After the relatively focused early contests, the surviving candidates enter a dizzying array of primaries.  They must decide where to concentrate their efforts and resources as they jump around the country trying to hit key media markets and win enough delegates to gain the party nomination.

Overview of the Primary Process

To secure their respective parties' nominations, candidates compete in a series of state primaries and caucus/convention processes that select delegates to the national conventions.  The calendar of primaries and caucuses has been and continues to be based on the premise that several early retail contests serve to winnow the field in advance of the great mass of primaries and contests.  The theory is that the early retail contests allow even a candidate with modest funds to compete against better funded and more well known contenders.  The four early "carve out" or "pre-window" states are Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina.  The Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary have fairly lengthy traditions, South Carolina is first in the South, and Nevada is a relatively new early state, providing for demographic and geographic balance. 

Democratic and Republican processes will unfold from February to June 2020.  Rules governing primaries and caucuses and their timing are set out in national party rules and state laws.  Caucuses are multi-step, party run processes that generally start at the precinct level and work up through county and district levels to a state convention.  Caucuses generally have very limited participation because of the time commitment involved, and have fallen out of favor.  Several states have switched from a caucus to a primary system for 2020; these include Colorado, Minnesota and Washington.  Presidential preference primary elections are usually run by the state, meaning state laws apply (there are party-run primaries, but they are rare because it is expensive).  Some states hold their presidential preference primaries on different dates than the regular state primaries while in others both the presidential primary and the state primary occur on the same date.  (An early, stand-alone presidential primary can generate more presidential campaign activity, but consolidating presidential and statewide primaries on the same day saves money).  Some states allow unaffiliated voters to participate in party primaries (these are open primaries) and some do not (closed primaries).  Dates of Democratic and Republican contests generally but do not always coincide.  The two parties have different rules governing their processes.  Democratic delegates are allocated proportionally, whereas Republican rules allow for winner-take-all contests.

Most attention will focus on the Democratic nominating contest, where the large number of candidates makes for an uncertain outcome.  On the Republican side, President Trump has firm control of the national party infrastructure [PDF], strong backers at the helm of many state parties, scant opposition, and a solid campaign organization and delegate operation (+).  Although he is seen as all but certain to claim the nomination, the primaries and delegate selection will go on according to party rules.

March 3, 2020 is the first day for states besides the early four to hold their contests.  This is Super Tuesday; on Super Tuesday in 2016 12 Democratic and 11 Republican contests took place.  For 2020, California has moved its presidential primary forward to March 3, and its vote by mail period begins on February 3 (>); some campaigns are treating California as a fifth early state.  For Democrats, the March 3 contests could account for almost of one-third of total pledged delegates.  Depending on the results, March 3 could effectively decide the nomination or indicate that Democrats are in for a protracted battle.  

When one looks at the primary season as a whole, for the candidate and his or her campaign, there is always another contest a few days or a week or two away.  Working with limited resources, campaigns sometimes have to cobble together a state organization in just a few weeks, and then it is on to the next contest.  The leading candidate or candidates may be up one week and down the next.

The Rules

After each presidential election the parties review and make adjustments to their rules in hopes of setting a process for selecting a nominee in the strongest position to win the general election.  General objectives include a process that is not overly long or divisive, allows for fair competition, and encourages participation by voters and activist to build the party. 

Following their contentious 2016 primary race, Democrats established a Unity Reform Commission to "recommend improvements to insure the presidential nomination process is accessible, transparent, and inclusive."  The 21-person Commission held five meetings between May and Dec. 2017, and the full DNC approved "historic changes" to its nominating process at its summer meeting in Aug. 2018.  Most notably superdelegates—unpledged elected officials, party leaders and DNC members—who accounted for 15.0 percent of the delegates in 2016 and 16.9 percent in 2020, will not have a vote on the first presidential nominating ballot at the convention (unless the outcome is settled).  This gives grassroots Democrats a greater say in the selection of the nominee.  Other changes encourage state parties to select delegates through primaries rather than caucuses and to ensure that caucuses, when held, are accessible. 

There is always the possibility that rules changes can have unforeseen consequences.  For example, in 2008 Democrats had concerns about the divisive primary between Obama and Clinton, but one could argue that the long primary battle ultimately helped Obama by getting issues such as the controversy over Rev. Wright aired, and by allowing him to build the strong field organization and finance capabilities he took into the general election.  Following the 2008 campaign, Democrats established a Change Commission which led to rules changes increasing the number of pledged delegates by about 700 in order to dilute the impact of the superdelegates from 20 percent to 15 percent.  In advance of the 2016 campaign, Democrats reduced the number of base delegates from 3,700 to 3,200 in order to give the party a bit more flexibility in selecting a host city for its convention. 

