Student View
Article Article

Jim McMahon

Primary Matters

There’s been more than a year of polls and speculation about the 2020 presidential election. The actual voting begins next month. Things will kick off with the Iowa caucuses on February 3 and the New Hampshire primary on February 11. At press time, there were 15 people still in the race for the Democratic nomination. With so many contenders, it’s unclear at this point whether a winner will emerge quickly. It’s also possible that the battle will continue into the spring or even until the Democratic convention 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. Reformers began promoting primaries—elections to pick 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.

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, elected officials and party leaders chose presidential candidates at the conventions. Reformers claimed that party bosses were cutting backroom deals to select nominees. In response, the reformers began promoting primaries in the late 1800s. These elections were designed to pick party nominees. The first primaries occurred in the early 1900s, but they didn’t begin to play a significant role in choosing candidates until after World War II.

What are primaries?

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

A primary works very much like a general election. On dates selected by each state, the District of Columbia, and territories such as Puerto Rico and Guam, 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 nominee will need a majority of the approximately 2,500 delegates; the Democratic nominee will need a majority of the approximately 4,700 delegates.

A primary works very much like a general election. The dates are chosen by each state, the District of Columbia, and territories such as Puerto Rico and Guam. During primaries, voters head to polling places to cast secret ballots. Based on the results, the state parties allot delegates for each candidate to the national convention. The presidential nominee is formally chosen at each party’s convention. At the Republican convention, the nominee will need a majority of the approximately 2,500 delegates. The Democratic nominee will need a majority of the approximately 4,700 delegates.

How are caucuses different?

Channing Johnson for Scholastic

Some states, like Iowa, have caucuses rather than primaries (see map). 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 (usually by moving to a designated corner of the room). Iowa has about 1,700 precincts, each hosting its own caucus.

Some states, like Iowa, have caucuses rather than primaries (see map). In caucuses, party members meet at the district or precinct level to discuss the candidates and the issues. They gather at schools, churches, and even private homes. Then they publicly declare who they’re supporting. This declaration is usually done by moving to a designated corner of the room. Iowa has about 1,700 precincts. Each one hosts its own caucus.

What’s the role of the conventions?

Lloyd Bishop/NBCU Photo Bank/NBC Universal via Getty Images

In most recent 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 among Democrats in 2020 could lead to a convention fight, which last happened in 1976, when President Gerald Ford narrowly beat Ronald Reagan to win the Republican nomination.

In most recent elections, a candidate from each party has collected enough delegates in the primaries to all but guarantee the nomination. In these cases, the actual tallying of votes is just a formality. This has turned the conventions into little more than three-day-long TV ads for the candidates. But a tight race among Democrats in 2020 could lead to a convention fight. That 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, especially as a potential springboard for upstart candidates.

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”). The Iowa caucuses take place earlier. During the 1970s, they began to gain importance. Now, they’re considered a potential springboard for upstart candidates.

Is this system fair?

In recent years, other states have threatened to move their votes ahead of Iowa’s and New Hampshire’s, 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.

In recent years, other states have threatened to move their votes ahead of Iowa’s and New Hampshire’s. Both states are small, rural, and less diverse than the country as a whole. Other states have argued that the two states shouldn’t hold 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. They also want to keep the attention and money that status brings.

@Michael Evans/CNP via ZUMA/Newscom

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

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

Allstar Picture Library/Alamy

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

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

Eric Draper

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

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

Peter Probst/Alamy

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

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

Key Dates

MARCH 3

Super Tuesday

Voters in 14 states go to the polls.

Super Tuesday

Voters in 14 states go to the polls.

JULY 13-16

Democratic National Convention

Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Democratic National Convention

Milwaukee, Wisconsin

AUGUST 24-27

Republican National Convention

Charlotte, North Carolina

Republican National Convention

Charlotte, North Carolina

NOVEMBER 3

Election Day

Election Day

Back to top
videos (1)
Skills Sheets (3)
Skills Sheets (3)
Skills Sheets (3)
Leveled Articles (1)
Printables (1)