Case study 2020 Primaries & Caucuses

In 2020 the Democrats were choosing a candidate to face an incumbent president for the first time since 2004 and George W Bush. The Democrats’ field was the largest ever – for either party – numbering some 26 candidates although they were never all in the race at the same time. By the time the last candidate, Mayor Bloomberg of New York, joined the race in late-November 2019, nine candidates had already dropped out. When the first state – Iowa – held its nominating contest on 3 February 2020, a further 6 had left the race, leaving 11 to contest the primaries. Of those, only 6 looked to have even the remotest chance of winning the nomination: senators Elizabeth Warren, Amy Klobuchar, and Bernie Sanders, mayors Pete Buttigieg and Michael Bloomberg, and the former Vice President Joe Biden.

There were Republican primaries and caucuses held in the first half of 2020,but President Trump faced only token opposition. Trump’s only near serious contender, Bill Weld the former governor of Massachusetts, had his best result in Maryland (June 2) with 12 % but in only one other state – Vermont – did he win over 10 % of the vote. He suspended his campaign in mid-March. Trump, therefore, avoided any possibility of a serious primary challenge. All modern-day incumbent presidents who have enjoyed an uncontested reselection have gone on to win the election. – Nixon (1972), Reagan (1984), Clinton (1996), Bush (2004) and Obama (2012).


The Iowa Caucus

In recent elections the Iowa caucuses are seen as a good guide for the likely winner. In all of the last four contested nominations – 2000, 2004, 2008 and 2016 – the winner of the Iowa caucuses went on to win the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination. Most opinion polls had Bernie Sanders as the front-runner in the state in which he was beaten by Hillary Clinton by just 0.2 percentage points in 2016. The same polls had a three-way fight for second place between Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg and Elizabeth Warren, with Amy Klobuchar close behind.

The caucuses started in multiple local meetings on Monday 3 February and results – sent from each caucus to the Democratic Party state headquarters in Des Moines – were expected early the following day. But by 4 p. m. on Tuesday, no results had been announced. This was said to be because of ‘quality checks’ being made to the results. It was soon reported in the press that the new software had suffered a technical failure with only around one in-five of the caucus locations able to access the App to report their results. Results were then announced over the next 2 days, but they were incomplete and apparently inaccurate. The Democratic National Committee (DNC) was so alarmed at this shambles that the DNC chair Tom Perez ordered a complete recount. After that had taken place – and following protests from the camps of both Sanders and Buttigieg – the final result was not confirmed until 27 February – over 3 weeks after the caucuses had been held.

The result was unclear and confusing. Bernie Sanders won the first preference vote count taking 24.7 % to Pete Buttigieg’s 21.3 %. But in the result that counts – what is called the State Delegate Equivalents – Buttigieg beat Sanders by 0.04 %, taking 14 delegates to 12 for Sanders. But the whole process had taken so long that by the time Buttigieg was officially declared the winner, he was just 48 hours from ending his presidential campaign. This lead to more calls for the end to the use of caucuses in Iowa.

However the big headline was Joe Biden’s fourth-place finish, behind Buttigieg, Sanders, and Warren. No one had ever finished fourth in Iowa and gone on to win the party’s nomination. As soon as this fact was known – even in the incomplete results – Biden’ s poll rating nationally fell sharply and Sanders’ rose. Hwever the press also noted that in 2016 Sanders’ support had boomed in caucuses and tended to struggle in primaries which is more evidence that this comes down to the representativeness of those who participate. Caucuses do attract committed voters and those with an interest in the issues and that was a good description of Sanders’ supporters.

The 2020 Democratic Iowa caucuses resulted in controversy. They took place on 3 February, but results were initially delayed for three days due mainly to problems with a newly created app and a coding error that ironically was meant to simplify and speed up the process. The Democratic National Committee chair, Tom Perez, publicly stated, ‘enough is enough’ and demanded a full check of all the votes. Then it turned out that some votes had not been counted. The final results were only certified by the Iowa Democratic Party on 29 February, over three weeks after the initial caucuses. The chaos surrounding the results led to the resignation of the local party chair, Troy Price. Biden came a disappointing fourth and called it a ‘gut punch’. Both in terms of picking the eventual winner and in providing a clear and swift result, the Iowa caucuses performed badly. Given that seven states switched from caucuses to the much more straightforward primary system for the 2020 Democratic nomination contest, there were increased calles for an end to the Iowa Caucus.

Changes for 2024

Announced in December 2022 -Iowa will no longer host its first-in-the-nation caucuses under the plan put forward by President Joe Biden and approved by the Democratic National Committee’s Rules and Bylaws Committee, ending a 50-year tradition. Instead, South Carolina — a state with a substantial Black population that helped deliver the nomination to Biden in 2020 — will lead an early voting window that will be significantly more diverse than in years past.

