What You Need to Know About Primaries and Caucuses

Air Date: 01/08/2020

It's officially a presidential election year, and Democratic voters are going to decide who will represent their party in the 2020 Presidential Election. NBC News Political Director Chuck Todd explains how primaries and caucuses help lead to the selection of a candidate.

What You Need to Know About Primaries and Caucuses 

CHUCK TODD, anchor: 

Happy New Year! It’s officially an election year-- 2020. A presidential election year, and it means crunch time for the Democratic candidates working to unseat President Donald Trump in November. 

The first ballots will be cast just about a month from now, during the Iowa Caucuses on February 3rd and then eight days later in New Hampshire for the first in the nation primary there on February 11th. 

So, first off, what’s the difference between a caucus and a primary, you might ask? Well here it is.

A primary is a direct vote. Voters in a particular state pick which candidate they believe should represent a political party in the general election. The candidate with the most votes is declared the winner, and they get the largest chunk of delegates. This year pay special attention on March 3rd, which is also known as Super Tuesday. It's super because 14 different states will hold their primary elections on the same day, more contests than any other day of the entire campaign season. 

Now caucuses are a bit different. It's not one person one vote. A caucus is an informal meeting where voters get together in places like high schools, church basements, and town halls, and they discuss who they want to represent the party. Voters have to be informed on their candidates, persuasive, and able to compromise. They themselves do the campaigning, not the candidate. Here, it is the voters who have to deliver speeches and try to convince their neighbors to try to vote for the candidate that they want to see get the delegates. 

So, for candidates to be viable in this community meeting, aka a caucus, they need to hit a particular threshold of voters in that room. On February 3rd in Iowa, that threshold is 15% of everybody who shows up to a particular caucus meeting. So, if a candidate does not get 15%, supporters for that candidate can do one of two things-- choose to leave or choose to go find another candidate and caucus with them.

Caucuses are an indirect vote. And that means the votes cast at caucuses go to delegates who then commit to vote for a candidate at the state nominating convention, which is also all part of a series of nominating conventions that lead to the big summer events, the national conventions that are held in July and August before Election Day. And the candidate that simply gets the most delegates who show up to those national conventions wins. By the way, a Republican caucus functions the same way, except their voters vote in private without talking to one another. 

In 2020 be on the lookout for Democratic caucuses in just a handful of states, but they're key. The big two are Iowa and Nevada. But there are also caucuses in Kansas, North Dakota, Wyoming, and some of the American territories like Puerto Rico. 

So, which candidates will prove victorious in this years’ primaries and caucuses? Well, hopefully, we’ll find out soon. So keep checking back in with NBC News Learn for more updates. For now, I’m Chuck Todd from NBC News in Washington. Thanks for watching. 

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