Difference between primaries and caucuses matters in this election

Difference between primaries and caucuses matters in this election
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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 WarrenThe media have fallen out of love with Bernie, but have voters? Buttigieg surrogate on candidate's past consulting work: 'I don't think it matters' Steyer rolls out 5B plan to invest in historically black colleges MORE and Bernie SandersBernie SandersSanders urges impeachment trial 'quickly' in the Senate The media have fallen out of love with Bernie, but have voters? Steyer rolls out 5B plan to invest in historically black colleges MORE, not relatively moderate candidates like Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonDOJ backs ex-Trump campaign aide Rick Gates's probation request The media have fallen out of love with Bernie, but have voters? Trump request for Ukrainian 'favor' tops notable quote list MORE in 2016 or Joe BidenJoe BidenThe media have fallen out of love with Bernie, but have voters? Top Zelensky aide refutes Sondland testimony The great AI debate: What candidates are (finally) saying about artificial intelligence 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).

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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 ObamaThe mullahs seek to control uncontrolled chaos Poll: Majority of Democrats thinks Obama was better president than Washington Obama urges Americans to get health coverage in new holiday video MORE’s man? Possibly, but what may be more important is the desire to defeat Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpSanders urges impeachment trial 'quickly' in the Senate US sending 20,000 troops to Europe for largest exercises since Cold War Barr criticizes FBI, says it's possible agents acted in 'bad faith' in Trump probe 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.’”

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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 GoreCharlotte Pence to hold wedding reception at vice president's residence Impeachment can't wait Lessons of the Kamala Harris campaign 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 HarrisThe media have fallen out of love with Bernie, but have voters? Krystal Ball: Media turns on Buttigieg, will this end him? Senate Democrats demand Trump fire Stephen Miller MORE and Cory BookerCory Anthony BookerSanders urges impeachment trial 'quickly' in the Senate Steyer rolls out 5B plan to invest in historically black colleges The great AI debate: What candidates are (finally) saying about artificial intelligence MORE) and a Latino candidate (Julian CastroJulian CastroTop Sanders official on Harris: There's a lot of 'unfairness baked into the system' Democrats voice frustrations at plight of black, Hispanic presidential candidates Krystal Ball: What Harris's exit means for the other 2020 candidates 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).