Difference between primaries and caucuses matters in this election

Difference between primaries and caucuses matters in this election
© Getty Images

Repeat after me: A primary is an election. A caucus is a meeting. Got it? It’s important because the four early events on the calendar for the 2020 Democratic nomination include two caucuses (Iowa on Feb. 3 and Nevada on Feb. 22) and two primaries (New Hampshire on Feb. 11 and South Carolina on Feb 29). They are likely to produce divergent results.

Attending a meeting is a bigger commitment than voting in an election. Not only that, but caucuses require something that should have gone away with the fall of the Soviet Union — public voting. Caucusgoers have to stand up in front of their friends and neighbors and God and everybody and declare their choice for the Democratic nomination. That is something most voters don’t want to do. As a result, voters who participate in caucuses are often ideologically committed activists. On the Democratic side that usually means voters who favor the most progressive candidates — like Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenBiden on whether Sanders can unify party as nominee: 'It depends' Overnight Health Care — Presented by Philip Morris International — HHS has no plans to declare emergency over coronavirus | GOP senator calls for travel ban to stop outbreak | Warren releases plan to contain infectious diseases Biden lines up high-profile surrogates to campaign in Iowa MORE and Bernie SandersBernie SandersNew campaign ad goes after Sanders by mentioning heart attack Biden on whether Sanders can unify party as nominee: 'It depends' Steyer rebukes Biden for arguing with supporter he thought was Sanders voter MORE, not relatively moderate candidates like Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonHill.TV's Krystal Ball: Failure to embrace Sanders as nominee would 'destroy' Democratic Party Clinton says she feels the 'urge' to defeat Trump in 2020 Can Democrats flip the Texas House? Today's result will provide a clue MORE in 2016 or Joe BidenJoe BidenPerry delegation talking points stressed pushing Ukraine to deal with 'corruption' GOP senator airs anti-Biden ad in Iowa amid impeachment trial Biden photobombs live national news broadcast at one of his rallies MORE in 2020.

In 2016, the voting age population of Iowa (2.3 million) was more than twice as large as the voting-age population of New Hampshire (1 million). But voter turnout in the New Hampshire Democratic primary (249,567) was much higher than voter turnout in the Iowa Democratic caucuses (171,109).

ADVERTISEMENT

The Democratic Party establishment has been pressuring state parties to make caucuses more accessible to voters. With some success. Nine states that held caucuses in 2016 have switched to primaries for 2020. But not Iowa and Nevada, the two early caucus states.

Iowa and Nevada parties have been exploring ways to expand caucus participation, maybe by allowing mail-in ballots or voting by telephone. But any changes that threaten to turn the caucuses into a primary would trigger countermoves by New Hampshire, which insists on its right to hold the nation’s first primary.

The 2020 Democratic race is taking on a familiar shape. Elizabeth Warren is building a base with highly educated, liberal, upper-middle-class white voters. Call them “NPR Democrats.” (National Public Radio is often their favorite news source.) Bernie Sanders’ appeal is more and more concentrated among young voters.

Meanwhile, Joe Biden has little competition for moderate working class Democrats. The working class Democratic vote now comes predominantly from African-Americans and Latinos. African-Americans are the key to Biden’s strength in the polls, just as they were for Hillary Clinton in 2016.

Is it because Biden was Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaHouse Democrats push back on Trump's efforts to take credit for the economy America's 'cancel culture' should not decide business and banking regulation The Iowa Democratic caucuses, mapped MORE’s man? Possibly, but what may be more important is the desire to defeat Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpCNN's Don Lemon explains handling of segment after Trump criticism NPR reporter after Pompeo clash: Journalists don't interview government officials to score 'political points' Lawyer says Parnas can't attend Senate trial due to ankle bracelet MORE. “We want to win. We just want to win,” former Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter, who is African-American, told Politico. “Donald Trump is so damaging and so frightening … The primary theme is ‘I just want to be with someone who I believe can actually win.’”

ADVERTISEMENT

Biden’s wife Jill made that case in August when she said, “You may like another candidate better, but you have to look at who is going to win.” With Trump weakening in the polls, all of the well-known Democratic candidates are now leading him. But Biden’s lead is the largest. Biden has the advantage of familiarity. “Joe Biden is stability for me, stability and common sense,” an Iowa voter told The New York Times.

Vice presidents who run for the party’s presidential nomination usually get it (Richard Nixon, Hubert Humphrey, Walter Mondale, George H.W. Bush, Al GoreAlbert (Al) Arnold GoreThe Iowa Democratic caucuses, mapped Trump's reelection looks more like a long shot than a slam dunk Gore praises Greta Thunberg after meeting: 'Nobody speaks truth to power as she does' MORE). A vice president’s job is to be loyal, and primary voters tend to value and reward party loyalty.

The 2020 Democratic contest looks increasingly like the 2016 race, with Biden playing the Hillary Clinton role and Warren the Bernie Sanders role. Clinton nearly lost Iowa to Sanders in 2016. Warren has the organization and enthusiasm to make a strong showing in Iowa. But Sanders is still a contender and he continues to draw support from younger progressive activists.

In New Hampshire, Biden faces a different kind of problem. Massachusetts and Vermont both border New Hampshire. Sanders and Warren are familiar figures to New Hampshire Democrats. Biden could very well come in third in New Hampshire, behind the two “locals.”

In 2016, Hillary Clinton’s candidacy was saved by African-American and Latino voters — the same voters Biden has to rely on in 2020. He should be able to do that so long as two black candidates (Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisSanders allies in new uproar over DNC convention appointments Biden leads 2020 pack in congressional endorsements Harris on 2020 endorsement: 'I am not thinking about it right now' MORE and Cory BookerCory Anthony BookerOvernight Defense: White House threatens to veto House Iran bills | Dems 'frustrated' after Iran briefing | Lawmakers warn US, UK intel sharing at risk after Huawei decision White House Correspondents' Association blasts State for 'punitive action' against NPR Senate Democrat demands State Department reinstate NPR reporter on Pompeo trip MORE) and a Latino candidate (Julian CastroJulian CastroThe Memo: Impeachment dominates final Iowa sprint Jayapal: 'We will end up with another Donald Trump' if the US doesn't elect a progressive Sanders, Warren battle for progressive endorsements MORE) don’t suddenly catch fire with minority voters — and so long as Biden maintains his strong lead over Trump in the polls. The key to winning the 2020 Democratic nomination is to look like a winner.

Bill Schneider is a professor at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University and author of ‘Standoff: How America Became Ungovernable (Simon & Schuster).