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Presidential Primaries: What You Need to Know

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From Robert Reich Blog


Every four years, our country holds a general election to decide who will be our next president. Before that happens, though, each party must choose its candidate through primary elections.

But our system of primaries can be a bit confusing. So here's a quick primer on the upcoming primaries, containing the most important things you need to know based on the most frequently asked questions:

Are primaries, caucuses, and conventions written into the Constitution?

No. The Constitution says nothing about primaries or caucuses. Or about political parties.

So where did primaries and caucuses come from?

From the parties themselves. The first major political party convention was held in 1831 by the National Republican Party (also known as the Anti-Jacksonian Party). The first Democratic National Convention was held in 1832.

Who decides how primaries are run?

It's all up to the parties at the state level. Political parties can even decide not to hold a primary. This year, five states have decided not to hold Republican presidential primaries and caucuses, a move designed to stop Donald Trump's long-shot primary challengers.

Can state laws override party decisions?

No. In 1981, the Supreme Court held that the Democratic Party wasn't required to admit Wisconsin delegates to its national convention since they hadn't been selected in accordance with Democratic Party rules. The court said that a political party is protected by the First Amendment to come up with its own rules.

Why did we start holding primaries?

In the 19th century, the process for deciding on a party's nominee was controlled by party bosses, who chose the delegates to the party conventions.

In the early 20th century, some states began to hold primaries to choose delegates for party nominating conventions.

Although the outcomes of those primaries weren't binding, they sent a message about how a candidate might do in a general election. In 1960, for example, John F. Kennedy's victory in the West Virginia primary [archival footage] was viewed by Democratic Party leaders as a strong sign that a Catholic like Kennedy could win the votes of Protestants.

As recently as 1968, a candidate could still become the Democratic nominee without participating in any primaries, as Hubert Humphrey did that year. But since then, both parties have changed their rules so their presidential nominees depend on the outcomes of primaries and caucuses. They made these changes to better ensure their candidates would succeed in the general election.

What's the difference between a caucus and a primary?

States that hold primaries allow voters to cast secret ballots in support of candidates. States that hold caucuses rely instead on local in-person gatherings at a particular time and place maybe in a high school gym or a library where voters who turn up openly decide which candidates to support. Here are the states that will have Democratic primaries in 2020 and those that will have caucuses: Iowa, Nevada, Kansas, North Dakota, Wyoming, and Maine.

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Robert Reich, former U.S. Secretary of Labor and Professor of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley, has a new film, "Inequality for All," to be released September 27. He blogs at

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