Republicans too have adjusted their rules over the years.  At their 2014 winter meeting Republicans adopted what were termed "historic" rules changes, designed to counter shortcomings in the 2012 process.  These weaknesses included six months of candidates "slicing and dicing" each other in myriad debates, states disregarding penalties, and the several-month period between the time when the nominee was determined and when he could start spending on the general election campaign.

Setting the 2020 Calendar
Party rules set windows for delegate selection contests, but individual state legislatures, secretaries of state and state parties determine the specifics dates and processes.

Party Rules Set Windows for 2020 Delegate Selection Contests
No primary, caucus, convention, or other process to elect, select, allocate, or bind delegates to thenational convention shall occur prior to March 1 or after the second Saturday in June in the year in which a national convention is held. Except Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada may conduct their processes no earlier than one month before
the next earliest state in the year in which a national convention is held and shall not be subject to the provisions of paragraph
(c)(2) of this rule.

RNC Rule 16(c)(1) >
No meetings, caucuses, conventions or primaries which constitute the first determining stage in the presidential nomination process (the date of the primary in primary states, and the date of the first tier caucus in caucus states) may be held prior to the first Tuesday in March or after the second Tuesday in June in the calendar year of the national convention. Provided, however, that the Iowa precinct caucuses may be held no earlier than 29 days before the first Tuesday in March; that the New Hampshire primary may be held no earlier than 21 days before the first Tuesday in March; that the Nevada first-tier caucuses may be held no earlier than 10 days before the first Tuesday in March; and that the South Carolina primary may be held no earlier than 3 days before the first Tuesday in March.

DNC Delegate Selection Rule 12(A) >

An endemic problem in the primary calendar is frontloading, wherein state party officials or legislators seek to go earlier in the process so their state will have more influence.  In past election cycles there were a few rogue states willing to violate the rules and risk penalties in order to go early.  In turn this caused the early states to move their dates even earlier.  The national party committees have sought to discourage this behavior by various incentives and penalties.  In 2012 the RNC imposed penalties on the Florida delegation that seem to have discouraged this activity.  DNC rules impose penalties for violating the timing provisions: “...the number of pledged delegates elected in each category allocated to the state pursuant to the Call for the National Convention shall be reduced by fifty (50%) percent, and the number of alternates shall also be reduced by fifty (50%) percent."  (Rule 21(C)(1.a.) - Challenges)

Democrats also tried an incentive scheme, providing for bonus delegates for states willing to go later in the process but that did not seem to have much effect.  States holding contests in April received a 10% bonus in the number of delegates, and states going in May and June received a 20% bonus.  Additionally there was an incentive to encourage regional clustering; three or more states holding contests on or after March 16, 2016 received a 15% bonus.  Republican rules have a less explicit incentive in that delegates from early state contests are allocated proportionallly rather than winner-take-all.  (Rule 16(c)(2) contests "prior to March 15 in the year in which the national convention is held shall provide for the allocation of delegates on a proportional basis.")

A potential wild card in the 2020 calendar is New Hampshire Secretary of State Bill Gardner.  Gardner always waits until he is absolutely certain his state's first status will not be infringed upon before finalizing the primary date, and he is assessing the impact of California's move forward and the Feb. 3 start to early voting there.  Feb. 11, 2020 is on everyone's calendars as the date of the New Hampshire primary and it would be a huge shock if that were changed.  Nonetheless, the 2020 calendar may not be fully finalized until the latter part of 2019.  In the 2012 cycle, for example, not until Nov. 2, 2011 did Gardner annouce Jan. 10, 2012 as the date of the first-in-the-nation primary, and Texas' primary date of May 29 was not set until March 1, 2012 due to legal battle over redistricting.  In the 2008 cycle (>), it took until Nov. 26, 2007 for Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick (D) to sign into law a measure setting the state's Feb. 5 presidential primary.  

Josh Putnam's Frontloading HQ shows ongoing developments on presidential primary scheduling.  

For Republicans, No Contest

Despite his chaotic and controversial presidency, Donald Trump appears positioned to be the Republican standard-bearer in 2020.  At the 2019 RNC winter meeting, members approved a resolution declaring, "The Republican National Committee hereby offers its undivided support for President Donald J. Trump and his effective Presidency."  Trump's control over the party is such that thus far he has attracted only one opponent, former Massachusetts Gov. Bill Weld.

Democrats' Crowded Field

The field of more than 20 candidates seeking the Democratic nomination in 2019-20 stands in stark contrast to 2015-16 when former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, long seen as the inevitable nominee, fended off a surprisingly strong challenge from Sen. Bernie Sanders. 

Democrats' 2020 field includes establishment-types and outsiders, young and old, holding views from democratic socialist to progressive to pragmatic.  The field includes half a dozen women, several African Americans, a Latino, and a gay man.  Candidates bring experience in the executive branch, the U.S. Senate, the U.S. House, as governors or in other statewide offices, in local government, and in the private sector (+).  There is a 40-year spread between the youngest candidate and the oldest (+).

