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The strange and crucially important order of the Democratic primary states, explained

To win the nomination, a candidate must master this calendar of staggered contests. Here’s the order — and why it’s set up this way.

An illustration of a map of the United States and primary delegate counts. Christina Animashaun/Vox

Update March 16: Some states are moving their primaries due to the coronavirus outbreak. Follow updates to the primary calendar here.

Former Vice President Joe Biden leads national poll after national poll of the Democratic nomination contest. But there’s just one teensy problem for him: There is no national primary.

The actual presidential nomination process is lengthy, convoluted, and provides ample opportunities for the frontrunner to stumble. It has unique dynamics that make it far different from a typical election. It’s part rollercoaster, part marathon.

And key to everything is the calendar.

Between February 3 and June 6, 57 separate primaries and caucuses will take place. Their outcomes will gradually assign candidates delegates necessary to win the nomination at the July national convention. The ordering and timing of contests is crucial — and it breaks down into two separate phases.

Phase one is the four early states in February, which have a paltry number of delegates but an extraordinary impact on the race’s overall narrative. Phase two is the briefest but the most consequential: It spans March 1 to 17, in which more than half of all 3,979 pledged delegates will be locked down. (Our delegate tracker is here.) And then phase three, if the nomination is still contested, will be a long, slow slog for the remaining delegates until early June (or until someone wins a majority).

As the contest goes on, it shifts from one that’s fluid and unpredictable to one that’s about cold, hard math. Because once a candidate gets a significant delegate lead, that lead can be quite difficult to dislodge — particularly due to Democratic rules that delegates must be allotted proportionally based on results.

And considering how important the calendar is, it may be surprising that no one dictated it from the top down. The DNC does protect the privileged position of the four early states, and it set an overall end date, but beyond that, it was really up to each state to decide when to hold its contest.

Overall, what’s resulted is a messy and arguably even bizarre way to pick a nominee. It’s a process that ends up privileging certain states over others, and that can be buffeted by sudden volatility, especially early on. But it’s the system Democrats have. And it will determine who gets to run against Donald Trump in November.

Phase one: The early states (February 2020)

The voting in the Democratic nomination contest starts off quite slowly, with the month of February reserved for the four famous “early states.”

  • Monday, February 3: Iowa caucuses
  • Tuesday, February 11: New Hampshire primary
  • Saturday, February 22: Nevada caucuses
  • Saturday, February 29: South Carolina primary

Now, these states have a paltry amount of the overall delegates — just 4 percent when you combine all of them. This makes it impossible for anyone to build up a significant lead in this phase, particularly because Democrats allot their delegates proportionally.

A visualization showing how many delegates are allocated for the first Democratic nomination contests in Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina. Christina Animashaun/Vox

Yet because there are so few other contests happening, they can have enormous impact on perceptions of the overall race — solidifying (or damaging) a frontrunner’s position, giving an underdog a surge of attention, or driving poorly performing contenders out of the race. Often, they effectively settle who the true top two or three candidates are.

Essentially, the political world looks at the early state results and the media coverage of those results, and takes them as cues about which contenders can actually win. Donations can surge or dry up, endorsements can flow in or vanish, and a candidate’s national poll position can change quite suddenly — even though the margins of victories in these contests can be quite small.

For a frontrunner like Biden, this is a period of testing — it’s very rare for a candidate to win every early contest (only Al Gore pulled it off in any contested race from recent decades). And for non-frontrunners, it’s a period of opportunity to win as Barack Obama did in Iowa in 2008 or even just to perform surprisingly strongly, winning the “expectations game” as Bill Clinton did with a second-place New Hampshire finish in 1992.

There is, however, a catch: Early voting for some crucial Super Tuesday contests also begins in February — with, for instance, mail ballots going out to voters in California the same day as the Iowa caucuses. In previous years, early Super Tuesday voters who are undecided have waited to see what happens in these first four contests before casting their own ballots. But it’s possible that a significant chunk of those votes will be banked already by the time the South Carolina primary rolls around, which would blunt that state’s influence on future results.

Phase two: Super Tuesday and the 17-day scramble (March 1 to 17, 2020)

If February is mostly about perceptions and momentum, March brings a newfound focus on math — because, in just over two weeks, more than 60 percent of pledged delegates at stake in the entire contest will be locked down.

First, on March 3, is Super Tuesday itself. About 33 percent of total pledged delegates are at stake in contests held that day (though we should keep in mind, again, that there will be early voting in many of them).

The biggest Super Tuesday delegate hauls will be from California and Texas, but there will be other primaries in the South (Virginia, North Carolina, Alabama, Arkansas, Tennessee, Oklahoma), New England (Massachusetts, Maine, Vermont), the West (Colorado, Utah), and the Midwest (Minnesota), and caucuses in American Samoa.

So while it’s possible for one candidate to essentially lock up the nomination by winning by large margins across the board, a regional split is also a distinct possibility. Democrats also have a rule that any candidate getting more than 15 percent of the vote (either statewide or in congressional districts) qualifies for delegates, meaning that at least two and perhaps more candidates will probably get some. (Candidates who fall short of that threshold, though, will likely be driven out of the race.)

Next, the remaining candidates will have little time to catch their breath — because the subsequent two Tuesdays after the super one are also major voting days.

On March 10, contests in Michigan, Washington, Missouri, Mississippi, Idaho, and North Dakota will take place. Voting in the Democrats Abroad primary (a vote among party members living overseas), which begins on Super Tuesday, will also conclude. About 47 percent of pledged delegates will have been locked in after that. (The Northern Mariana Islands will then hold a caucus on March 14.)

