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How the 2020 Democratic presidential nominee will be chosen

Here’s a look at the differences between primaries and caucuses, the role of delegates and how Democrats will choose a candidate to square off against U.S. President Donald Trump in November’s presidential election.

Explaining the primaries, caucuses and delegates needed to win at July’s party convention

Examining the differences between primaries and caucuses, as well as the role of delegates, is integral to understanding Democrats will choose a candidate to square off against U.S. President Donald Trump in November’s presidential election. (Richard Vogel, File/The Associated Press)

Even if you grew up watching Schoolhouse Rock! on Saturday mornings, there's a good chance you find the process of choosing a presidential nominee a bit confusing.

Unfortunately, there's no catchy song or anthropomorphized legislation to explain the differences between a primary and a caucus, but they are integral to the upcoming U.S. presidential election.

Since the presumptive 2020 Republican nominee will be President Donald Trump, let's focus on the Democrats, who now have five candidates vying for the party's nomination heading into Super Tuesday's primaries and caucuses on March 3.

Here's a look at how Democrats will choose a representative over the next several months to face off against Trump in November.

What exactly are primaries and caucuses?

Primaries and caucuses are the two ways in which registered voters in each of the 50 states — as well as the District of Columbia, U.S. territories and Democrats Abroad — determine which candidate they want to represent the party in a presidential election.

While both primaries and caucuses serve the same purpose of determining how many pledged delegates a candidate wins in each state or territory (more on them later), each contest possesses its own unique rules and characteristics.

WATCH: CBC's Adrienne Arsenault breaks down the caucus process

How a caucus works

CBC News

1 year ago
The Iowa caucuses are not chess, but they are a bit complicated and they are about choosing a champion. Adrienne Arsenault explains: 1:36

Caucuses are gatherings organized by the party where participants debate the candidates' merits and choose their preferred candidate. After the initial vote count is taken, voters backing candidates who earned less than 15 per cent — the minimum threshold to earn pledged delegates — are free to shift their support to other candidates or go home.

Primaries are structured similarly to general elections, where people vote for their preferred candidate in state-run elections to determine how many pledged delegates each candidate earns.

The rules for primaries and caucuses can vary from state to state, with some restricted to registered Democrats and others open to any registered voter. Each state is responsible for determining which system to use, and the majority of states have abandoned caucuses in favour of primaries.

Iowa, however, takes particular pride in its caucuses and status as the first contest in an election year. Case in point: the Iowa Cubs, a minor league baseball team based in Des Moines, briefly became the Iowa Caucuses last August and wore special jerseys and caps to mark the occasion.

What are pledged delegates?

Pledged delegates are allocated to candidates based on the results of primaries and caucuses, and are intended to reflect the amount of support candidates have to be the party's nominee.

The number of delegates assigned to each state is based on a formula that factors in its number of votes the Democratic nominee received during the previous three presidential elections and the number of electoral college votes allocated in the upcoming election, according to The Green Papers, a website that follows the results of U.S. presidential elections.

During the primaries and caucuses, candidates compete for 3,979 pledged delegates who will vote for them at the Democratic National Convention in Milwaukee on July 13-16. If a candidate secures a majority of 1,990 pledged delegates or higher, he or she will have the necessary support to secure the Democratic nomination on the first ballot in Milwaukee.

In Democratic Party primaries and caucuses, pledged delegates are awarded proportionally. For example: if a state has 100 pledged delegates and a candidate wins 60 per cent of the vote in caucuses or a primary, the candidate gets 60 pledged delegates that will vote for them at the convention. The minimum percentage a candidate needs to qualify for pledged delegates is 15.

California has the most pledged delegates up for grabs at 415, followed by New York (274), Texas (228) and Florida (219) as the only other states with more than 200 delegates.

How long does this process take?

The first caucuses are held in Iowa on Feb. 3, followed by the New Hampshire primary on Feb. 11, the Nevada caucuses on Feb. 22 and the South Carolina primary on Feb. 29.

Then on March 3, 15 primaries and caucuses take place — many of which have high numbers of delegates up for grabs — on what's become known as Super Tuesday (the Democrats Abroad begins that day, too, and runs until March 10).

Super Tuesday features contests in:

  • Alabama.
  • Arkansas.
  • California.
  • Colorado.
  • Maine.
  • Massachusetts.
  • Minnesota.
  • North Carolina.
  • Oklahoma.
  • Tennessee.
  • Texas.
  • Utah.
  • Vermont.
  • Virginia.
  • American Samoa.

A lot of attention is placed on which candidate emerges from Super Tuesday with a lion's share of the available 1,357 delegates. However, the primaries and caucuses throughout the rest of March account for 1,091 delegates and include important states like Florida, Ohio, Michigan and Illinois, which should factor heavily into which candidates break away from the pack.

The remaining contests will take place over the next few months until the Democratic National Convention. 

Democratic National Committee chair Tom Perez, left, and Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett toast after the city was announced as the host of the 2020 Democratic National Convention. (Kamil Krzaczynski/AFP via Getty Images)

When do candidates start dropping out?

The results in Iowa and New Hampshire — the first primary — were good predictors of success or struggle in past elections, with poor showings forcing some to end their campaigns.

But the large Democratic field this year could change that, with more candidates likely to stay on through Super Tuesday.

Then there's the matter of delegates. If a candidate drops out of the race after accruing delegates, those delegates can vote at their discretion at the convention. However, a withdrawing candidate may endorse another candidate, essentially transferring the delegates.

What happens at the Democratic National Convention?

Delegates vote for their respective candidates at the convention, and a nominee is determined.

In a significant change from the 2016 election, unpledged delegates — also known as superdelegates — will not vote on the first ballot at the convention. The 770 superdelegates are elected Democratic officeholders — senators, members of Congress, governors, party officials — who are part of each state's delegation but are not committed to vote based on the outcome of a state's nominating contest.

If, however, more than one ballot is needed to determine a nominee, all delegates will vote to determine the party's pick. This scenario is known as a contested convention; on each subsequent ballot, a majority of the 4,745 total delegates (2,373 or more) is needed to win the nomination.

After that, all that's left is campaigning against Trump, televised debates and the presidential election on Nov. 3 — should be fun, right?



Benjamin Blum

Senior writer

Benjamin Blum is a senior writer with CBC News and previously worked with CBC Sports in the same capacity. He holds a master's of journalism from the University of King's College in Halifax.

With files from Reuters and The Associated Press


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