’ conventions in July.

How did this system come about?

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, elected officials and party leaders chose presidential candidates at the conventions. Progressives began promoting primaries—elections to choose party nominees—in the late 1800s, saying party bosses were cutting backroom deals to select nominees. The first primaries occurred in the early 1900s, but it wasn’t until after World War II that they began to play a significant role in choosing candidates.

What are the primaries about?

A primary works very much like a general election. On dates selected by each state (see map, above), voters head to polling places to cast secret ballots. Based on the results, the state parties allocate delegates for each candidate to the national convention, where the presidential nominee is formally chosen. At the Republican convention, the winner needs a majority of the approximately 2,400 delegates; the Democratic nominee will need a majority of the approximately 4,000 delegates. 


How are caucuses different?

Some states, like Iowa, have caucuses rather than primaries. In caucuses, party members meet at the district or precinct level—gathering at schools, churches, and even private homes—to discuss the candidates and the issues. Then they publicly declare who they’re supporting. Iowa has more than 1,700 precincts, each hosting its own caucus.



What’s the role of the conventions?

In most recent presidential elections, a candidate from each party has collected enough delegates in the primaries to all but guarantee the nomination. This has turned the conventions into little more than three-day-long TV ads for the candidates, since the actual tallying of votes is just a formality. But a tight race on the Republican side in 2016 could lead to a convention fight, which last happened in 1976, when President Gerald Ford narrowly beat Ronald Reagan to win the Republican nomination.

Why are Iowa and New Hampshire so important?

In a word: tradition. Since 1952, the New Hampshire primary has been the first major test for presidential hopefuls (see “A Day on the Campaign Trail” ). During the 1970s, the Iowa caucuses, which take place earlier, began to gain importance.

Is this system fair?

In recent years, other states have threatened to move their votes ahead of Iowa and New Hampshire, arguing that those states—which are small, rural, and less diverse than the country as a whole—shouldn’t wield so much influence over the process of choosing the president. But Iowa and New Hampshire counter that their traditions of civic participation and their small populations enable voters to meet candidates one-on-one and vet them for the rest of the nation. 

Both states have jealously guarded their early-vote status—and the attention and money it brings.


    • March 1


      Voters in 13 states go to the polls.

    • July 18-21


      Cleveland, Ohio

    • July 25-28


      Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

    • November 8


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