One wonders why such a large number of candidates, some with seemingly no hope of winning, are running.  Although the last sitting member of the U.S. House elected president was James A. Garfield in 1880, four current House members have entered the race.  About 15% of the Democratic caucus in the U.S. Senate is running.  The mayor of South Bend, a city with a population of a bit more than 102,000, is running.  One could argue that Trump upset the normal order.  Some of these candidates are no doubt thinking "if someone with Trump's set of qualifications or lack of qualifications can get elected, surely I can" or "I can do a much, much better job than this guy."  Democrats see Trump as an aberration, beatable, but, one should never underestimate Democrats' ability to "blow it."  Hillary Clinton managed that feat in 2016.  Several of the candidates seem to be running message campaigns, rather than holding realistic thoughts of actually winning the nomination.  Another good explanation for the large field comes from a Bloomberg Opinion piece by Jonathan Bernstein; he points to the DNC debate criteria for which "the qualifying standards were set extremely low."

By the time of the first contest on Feb. 3, 2020, the field will have been pared considerably.  The debates starting in June and July will start that process, and some of the candidates will fail to gain traction and run out of money.  The large field does create the possibility of an unexpected outcome as happened in 2016 when Trump vanquished 16 other candidates.  Although reporters like to speculate on the possibility of the race going to the convention, that is unlikely to happen.

While the major parties get 99-percent plus of the attention, third parties will also be selecting their nominees.  In addition, the possibility of a credible independent candidacy cannot be ruled out.  Former Starbucks executive Howard Schultz has been looking into an independent run in the first part of 2019, but his effort seems to have attracted little enthusiasm.  An independent candidate would not be engaging in the presidential primaries, but would be trying to maintain a presence on the political stage.

Turnout in the Primaries

For 2016 Pew Research Center reported that, "More than 57.6 million people, or 28.5% of estimated eligible voters, voted in the Republican and Democratic presidential primaries...close to but not quite at the record participation level set in 2008 (>)." (Also see USEP).  In particular, Pew reported there was record turnout in a number of Republican contests due to interest in Donald Trump.  However, GOP turnout dropped markedly after the Indiana primary, when he became the presumptive nominee and only remaining candidate, going from 16.6% in the 29 primaries through Indiana to 8.4% thereafter.  Pew reported overall Democratic turnout in presidential primaries was 14.4%.  For 2020, the lack of competition on the Republican side could well lead to low turnout in GOP presidential primaries.

The Calm after the Storm

During the period between the end of the primaries and the conventions, the presumptive nominee seeks to position for the general election.  Typically he or she bolsters his or her campaign organization and places key people in the national party committees to prepare for the general election.  Conventional wisdom has it that the presumptive nominees must move back to the center after playing to more committed or extreme elements of their respective parties to win in the primaries. Democrats have their earliest convention since 1992, from July 13-16.  How effectively their candidate uses this time can have important consequences on his or her success in the fall.  Meanwhile, President Trump has been general election mode almost since he was elected.

 By most measures the Trump campaign fell short in the post-primary period in 2016.  He continued to provoke controversies and raise doubts about his temperament and qualifications to be president.  Quite a few prominent Republicans refused to support him.  Trump's campaign organization made some additions but remained a fraction of the size of Clinton's team.  The advertising imbalance in favor of the Democrat was staggering.  Whille Clinton and allies, particularly Priorities USA Action, made significant buys in battleground states, the Trump campaign itself ran no ads and allies made only minor buys.  Also in the lead up to the convention the Clinton campaign used the platform process to build bridges with the Sanders camp.

In 2012, although former Gov. Mitt Romney was seen as the frontrunner from the start of the campaign, there was a lack of enthusiasm among some Republicans, and he endured ups and downs.  Former Sen. Rick Santorum finally suspended his campaign on April 10, former Speaker Newt Gingrich suspended his campaign on May 2, and Rep. Ron Paul continued to May 14.  Romney devoted a lot of attention to fundraising, doing more than thirty fundraisers a month in May, June and August.  From June 15-19 he did a stretch of retail campaigning in an “Every Town Counts” bus tour, visiting six states that Obama carried in 2008.  A highlight of Romney's pre-convention activity was his overseas trip in late July; he travel to London for the opening ceremonies of the Olympics, and to Israel and Poland.

In 2008, on the Republican side, Sen. John McCain wrapped up the Republican nomination on March 4, leaving almost six months until the convention.  In early April McCain did a week-long "Service to America" tour designed to highlight elements of his biography; later in the month he toured "forgotten places."  McCain also did a lot of fundraising in this period.  Sen. Barack Obama took a risk in his trip to the Middle East and Europe from July 18-26.

