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 WarrenWarren defends, Buttigieg attacks in debate that shrank the field Five takeaways from the Democratic debate in Ohio New study: Full-scale 'Medicare for All' costs trillion over 10 years MORE and Bernie SandersBernie SandersWarren defends, Buttigieg attacks in debate that shrank the field Five takeaways from the Democratic debate in Ohio New study: Full-scale 'Medicare for All' costs trillion over 10 years MORE, not relatively moderate candidates like Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonWarren defends, Buttigieg attacks in debate that shrank the field Democrats fear Ohio slipping further away in 2020 Poll: Warren leads Biden in Maine by 12 points MORE in 2016 or Joe BidenJoe BidenWarren defends, Buttigieg attacks in debate that shrank the field Five takeaways from the Democratic debate in Ohio New study: Full-scale 'Medicare for All' costs trillion over 10 years 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 ObamaIraq is not yet lost, but if we continue to ignore it, it soon will be Obama praises marathon runners Eliud Kipchoge and Brigid Kosgei for 'remarkable examples of humanity's ability' Each of us has a role in preventing veteran suicide MORE’s man? Possibly, but what may be more important is the desire to defeat Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpWarren defends, Buttigieg attacks in debate that shrank the field Five takeaways from the Democratic debate in Ohio Democrats debate in Ohio: Who came out on top? 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 Gore2020 general election debates announced Odds place Greta Thunberg as front-runner for this year's Nobel Peace Prize Joe Lieberman's son running for Senate in Georgia 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 HarrisWarren defends, Buttigieg attacks in debate that shrank the field Five takeaways from the Democratic debate in Ohio Warren leads in speaking time during debate MORE and Cory BookerCory Anthony BookerWarren defends, Buttigieg attacks in debate that shrank the field Warren leads in speaking time during debate Democrats wrangle over whether to break up Big Tech in debate first MORE) and a Latino candidate (Julian CastroJulian CastroWarren leads in speaking time during debate CNN catches heat for asking candidates about Ellen, Bush friendship at debate Candidates unleash on Trump over Syria move, say he's weakening US 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).