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Law and Politics

U.S. Presidential Primaries

The political journey to the White House

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  • Every four years, each political party nominates one candidate to run for president of the United States. []

  • A primary election is a state-run election where citizens cast a vote for who they want to see as the presidential candidate for their preferred political party. [Library of Congress

  • The votes go towards who "wins" state delegates. [Bill of Rights Institute]

  • Those delegates tgo to the party's national convention to vote for that candidate.  [Library of Congress

  • By June 2020, every state will have held a primary election or caucus.
  • Some states hold caucuses while others hold primaries. [The New York Times
  • Candidates for president typically focus on Iowa and New Hampshire first. They are the first two states to hold a primary (New Hampshire) or caucus (Iowa). [The Washington Post]
  • Super Tuesday refers to the day that most states (almost 1/3) hold a primary or caucus. [Vox]



CIVICS: 28% of registered voters are likely to vote during the primaries. [Pew Research Center] While voting in your state's caucus or primary may not be on your radar, it is important to think about this political theory:

  • More politically engaged, and often more "politically extreme," individuals are more likely to vote during the primaries.
  • In order to get the nomination, candidates often feel they need to radicalize their political policies and opinions to gain the support of those primary voters.
  • Many argue then that lack of civic participation in the candidate selection has led to the extreme polarization of parties seen today. 

IT IS...

Relatively new (and popular) system

Different state-by-state

  • Each state operates its own primary election.  [The Washington Post]
  • The biggest difference is often who can vote. Most states only allow voters who register as a member of the party to participate in the party’s primary. [Bill of Rights Institute

Different party-by-party

  • Democrats: Candidates are awarded delegates on a proportional basis. For example, a candidate who receives one-third of the vote or support in a given primary or caucus receives roughly one-third of the delegates. [Council on Foreign Relations]
  • Republicans: Some states award delegates on a proportional basis, some are winner-take-all, while some use a hybrid system.  [Council on Foreign Relations]

Direct or indirect

  • Direct: Voters decide through the majority wins all. [Encyclopedia Britannica]

  • Indirect: The majority winner of the primary election is given most, not all, of the delegates. Delegates go on to represent and vote for the chosen candidate at the national convention. [Bill of Rights Institute


Not the final say

  • A primary election does not determine who is the next president of the United States. [Encyclopedia Britannica]

  • Candidates must first win their party's nomination and then nationally compete against the opposing party's nominee in the general election.

  • Becoming president of the United States requires winning the Electoral College, not the popular vote.

Not required by the Constitution

  • A primary election is not mandated by the U.S. Constitution.
  • Article II, Section I of the U.S. Constitution outlines procedures to be followed when electing the president of the United States, not how each party should choose their candidate. [Library of Congress] 

Not a caucus

  • Primaries and caucuses have the same goal: to determine which candidate will represent the party in the presidential election.

  • Caucuses are a longer process (for Iowa, it is around 5 months).

  • A caucus involves a series of public debates, informal vote counts and local campaigning events before delegates for the national convention are picked at a state conference. [PBS], [Bill of Rights Institute
  • 6 states caucus- Iowa, Nevada, Kansas, Wyoming, North Dakota, Maine [The New York Times]
  • This may change as more states move to primary systems.


  • Sep. 2019: Republican leaders in Kansas, South Carolina, and Nevada have canceled the primary elections to protect President Trump's 2020 candidacy. [TIME]

  • Feb. 11, 2020: New Hampshire is the first primary for the 2020 presidential nominees. Winners? (R) President Trump and (I) Bernie Sanders. [Politico]

  • Apr. 8, 2020: Bernie Sanders officially dropped out of the race, making former Vice President Joe Biden the presumptive Democratic nominee.

  • The presidential election is on Tuesday, November 3, 2020.


  • See Bites Media's guide to the 2020 Election.

  • See a state-by-state breakdown of all primary and caucus voting dates here.

  • From primaries to President, you must to be registered to vote. Start a voter registration event at your school with our partners at the Civics Center.
  • How do presidential primary dates impact a presidential campaign? Read more here.

  • Here is a prediction on how the 2020 primary elections could go.

  • Read the Iowa caucus rules here.

  • Presidents currently in office who have been challenged in primary elections haven’t performed well in their reelection hopes. [The Washington Post] President Trump has had two challengers thus far.

  • Should Iowa and New Hampshire vote first or have the most power in determining successful candidates?

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