In 2004 the calendar again led to early selection of the Democratic nominee.  Sen. John Edwards, the last major challenger to Sen. John Kerry, withdrew from the race on March 3.  In the months leading up to the convention Kerry engaged in record-breaking fundraising efforts.

In 2000 the post-primary period proved important.  Gov. George W. Bush effectively secured the Republican nomination on March 7, 2000; during late March and April he introduced a reading initiative, a plan to clean up brownfields, a "New Prosperity Initiative" to help people move from poverty to the middle class and a health care plan.  More such proposals followed in the months leading up to the convention.  For Vice President Al Gore, however, there were some bumps.  He moved his campaign headquarters to a third location and brought on a new campaign chairman, while weathering concerns about his polling numbers.  In June Gore launched a "Progress and Prosperity" tour.

For 2016, RNC chairman Reince Priebus pushed to hold a relatively early convention so that the several-month period between the time when the Republican nominee is determined and when he (or she) can start spending on the general election campaign is reduced. 

In 1996 Bob Dole had essentially won the nomination by mid-March, but he faced the period from April to the convention with virtually no funds.  In June, Dole gained much attention when he surprised everyone by resigning his Senate seat. 

In 1992 Bill Clinton used the month of June to regroup following a tough passage through the primaries.

Vice Presidential Picks

An undercurrent of vice presidential speculation occurs throughout the presidential campaign cycle.  Some of the candidates running for president are widely seen by observers running not so much to win the nomination as to advance their vice presidential prospects (or even prospects for possible positions in the Cabinet).

Once a presidential candidate gains enough delegates to become the presumptive nominee, speculation on possible running mates accelerates markedly.   All sorts of rumors develop, but there is little reliable information.  Behind the scenes the campaigns do extensive vetting of vice presidential prospects, for the presumptive nominee does not want any unpleasant surprises as happened with Tom Eagleton in 1972 or the Dan Quayle choice in 1988. 

The presidential candidate weighs many factors.  The most obvious criteria is that the vice president should be capable of ascending to the presidency in the event of the unexpected.  Compatability is a concern.  The vice presidential pick should also add balance to the ticket geographically, ideologically or in terms of experience. 

One can envision a scenario where an early VP announcement might help a candidate pursuing the party's nomination.  The most notable example of this occurred in 1976.  Ronald Reagan, on July 26, 1976, challenging Gerald Ford for the Republican nomination, announced that he would pair with Sen. Richard Schweiker (R-PA).  In 2016 Sen. Ted Cruz reportedly tried to form a "unity ticket" with Sen. Rubio but was rebuffed; he then selected Carly Fiorina ahead of the Indiana primary, but it did not help.  In March 2013 Bloomberg Businessweek's Joshua Green reported that Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum had engaged in negotiations to form a "Unity Ticket" starting in early Feb. 2012, but they could not agree upon who would head the ticket.  During the 2008 primaries, there were suggestions that Sen. Clinton, trailing in the Democratic race, might try this approach.  In early 2019, as former Vice President Joe Biden considered a run, there were rumors/reports that he might select a running mate to start his campaign; the name of Stacey Abrams, the 2018 nominee for governor in Georgia, was frequently mentioned, but the rumors proved unfounded.

There is also the possibilty that an incumbent president seeking re-election could decide to dump his vice president.  In 2010 there were a number of musings that President Obama might or should replace Vice President Biden.  A number of commentators suggested that he be replaced by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, but nothing came of it.  Likewise there in 2018 there were some suggestions that President Trump might replace Vice President Pence.

In recent election cycles the VP announcement has most frequently been done a couple of days to a couple of weeks before the convention.  Keeping the announcement until shortly before the convention allows for a triumphal tour to the big gathering, draws out the period of speculation and creates further interest in the candidacy.  Often extraordinary measures are taken to keep the selection secret until the announcement.  Reporters seek information on meetings between the presumed nominee and various prospects but have little else to go on.  Speculation reaches a fever pitch; groups and activists seek to boost their favorites or discourage less favored prospects.  The campaigns send out a variety of communications to build suspense ("be the first to know").  The location of the announcement can also have significance; in many cases the presumptive nominee has opted for either a battleground state or his home state to formally introduce his or her running mate. 

Recent Vice Presidential Annoucements

Conv. Start
New York, NY
July 15
July 18

Miami, FL
July 22
July 25
Norfolk, VA
Aug. 11 (1)
Aug. 27
Springfield, IL
Aug. 23 (1, 2)
Aug. 25

Dayton, OH
Aug. 29 (1, 2)+
Sept. 1
Pittsburgh, PA
July 6 (1, 2)
July 26
'00 Bush
Austin, TX
July 25
July 31

Nashville, TN
Aug. 8
Aug. 14
Russell, KS
Aug. 10
Aug. 12
Little Rock, AR
July 9
July 13