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- States choose the presidential nominees for each party in the lead up to the 2020 general election.
- Most states use a primary system, but several use caucuses, which are quite different.
- One of the most important early voting states is Iowa, which has caucuses where each candidate will have to make their case.
As the ever-expanding field of Democratic presidential candidates inch closer to the official start of the 2020 race and voting begins, they have to prepare for two different types of scenarios when courting voters, especially in the two earliest states, Iowa and New Hampshire.
As opposed to primary elections, a handful of states use a unique system called caucuses.
But not all primaries are the same. Some are "open" elections, meaning that any voter can show up and pick a candidate from any party. If you vote Republican and plan to do so in the general election regardless of who the Democratic nominee is, you can still weigh in on the field of candidates when it is your state’s turn to pick.
But not all states have open primaries. Many are "closed" primary elections, meaning that you can only cast a ballot in the primary of the party for which you are registered. For example, if you are a registered Republican, you might only be able to check a box next to Trump’s name — or you might have another option if he draws a successful enough opponent from within the GOP.
Iowa is not the only state that conducts caucuses instead of primaries
Caucuses are different than primaries for a number of reasons. You do not simply show up, check a box, and leave with an "I voted" sticker.
The process can take hours, as voters will gather at a venue to hear out supporters of various candidates, debate issues, and ultimately come to a conclusion about which person will make the best presidential nominee. Voters will select delegates who will represent them at the party’s annual convention in the summer.
When voters arrive at the venue, which can be anywhere from a high school gymnasium to a restaurant, supporters of certain candidates will break off into groups, including groups for undecided voters. Then voters, who are typically activists and very politically engaged, will plead their case to everyone about why their preferred candidate is the best choice.
With a large field of candidates and a diverse spectrum of ideology in the Democratic race, this could take all night.
And most caucuses have a threshold to earn delegates, meaning that a candidate might need 15 percent or more of the votes to be awarded delegates. For instance, Ted Cruz earned eight delegates in the 2017 Iowa caucuses, while Donald Trump and Marco Rubio each earned seven, respectively.
Iowa is the most famous, but nine states as well as three United States territories conduct caucuses in lieu of a primary election. Caucuses also vary by party as well. As an example, Kentucky has a Democratic primary but Republican caucuses. In addition, several states have switched to primaries for 2020, like Minnesota and Colorado.
The states with caucuses are:
- North Dakota
- Kentucky (Republican only)
- Washington (Democratic only)
The US territories conducting caucuses are:
- American Samoa
- The US Virgin Islands
Caucuses were used by most states until the 1970s. The Democratic Party created the McGovern-Fraser Commission, which reformed the nomination process after what was largely viewed as a political catastrophe in the 1968 presidential election, when Hubert Humphrey lost to Republican Richard Nixon.
"Pressure from party activists at the convention resulted in the creation of the McGovern-Fraser Commission, which proceeded to rewrite the party’s roles between 1969 and 1970," wrote Scott Piroth in a journal for the University of Vermont. "The Commission mandated that all national convention delegates had to be chosen in forums that were open to all party members and conducted within the calendar year of the election. States holding primaries had to place the names of qualified candidates on the ballot, and the distribution of convention delegates would be proportional, in order to reflect the results of such primaries."
Since the reforms, caucuses have dwindled and disappeared over the past several decades. But in a large field of candidates, the caucuses could end up being a major strategic advantage for Democrats looking to make gains without a lot of name recognition.
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