The journey to choosing the presidential candidates for the upcoming American election begins on Monday in Iowa. Caucuses in this state will be followed by primaries and caucuses in the other 49 states, inhabited U.S. territories, the District of Columbia, and Democrats abroad, wrapping up on June 6th with the U.S. Virgin Island caucuses. 

Collectively, these primaries and caucuses will determine the Democratic and Republican nominees for the 2020 US presidential race, to be announced at the Democratic and Republican Conventions in July and August, respectively. 

Presumably, incumbent president Donald Trump will be the Republican nominee, a prediction cemented not only by historical precedent, but also by the move of Republicans in several states to cancel primaries altogether. The main focus of the primaries and caucuses thus lies with the Democratic Party. After seven debates across just as many months, and a field narrowed from 29 to 11 candidates, the party must finally settle on just one candidate to go head-to-head with Trump. In this explainer, MJPS helps disentangle the profoundly consequential yet complicated process that will determine who faces Trump in the November election. 

The Mechanics: What Does it Take to Win?

Every state conducts its own primary or caucus to determine the so-called “pledged” delegates who will be sent from that state to the party nominating convention, where the the presidential candidate will be nominated. 

To win the nomination, a presidential candidate must receive the combined majority of “pledged” and “automatic” delegates. These delegates are individual people who are sent by their state or territory to vote at the Democratic Convention. The number of delegates each state receives is determined by the proportion of votes each state gave to the Democratic candidate in recent elections, and the number of electoral votes it has in the U.S. Electoral College. 

Pledged delegates, which form the vast majority of these available delegates, are bound to voting based on the outcomes of the primaries and caucuses. 

Primaries and Caucuses: What’s the Difference?

A minority of states, (Iowa, Alaska, Nevada, North Dakota, Kansas, Wyoming, Hawaii, Maine and Washington) conduct caucuses. These are essentially “neighbourhood meetings” that take place in multiple designated locations throughout a state or territory.  Supporters of a specific political party gather to choose their candidate for an election. A caucus can last an hour or more and typically involves debates and arguments between supporters of different candidates as well as multiple rounds of voting.

Caucus rules vary slightly across states, but in general, candidates must earn the support of a certain threshold of attendees, typically 15 per cent, in order to be considered “viable” and to be awarded delegates. If an attendee’s choice candidate does not meet this threshold, that is, is not deemed “viable,” they may realign to a viable candidate, stay undecided, or abstain in the next round of voting. 

The Democratic Party in each state then calculates the State Delegate Equivalent by tallying the votes at each caucus site. This State Delegate Equivalent represents the number of delegates a candidate will receive at the state convention, and thus at the national convention. 

A primary follows a more familiar concept. The state government organizes a statewide election in which voters cast a secret ballot for their preferred candidate. These votes are converted to delegates at the national level. Primaries can be “open” – that is, anyone, regardless of party membership can vote – or “closed” – that is, voters have to be registered party members. 

Pledged or Superdelegate? What are the Types of Delegates?

Each state, whether it holds a primary or a caucus, publishes a Delegate Selection Plan which describes the mechanism for allocating a number of delegates per congressional district, and the mechanism for translating these votes into delegates sent to the state and national conventions. 

At the base level, candidates are assigned “pledged” delegates for each state in proportion to the votes they win in each caucus or primary.  Under the Democratic Party selection rules a candidate must win a minimum of 15 per cent of a state’s popular vote to receive these pledged delegates. In practice, this means that 15 per cent of a primary’s vote does not necessarily translate into 15 per cent of that state’s delegates. In fact, the Washington Post states that the system should be called a “winner-takes-more” system rather than proportional representation. Nonetheless, of course, the objective is to garner as many votes as possible in each caucus and primary in order to win the majority of pledged delegates.

In addition to these 3,979 “pledged” delegates, the system also features 771 “unpledged” or “automatic” delegates, also known as “superdelegates”. Superdelegates consist of election officials and Democratic Party (DNC) members from each state or territory, and can, in theory (but rarely in practice), vote for whichever candidate they prefer. That is, they aren’t bound by primary and caucus outcomes. In general, however, a candidate wins the nomination by winning the majority of pledged delegates. As such, superdelegates’ votes are generally influential only where results from the primaries and caucuses are inconclusive or the difference in delegates between candidates is marginal. 

Moreover, a rule change for the 2020 election has determined that at the Democratic Convention, superdelegates will be barred from voting on the first ballot unless the candidate receives enough pledged delegates to win the nomination regardless of superdelegate votes. In any case, the first ballot generally determines the nominee. In fact, the last time the first ballot outcome at a Democratic convention was inconclusive was in 1953. 