Nevada, New Hampshire, Georgia and Michigan will follow — a slate of states that the committee says will reflect the many pockets of diversity that make up the party’s growing base.

Proposed dates for Democratic Party 2024

  • South Carolina: Feb. 3

  • New Hampshire: Feb. 6

  • Nevada: Feb. 6

  • Georgia: Feb. 13

  • Michigan: Feb. 27

But leaders in Iowa and New Hampshire, who did not receive their preferred spots on the calendar, are already promising to buck the committee’s decision and hold contests as they see fit. Each state has laws requiring it to hold the first caucus and first primary, respectively.

Democrats in favor of keeping Iowa first point to the low cost of running for president in a small state as a big advantage. Barack Obama beat Hillary Clinton in 2008 in the Iowa caucuses. Senator Bernie Sanders also gave Clinton a run for her money in Iowa in 2016.

The Iowa Democratic Party recognized the caucus process of making people spend hours in high school gyms and hotel ballrooms to vote was "no longer aligned with 21st century democracy." So, they proposed changes to the caucuses where Iowans would fill out presidential preference cards ahead of caucus night and mail them into their party precincts.


Any state violating the calendar will automatically lose half its delegates to the national convention. The committee also strengthened its rules so candidates are precluded from campaigning in any state that goes outside the window — including putting their name on the ballot. Any candidate who violates that rule will get no delegate votes from that state.

The Republican National Committee unanimously voted earlier in 2022 to keep the status quo calendar in place of Iowa, followed by New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina.

The New Hampshire Primary

In 2016 against Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders won the New Hampshire primary with 60 % of the vote. He had the advantage being the Senator from the neighbouring state of Vermont. So it was presumed that Sanders would win. Sanders did win New Hampshire again in 2020 but with only 25 % of the vote and by only 1 percentage point over Pete Buttigieg in second place. So the headline and momentum went to Buttigieg for getting top-two finishing places in both the first two contests. The other big ‘winner’ in New Hampshire was the senator from Minnesota, Amy Klobuchar, who finished a strong third with just under 20 % of the vote. The big loser of the night was Joe Biden – finishing fifth with just 8 % of the vote.

The South Carolina Comeback.

With Sanders winning, as expected, in the Nevada caucuses 11 days later, all eyes switched to South Carolina’s primary on 29 February. Biden seemed to be in real trouble, however, 3 days before South Carolina Democrats voted. Jim Clyburn, a House member from the state for nearly three decades and the Majority Whip in the House – the third highest-ranking House Democrat – and the senior black American in the House, endorsed Joe Biden. 'That’s a win for old-school politics. But because old-school politics seems to be on the way out, it’s also a considerable personal win for Clyburn, who has proven himself to be the rare modern-day elected official who voters care about. The mere fact that people say Clyburn swung their vote doesn’t necessarily mean it’s true, of course, but the fact that they want to say it is a sign of the esteem for him locally.'

“Americans know Joe Biden, and a lot of them are coming home,” said Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, who was at the airport in Dallas on Saturday night after campaigning for Biden in that Super Tuesday state.

In a sign of Biden’s sudden momentum, Terry McAuliffe, the former Virginia governor and former Democratic National Committee chair, and Virginia Rep. Bobby Scott, both endorsed Biden ahead of the Super Tuesday contest in that state. And Sen. Tim Kaine, another recent addition to the Biden camp, started to campaign with Biden in Norfolk .

Biden won with a 28-point win over Sanders with Biden on 48 % and Sanders on 20 %. It was an unexpected comeback and reversed Biden's decline instead of making him the clear front-runner. Black American voters made up 56 % of the electorate and 61 % of them voted for Biden with only 17 % voting for Sanders. Whether it was the endorsement of Clyburn or Biden's association with Obama he had the same overwhelming support of the black American community that both Bill Clinton and Barack Obama had enjoyed and had been so important in the four elections that they won between them. Almost half of the voters in the primary told exit pollsters that Clyburn’s endorsement of Biden played an important role in deciding how they would vote. In the 10 days following Biden’s overwhelming win in South Carolina, he went from 19 % to over 53 % in the national polls and four of his five main rivals – Buttigieg (1 March), Klobuchar (2 March), Bloomberg (4 March) and Warren (5 March) – all withdrew from the race.


Super Tuesday

14 states voting all together on the same day, came at just the moment of the Biden surge. Biden won 10 of that day’s 14 contests, racking up huge wins in the South and leaving Sanders only with the consolation prize of winning in California. The race which had looked so close and so uncertain was suddenly over. More evidence that Super Tuesday favoured the mainstream candidate with the widest appeal. Biden's rivals were just too niche. Once Biden had looked like a winner Democrats flocked to the candidate they most looked for; someone who could beat Trump.