Contemplating The 2020 Primary Calendar

[ Posted Tuesday, September 3rd, 2019 – 16:50 UTC ]

Labor Day is the official kickoff of the fall campaign season, when voters increasingly begin to pay attention to the presidential race. Or so the pundits claim, at any rate. Whether this week will be much different than last week is yet to be determined, but I for one am going to hang on to that lazy hazy summer glow for one more day by taking a look much farther into the future and contemplating the start of this cycle's primary calendar in a big-picture sort of fashion.

Of course, that's not as far into the future as it once was. The first presidential nominating votes will be cast (or caucused, at any rate) less than six months from now. What the race will look like then is anyone's guess, since virtually anything could happen between now and then. But there are things which will not change, most prominent among them the actual primary calendar.

The 2020 Democratic primary season is going to have two rather large changes, both the culmination of decades-long trends. The first is the virtual disappearance of the caucus. In 2020, only three states will hold Democratic caucuses: Iowa, Nevada, and Wyoming. The other 47 will hold primaries -- many of them for the first time. Caucuses have been scrapped in an increasing number of states, mostly because they are such an outdated and time-consuming way to pick a nominee.

In a primary state, voters either trot down to the polls, wait in line and then vote, or they avoid even that consumption of their free time by voting early, either in person or by mail-in ballot. The process is as quick and easy as can be. An added benefit is that votes are cast by secret ballot, meaning no one (outside of those counting the ballots) knows how each individual voter voted.

Caucuses, on the other hand, have traditionally required in-person participation in a process that can take hours. If you are working a swing shift when the caucuses happen, or if you are otherwise unable to make it during the scheduled time, then you are out of luck and don't get to vote at all. In the caucuses, people are forced to very publicly show their support for one candidate or another, sometimes by physically moving to one corner of the room to stand with like-minded voters in support of your chosen candidate. In other words, your neighbors and even your employer can easily see which candidate you are supporting. There's nothing secret about it. Since it all takes place at once, historically there has been no possibility of early or absentee voting.

It's pretty easy to see which system is superior. Which is the big reason why the overall movement has been towards primaries and away from caucuses. In 2008, ten states held caucuses. This time around, that number is down to three -- and two of those are special cases. Iowa and Nevada hold caucuses, but if they held primaries it would upset the delicate "early-voting states" system that has evolved over the years into giving four states an early bite at the apple. Iowa holds the first-in-the-nation caucus, followed by New Hampshire holding the first-in-the-nation primary. Nevada and South Carolina hold their caucus and primary next, and then all the other states are allowed to jump in at a certain date (more on that in a bit). But the way these rules are written, Iowa cannot change to a primary or it would upset the entire early-voting applecart. So Iowa and Nevada are not likely to call their system a primary any time soon.

They could further reform their systems, however, to make it much more primary-like (primaryish?). Which they are indeed trying to do this year, to follow a mandate that all caucuses and primaries should be as inclusive as possible. Early voting will be allowed for the first time, and both states wanted to hold "virtual primaries" where voters could call in or vote online in some way, but the Democratic National Committee just rejected this idea because of security concerns (the system might be hacked). In any case, both the Iowa and Nevada caucuses can be expected to become a lot more user-friendly than they used to be, which is indeed a step forward.

What will all of this do to the race itself? Well, that's anyone's guess, really. Two Democratic candidates in recent years have unexpectedly flourished in the state caucuses: Barack Obama (2008) and Bernie Sanders (2016). Both had very committed voters in the caucus states and in both cases Hillary Clinton largely ignored these states altogether. In 2008, this didn't work out so well for her, but in 2016 it didn't matter and she won the nomination anyway. But without all those caucuses, candidates with fiercely loyal voters won't have the chance to rack up delegates in caucus states the way Obama and Sanders managed to do. How that will affect the 2020 race is uncertain, at this point, since it will be the first time a lot of states hold primaries rather than caucuses.

The other big change in the 2020 cycle is the overwhelming importance of Super Tuesday. In fact, I might just start calling it "Super Duper Tuesday" due to this outsized prominence. The first Tuesday where any state is allowed to hold a primary (by party rules) has always been frontloaded to some degree or another, but this year it is going to be the absolute 800-pound gorilla of primary dates. A whopping 14 states will be holding their Democratic primaries on Super Duper Tuesday, representing over a third of all American voters. This is partially due to the two heaviest of heavyweights, California and Texas, who will both be voting on the same day. But there are plenty of other states up for grabs on the same date as well, including much of the South outside of Florida. Here is the full list of Democratic Super Tuesday primary states (technical note: there will also be a Republican contest in Alaska on the same day, as well as Democrats voting in American Samoa and Democrats Abroad, but the following are just the U.S. states that will hold Democratic primaries on Super Tuesday): Alabama, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Vermont, and Virginia. That's a lot of states, obviously.

Heading into this momentous day, Democrats might still be pretty divided. Right now, Elizabeth Warren is seen as having the best ground game in Iowa, which is a place where having the best ground game can often lead to victory. Bernie Sanders could very well win the New Hampshire primary, seeing as how it is right next door to his home state (to be fair, the same argument could also be made for Warren, who hails from Massachusetts). If Joe Biden holds onto his overwhelming advantage with African-American voters, he could easily win in South Carolina. If we had a Warren win in Iowa, followed by a Bernie victory in New Hampshire, followed by Biden picking up South Carolina, then the race would be just as open as it now stands, no matter who won Nevada.

