What are the Presidential Primaries?

2020 Primary Image: https://www.uspresidentialelectionnews.com/2020-presidential-primary-schedule-calendar/

Dr. David Childs, Ph.D.
Northern Kentucky University

This is the time of year where we hear about the many events and debates that make up the presidential primaries and caucuses. These events are held in various states as well as in the District of Columbia, and other territories of the United States. They greatly impact the future of the country and its leadership.  

Why are they important?
Although much emphasis is placed on voting for the president of the United States every four years, it is critical that citizens take part in voting in the primaries and caucuses. They should also stay informed with the political positions of each candidate. This information can often be gotten from following the various debates throughout the country. The primaries and caucuses make up part of the process of nominating candidates for presidential elections. Each party will ultimately nominate a candidate to run for the presidency.

The process is handled differently by each political party because the United States Constitution has never specified the process. The first state in the United States to hold its presidential primary was New Hampshire in 1920. Some states hold open primaries where voters may vote any party, regardless of their affiliation. Those states include: Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Hawaii, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, North Dakota, Vermont, and Wisconsin.  For example, some states only conduct primary elections, some hold only caucuses, and others use a combination of both.  

The primaries and caucuses are staggered, generally beginning sometime in January or February, and ending about mid-June before the general election in November. State and local governments run the primary elections, while caucuses are private events that are directly run by the political parties themselves. A state’s primary election or caucus is usually an indirect election: instead of voters directly selecting a particular person running for president, they determine the number of delegates each party’s national convention will receive from their respective state. 

The 2020 Democratic Party Presidential Primaries
The 2020 presidential primaries have had some historic precedents. A total of 26 major candidates have entered the 2020 race for the Democratic Party presidential nomination. This is the largest field of presidential candidates for any political party in the post-reform era of American history. This exceeds the field of 17 major candidates that sought the Republican presidential nomination in 2016.

Concluding Thoughts
It is important for students and every person to be informed of what it means to be a US citizen and what rights they have. Particularly, in the case of voting they should know the process for choosing our elected officials. Below I am including some sample resources to help students understand the presidential primaries.

Lesson Plans and Resources
What are the Primaries and Caucuses? – Lesson Plan
Lesson Plan | Election 2016: Understanding Primaries and Caucuses
Electing a president: Lessons for teaching about the presidential primaries
How does the primary process work?
Primary Election Versus General Election: Definition & Differences
Understanding Elections: Primaries 101

2020 Democratic Party presidential primaries
United States presidential primary


  1. I am 23 years old and I have never voted in my life up to this point. I used to always say, my vote didn’t really matter because I am only one person so what difference would it make. As time has passed, I’ve realized it wasn’t really that, but I felt extremely uninformed and I didn’t like the idea of committing to something I knew nothing about, especially when it is something so decisive as voting for representatives. But this past year, I have tried to stay current and informed on what the ideas and types of governing philosophies are out there and I feel like I have a better understanding of what I believe and what I want to see represented in our government. All of that has nothing to do with the article, but as this time approaches again in 2024 and Primaries will start rolling around, I feel I also have a better understanding of what they mean and how to let my thoughts translate to something that is meaningful to me when I go to vote.

  2. I did not know the terms caucus or primary before reading this article. I had no idea they were related to presidential elections. I now feel like I know a little bit more about the government and process that runs our country. 

  3. Before reading this article, I had no idea what presidential primaries or caucuses were. I had never known that these were terms related to the presidential election process. Now that I have read this article, I understand and know why these two terms are important and relevant to the presidential elections. Voting is an important part of becoming a citizen and students need to be made aware of what the process of voting entails as well as how U. S. presidents are elected. Primaries and caucuses are a part of the voting process and therefore when teaching a lesson about voting, teachers need to make sure that these terms are discussed and their students understand what these two words mean. By doing so, students will better understand how voting works and this is important because our future students will be voters some day. This article is a great resource to use if and when teachers are doing a lesson about voting. I will definitely be using it if I become a social studies teacher in the near future. Thank you for sharing this article with us, Dr. Childs. It was very informative and I learned a lot by reading it. I now understand the voting and election process more than I did before reading this article. I am now an informed voter because of you ! 🙂

  4. It is extremely important for students to understand the meaning of what the Presidential Primaries are. To become great citizens students need to know everything they can about the voting process and that includes what the Presidential Primaries are. Giving students the knowledge they need to learn what the Presidential Primaries are will give them knowledge that they need about how to vote for the president that they want to see in office. Finally, students need to understand how the President of the United States gets elected.

  5. As US citizens, we are all taught that voting is an important right and that we should exercise this right to choose elected officials, however, these lessons often lack teaching the specific process of nominating a candidate to run for the presidency. Prior to reading this article, I was unfamiliar with the term caucus. This article has shown the importance in knowing the process of choosing elected officials and exercising your right to vote in primary and caucus elections. I found it interesting to learn that this is largest field of political candidates running for the democratic party in the 2020 election, it will be intriguing to see how the election unfolds.

  6. This is certainly an important issue. Not every voter understands what the primaries are. Perhaps they wait towards the end to make a decision on their candidate. Or maybe they just stick with the political party and care little about the actual candidate. Voting is a privilege, and everyone should be educated about who and what they are voting for whenever they are exercise their right.

  7. This will be my first presidential election, so I was drawn to this article as I look to become more informed about this new chapter in my life. While I have not always been up to date on the logistics of the political world, that does not mean I do not understand the importance of knowing at least basic rules and guidelines. When it comes to voting, people my age tend to get a bad rep, as older generations curse us for not being informed. And while that may be true for a certain part of our population, I would argue that for the rest of us, those who are responsible enough to care about the current world and its future, that could not be further from the truth. My generation often gets attacked for being lazy, inconsiderate, and unreliable, but those attacks come from people who have hardly taken the time to observe us or be with us. From my perspective, I see a generation ready to see change, one that knows it will take work, and dedication, but at this point, it is the only way to see growth again. Articles like this always seem to remind me of facts like that, and push me to be even more involved in activities like the primaries which are so important to the future of this nation.

  8. Before reading this article, I did not realize that some states allow voters to vote any party. I also had no idea that the constitution does not dictate how Presidential Primaries are ran. Kentucky has low voter turnout and requiring one to vote based on party I believe is one contributing factor. This way of running primaries also instills the need to stick to ones’ party. All too often, voters do not look at the best candidate, they vote solely based on the D or R next to the candidate’s name. I like to consider myself an informed voter, and yet I did not know how the primaries are ran. It is important that students learn their rights as citizens, and how those rights work so that they take full advantage of them.

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