On March 17, Florida, Ohio, Illinois, and Arizona have primaries — pushing Democrats up to about 61 percent of pledged delegates allotted.

This means that if there is ambiguity in the Super Tuesday results — whether due to a vote split among several candidates, or due to infamously slow California vote-counting — those two not-quite-as-super Tuesdays could help settle it.

A visualization showing how many delegates are allocated for the first three Democratic nomination contests in March 2020. Christina Animashaun/Vox

What’s different in 2020? The main change is that California moved from an early June primary late in the process, up to Super Tuesday. That and other changes mean this is a somewhat more frontloaded calendar than Democrats had in 2016 (back then, about 50 percent of pledged delegates were allotted by mid-March, compared to about 61 percent this time).

Phase three: The three-month slog (March 18 to June 6, 2020)

The nomination could well be settled by mid-March due to candidate dropouts, as was the case for Democrats in 2000 and 2004. But if it is still contested (as it was in 2008 and 2016), the next phase will slow down quite a bit: There will be an almost three-month slog for the final 39 percent or so of pledged delegates.

Generally, election days going forward will feature either a few small contests or one small- or medium-sized contest. They’ll also be spread out more.

For instance, there’s Georgia on March 24, Puerto Rico on March 29, Louisiana, Alaska, Hawaii, and Wyoming, on April 4, and Wisconsin on April 7. That takes us up to 70 percent of pledged delegates allocated.

Then there’s a three-week gap — until April 28, the single most important day remaining in terms of the delegate haul. New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Delaware all vote that day, in a sort of Northeastern or Mid-Atlantic primary. About 17 percent of total pledged delegates will be at stake then — meaning 87 percent will have been locked in by that point.

A visualization showing how many delegates are allocated for the remaining Democratic primaries and caucuses from late March to June.

May brings just seven contests that combine for 7 percent of total delegates: Kansas and Guam on May 2, Indiana on May 5, Nebraska and West Virginia on May 12, and Kentucky and Oregon on May 19. That brings Democrats to the 94 percent mark.

Finally, June 2 is the final day of state primary voting, with New Jersey, New Mexico, Montana, South Dakota, and Washington, DC. And if the nomination is still contested after that, the last contest of all is the US Virgin Islands caucuses on June 6.

Finally, at long last, the nominee will officially be chosen at the Democratic convention, which will be held July 13-16, 2020, in Milwaukee. If one candidate has won a majority of pledged delegates at this point, this will be just a formality. However, if no candidate has gotten a majority of pledged delegates — well, then things wouldn’t actually be settled yet, and Democrats would head into the contested convention scenario. But that’s an explainer for another time.

But why are things this way?

So that’s how the calendar works. But it’s worth pausing on the sheer strangeness of this whole setup. It’s an odd hodgepodge combining the old way nominees were chosen through most of American history (by party insider delegates at conventions), and modern reforms (primaries and caucuses intended to give actual voters a chance to weigh in).

In the 1970s, both Democrats and Republicans adopted reforms that (accidentally) resulted in state primaries and caucuses becoming the main event in the nominating process. Traditionally states set their own dates for primaries and caucuses, and that continued to the case after the reforms were adopted. That’s why there’s a nomination battle spread out over months, not one national contest on a single day.

So if you’re going to have a staggered system, someone is going to have to go first. And two small states, Iowa and New Hampshire, staked their claims very quickly — and have successfully gotten the DNC and RNC to defend their positions, by penalizing any other state that tries to jump in front. (After years of criticism that those first two states were overwhelmingly white, the DNC and RNC allowed Nevada and South Carolina to go third and fourth.)

Should a few states get special privileges, though? Defenders of the setup argue that it lets lesser-known candidates make their case in a smaller, more manageable setting (rather than getting swamped by the best-known, best-funded candidate nationally). The early states also perform the function of winnowing the field — narrowing down what can be a large and confusing set of options to a few contenders before most of the country votes.

But an enormous amount of hay can get made out of relatively small margins (sometimes a few thousand voters) in states that are small already, and often not representative of the country or the party as a whole. For Republicans in 2016, the difference between first and third place in the Iowa caucuses was about 4 percent (or 8,000 votes). Rather than providing useful information about intrinsic candidate strengths, it can all feel disturbingly arbitrary.

The rest of the calendar is odd and unbalanced as well, with so many of the delegates locked in early March, and the rest over several months.

Democrats have a rule that exacerbates this imbalance — they allot all delegates proportionally, with no winner-take-all contests permitted. The lack of winner-take-all prizes can make it more difficult for a Democratic candidate who’s leading to technically reach the “magic number” of delegates until very late in the contest — as Hillary Clinton found in 2016. It also makes it more difficult for a trailing candidate to catch up, as Bernie Sanders found. But so long as hope remains alive, a bitter primary can continue, and prevent the likely nominee from pivoting to focus on the general election.

However, this year’s calendar and rules have two important changes that could conceivably help shorten the primary. First is California’s move to an earlier date. In 2016, the Golden State’s huge delegate haul was totally unallotted until June, making it mathematically difficult for anyone to clinch the nomination earlier. This time, California is voting on Super Tuesday, in early March.

The second thing is a rules change about superdelegates. In previous years, those delegates — party officials who could choose whom to support, rather than being yoked to primary or caucus results — were technically not locked in. The DNC changed its rules so that superdelegates can’t affect the outcome of the first vote held at the July convention. This will also make it easier for a candidate to reach a clear “magic number” earlier in the primary season.

Of course, whether any candidate manages to do so will depend on how the race shapes up.

Correction: This article previously misstated California’s primary date in 2008.

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