But Super Duper Tuesday could actually crown a winner, very early in the contest. If one candidate wins decisively in California, Texas, and Massachusetts, that could give them an insurmountable lead in the race for delegates. Of course, this is not guaranteed, especially if the early voting states were divided between two or three candidates -- if the Super Tuesday results are similar, then the race would push forward without any clear victor.

One thing Super Duper Tuesday is almost guaranteed to do is to shake loose any of the remaining low-polling candidates. In the first place, unless such candidates are self-financed billionaires, they simply won't have the financial resources available to even be competitive on Super Duper Tuesday. Advertising costs money, and it costs an enormous amount of money in states with multiple large media markets, such as Texas and California. To compete in Massachusetts, you essentially only have to run ads on Boston television stations, but to do so in California means buying ads in (at a minimum) the following markets: the San Francisco Bay Area, Los Angeles, San Diego, and Sacramento. And that doesn't even count the multiple medium-sized media markets within the state. Even within the major metropolitan areas you've got to spend a lot of money to adequately cover the ground. You can call Los Angeles or the Bay Area one media market, but they are really conglomerations of multiple media markets. Translation: it ain't cheap to run ads there. And California and Texas are just two of the 14 states voting on the same day.

What this all means is that after the Super Duper Tuesday dust settles, there will likely be only a handful of candidates left in the race. Of these, only two or possibly three will even have any prayer of winning the nomination, barring any unforeseen upset later on.

Of course, pundits always predict this sort of thing, no matter how super-duper the first Tuesday of multistate voting turns out to be, so feel free to take all of this analysis with a grain of salt. But this election cycle definitely feels different. At this point, I doubt a nominee will be all-but-crowned immediately after Super Duper Tuesday, but it is a distinct possibility with the sheer number of delegates up for grabs on a single day.

A larger argument is whether this is a good thing for the nominating process or not, but that depends on how you see nominating contests in general. Is a longer primary season better for the eventual nominee because it toughens them up and gets them ready for the general election fray? Or does it suck resources away from the campaign that could be better utilized in defeating the other party? This is largely a matter of opinion, and both arguments have a degree of validity and historical precedent.

One way or another, we're going to see how eliminating almost all of the caucuses and frontloading the heck out of the primary calendar into Super Duper Tuesday is going to affect a field with a large number of candidates. The lessons learned may not translate to other years cleanly, since if Democrats only had two major candidates running (as they did last time around) the dynamic would be quite different. But for the 2020 cycle, the primary calendar is set, for better or for worse. No matter how many "tickets out of Iowa" or New Hampshire there are, there are only going to be, at a maximum, three such tickets out of Super Duper Tuesday. And there will be no chance for any candidate to later rack up delegates with lots of surprise caucus victories, as there was in 2008 and 2016. We'll have to see what this new dynamic means for the race as a whole, but it certainly is going to have a rather large effect one way or another.

-- Chris Weigant


Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant


9 Comments on “Contemplating The 2020 Primary Calendar”

  1. [1] 
    dsws wrote:

    It's pretty easy to see which system is superior.

    The one with an actual process involving dialogue, where citizens have at least the possibility of presenting reasoned arguments for one candidate over another. Where an actual opinion is more influential than a vote based on nothing but name recognition.

    Which is the big reason why the overall movement has been towards primaries and away from caucuses.

    Indeed it is. But I didn't realize you shared my impression of politics as a system where things always go from bad to worse.

    A whopping 14 states will be holding their Democratic primaries on Super Duper Tuesday, representing over a third of all American voters.

    I don't think that all Democrats represent a third of all American voters. Most people, even among those who vote in general elections, are basically apolitical. They regard casting a ballot in the general election as a ceremonial expression of patriotism, but otherwise they view the whole process as somebody else's problem. They don't identify with either major party (although in most cases they have one party they consistently vote for if they vote at all) and they definitely don't vote in primaries.

  2. [2] 
    C. R. Stucki wrote:

    Wow!! A voice of reason/realism in the land of Weigantia. I wonder if dsws knows where he is??

  3. [3] 
    nypoet22 wrote:


    dan has been here for a very long time. i think at the outset this comments section used to be a lot more balanced between left and right thinking individuals.

  4. [4] 
    C. R. Stucki wrote:


    Thanks for that info. Allow me to correct your typo - your pharase ("Right and Left . .") should read 'Right and Wrong'", should it not?

  5. [5] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    It's actually up-wing vs down-wing/

    Left, right and wrong are so not relevant anymore.

  6. [6] 
    nypoet22 wrote:

    Perhaps not left and right, but wrong will continue to be relevant as long as Donald occupies the white house

  7. [7] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    Up-wing includes what is the right thing to do. Wrong is the same as down-wing.

    Trump is a down-wing individual.

  8. [8] 
    MtnCaddy wrote:


    Well spoke, my friend.You hit the nail on the head.

  9. [9] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    It certainly explains a few things ...

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