This change comes in the wake of the 2016 primary campaign, in which Bernie Sanders’ supporters contended that the influence of superdelegates would unfairly favour Hillary Clinton over Sanders. After all, they argued superdelegates, like Clinton, belong to the “Democratic establishment,” thus rendering them likely to support Clinton over Sanders – regardless of the outcome of caucuses and primaries.

The Calendar: What Happens When?

The Democratic nomination should be secured well in advance of the Democratic Convention. Between February 3rd and June 6th, the field should be narrowed substantially, with the potential for frontrunners to emerge as early as February.

While this is good news in the sense that the next few months should be quite interesting, this also demonstrates a potential flaw in the system: the order of caucuses and primaries matter. A lot.

After all, the outcome of one election invariably affects the outcome of the next. For example, success in one state signals the legitimacy of a candidate and can give their race a boost, whereas a poor outcome can cause a candidate to drop out from the race, potentially well before a different state even has the opportunity to vote on their candidacy. 

Accordingly, states have significant incentives to move their primary or caucus to an earlier date, which could result in “front-loading.” In order to avoid this phenomenon, the DNC distributes penalties and rewards to states based on their position in the calendar. Furthermore, since 2008, the DNC requires every state except Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire and South Carolina to hold their primary or caucus after February. As a result, these four “early states” have been able to maintain their privileged positions, whilst the remaining states have found it difficult to significantly upend the order of the last fifty years, which was set by the 1972 reforms. 

That said, one notable change in the calendar for 2020 is that California has decided to move its primary from early June to Super Tuesday, which takes place in March. As a result, there will be more frontloading in this election than in 2016, with experts further predicting that the diversity of California will increase the influence of Hispanic and African-American voters in determining the Democratic nominee. 

The calendar of primaries and caucuses for 2020 is as follows: 

The Early States 

  • 3rd of February: Iowa  
  • 11th of February: New Hampshire 
  • 22nd of February: Nevada 
  • 29th of February: South Carolina 

Percentage of total delegates awarded by February 29th: 4 per cent.

3rd of March: Super Tuesday

  • California, Texas, Virginia, North Carolina, Alabama, Arkansas, Tennessee, Oklahoma, Massachusetts, Maine, Vermont, Colorado, Utah, Minnesota primaries, and American Samoa 

Percentage of total delegates awarded by March 3rd: 36 per cent.


  • 10th of March: Michigan, Washington, Missouri, Mississippi, Idaho, and North Dakota, Democrats Abroad
  • 14th of March: Northern Mariana Islands 
  • 17th of March: Florida, Ohio, Illinois and Arizona 

Percentage of total delegates awarded by March 17th: 61 per cent – more than half of the delegates will have been assigned. 

At this point, a presidential candidate may have secured enough seats to win the nomination, as was the case in 2000 and 2004. If it is still contested, however, as was the case in 2008 and 2016, the process continues, albeit at a slower pace. 


  • April 7th: Georgia, Puerto Rico, Louisiana, Alaska, Hawaii and Wyoming 
  • April 28th: New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Connecticut, Rhode Island and Delaware  

Percentage of total delegates awarded by April 28th: 87 per cent 


  • Kansas, Guam, Indiana, Nebraska, West Virginia, Kentucky and Oregon 

Percentage of total delegates awarded by May 30: 94 per cent


  • New Jersey, New Mexico, Montana, South Dakota, and Washington, DC primaries vote on June 2nd, followed by the US Virgin Islands caucuses on June 6.

Percentage of total delegates awarded by June 6: 100 per cent

By this time, at the very latest, the Democratic nominee should, in theory, be determined. The official selection of the candidate at the Democratic National Convention, which will be held from the 13th to 16th of July, will thus be largely symbolic. However, it should be noted that, given the large field of nominees expected to enter the final stage of the nomination process, there is a higher probability than usual that no candidate will have secured a majority of pledged delegates. Should this situation arise, keep an eye out for another MJPS explainer. 

Regardless of the outcome, the next few months will surely prove interesting. With so many candidates remaining, and, so far, no clear frontrunner in sight, we will finally receive some answers as to who we can expect to see on stage (hopefully?) alongside Donald Trump in the coming months, and on the ballot come November. 

Edited by Evelyne Goulet and Catharina O’Donnell.

This article is part of a series on the 2020 United States elections. To see more analysis and opinion on the American presidential and congressional elections, click here

The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and they do not reflect the position of the McGill Journal of Political Studies or the Political Science Students’ Association. 

Image by Lauren Hill.