U.S. Presidential Election 2020: What are the Democratic presidential primaries all about?

How does the process to nominate the U.S. presidential candidate work?

Updated - January 29, 2020 04:50 pm IST

Published - January 26, 2020 12:02 am IST

Democratic presidential hopefuls (left to right) billionaire-philanthropist Tom Steyer, Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, former Vice-President Joe Biden, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, Mayor of South Bend, Indiana Pete Buttigieg and Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar speak during a Democratic primary debate at the Drake University campus in Des Moines, Iowa on January 14, 2020.

Democratic presidential hopefuls (left to right) billionaire-philanthropist Tom Steyer, Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, former Vice-President Joe Biden, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, Mayor of South Bend, Indiana Pete Buttigieg and Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar speak during a Democratic primary debate at the Drake University campus in Des Moines, Iowa on January 14, 2020.

The story so far: The first set of elections in the Democratic Party contest in the United States to decide the Opposition party’s presidential nomination is all set to take off in Iowa on February 3. What began as a crowded set of contestants has whittled down to close to half-a-dozen realistic hopefuls. Former Vice-President Joe Biden leads in nation-wide opinion polls, but rivals Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, former Mayor (of South Bend) Pete Buttigieg, Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar and insurgent candidate and billionaire businessman Michael Bloomberg are in contention. On the Republican side, U.S. President Donald Trump’s re-nomination is a foregone conclusion as several States have already cancelled their primaries and caucuses, with the lack of a credible contestant. Other smaller parties in the U.S., the Libertarian Party and the Green Party, also hold primaries for their presidential nominees, but the party system is dominated by the Big Two: the Democrats and the Grand Old Party. A look at how the primaries work and what the process is to nominate the presidential candidate.

What are the Democratic presidential primaries all about?

The Democratic presidential primaries (including caucuses) are a series of electoral contests to decide the party’s nominee for President. These are held over four months, beginning February 3 and ending on June 6, 2020. The contests are held in each State among the 50 in the United States, besides five U.S. held territories and Democrats Abroad (expatriate U.S. citizens), and conclude with the nomination of delegates from these constituencies for the candidates. These delegates will then represent the candidate in the Democratic National Convention (DNC) scheduled to be held at Milwaukee, Wisconsin between July 13-16, 2020. The delegates would, by pledged votes, elect the Democratic Presidential nominee. The candidate who wins a majority of the approximately 3,979 delegates overall, is declared as the nominee. Apart from these nominated delegates from the election process, the Democratic Party, through its leadership (elected members of the Democratic National Committee among others) and elected officials (Congressional representatives, Governors and distinguished party leaders), also appoints 771 superdelegates. This has been part of the Democratic nomination process since 1984 . These unattached superdelegates, prior to the ongoing primaries, were allowed to freely vote for any candidate in the first ballot at the DNC.

Following complaints about the undue influence of these unelected delegates from the State primaries, the Democratic National Committee changed the rules in August 2018 and limited the influence of superdelegates. They are now prevented to vote on the first ballot and could vote only in a contested nomination, i.e. in a situation where no candidate enjoys a clear majority after the first ballot. Superdelegates are, however, allowed to publicly endorse a candidate of their choice before or during the convention.

When and where do the primaries began?

Traditionally, the first electoral contest in the presidential primaries for both the Republican and the Democratic parties have been held at Iowa, situated in the American mid-west region. This time the Iowa caucus for the Democratic party is set to be conducted on February 3. Despite a relatively low population and an electorate that is not entirely representative of the Democrats’ countrywide base, the strong media attention and the kick-off factor catapult the Iowa caucus into a measuring stick for the candidates in the fray.

Iowa contributes 41 pledged delegates overall and is followed by the New Hampshire primary that is to be held on February 11. The important day to look out for during the primaries is March 3 (Super Tuesday) when 14 States and one Territory and Democrats Abroad (for a total of 1,357 delegates) go to the polls. Normally by Super Tuesday, the fringe candidates would be out of the fray. The other key day of contests is April 28, featuring primary elections to six States and for a total of 663 delegates. The clear front-runner leading up to the convention could already be decided by the end of these primaries.

What is the difference between a primary and a caucus?

Primary elections are conducted by State/local governments, while caucuses are get-togethers/events that are run by the political parties themselves. Primary elections feature a secret ballot, where registered voters (affiliated to the parties) register their ballot and leave. Caucuses on the other hand involve the physical presence of voters who conduct debates and discussions among themselves and then divide themselves on the basis of their support to candidates. The allocation of delegates is done based on the relative support for the candidates.

Primary elections and caucuses can be “open” wherein any registered voter, irrespective of party affiliation can vote in the contest, while in closed primaries only voters registered and affiliated with a particular party are allowed to vote. Among the Democratic candidates, Senator Sanders is expected to do better in the more discursive caucuses due to a stronger and more dedicated activist base. This advantage is relatively nullified in closed primaries where candidates are required only for voters to turn out and register their votes.

How are delegates awarded?

In the Democratic elections, delegates are awarded in proportion to the votes garnered by the candidates in primary elections and relative strengths of presence/support registered in caucuses. Among Republicans, however, some States have a “winner-takes-all” proviso that allows for candidates to reap in all the delegates if they win a majority of the votes.

What differentiates the candidates who are in the Democratic fray?

The Democratic Party, ever since Senator Sanders’ candidacy in 2016, has had a clear left pole in contestation with its dominant and party elites’ supported centrist wing. Mr. Biden is seen as a liberal Democrat cut from the centrist strains of the Barack Obama presidency. Senators Sanders and Warren have similar leftist positions on redistribution, welfare, taxation and labour. However Mr. Sanders identifies himself as a “democratic socialist”, while Ms. Warren has a Keynesian economic outlook who believes in a regulated and a humane form of capitalism. The openly gay ex-Mayor Buttigieg has sought to appeal to working class voters through liberal positions and his persona as a young go-getter while Ms. Klobuchar and Mr. Bloomberg have sought to take on the leftists with a more free-market oriented ideological approach. All the candidates generally agree on social issues (abortion rights, gender equity, same sex marriage among others) and other topics such as climate change. This distinguishes them sharply with the Republican Party which is today, dominated by a socially conservative and populist base that has crystallised into support for Mr. Trump.

How are the candidates judged?

U.S. voters tend to evaluate presidential candidates over a number of qualities: ideological positions on various issues, persona, experience or freshness and other leadership traits. The widely televised presidential primary debates (followed by the presidential debates after nominations are secured) allow voters to slice and dice information on candidates on these qualities. The Democratic National Committee has provided for a total of 12 primary debates, seven of which have already been held so far. Candidates who win a substantive number of delegates in the early polls, and have a strong war chest due to donations (in the case of the Democrats, much of the fund raising is through grassroots crowdfunding) or in the case of Mr. Bloomberg, his personal wealth; are expected to stay longer in the fray.

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