The U.S. Democratic Party primaries are in full swing and selecting their party’s choice for a nominee to face Donald Trump in the general elections in November will likely be done within the next few months. The process is confusing enough to U.S. citizens but it is likely to be even more confusing and perplexing to international audiences.

Here are a few key points that might help you better understand both the process and current status of candidates and key issues.

Elections are decentralized in the U.S. Elections are state and local based activities and the federal government has essentially no role in them. The federal government doesn’t print ballots, does not have voting booths, does not count votes. That is all done in the states. The federal government weighs in on civil rights and voting rights issues and monitors, to some degree, campaign finance but essentially the U.S. has 50 separate states with 50 separate voting systems. Even within a state, it is common to see significant differences in voting systems and administration of elections. This goes for the party structure as well, parties in the

U.S. do not have much of a top down flow of power. State and localities largely operate without large amounts of pressure or direction from the national level.

Related to that, parties and their primary election methods are diverse. Each state party, for the most part, can decide the type of selection process they have they drive the issues that are central for that state. They are more restricted as to when they have their election, but even their state parties try hard to influence the sequence of elections to help give their state power. This reflects the broad diversity within the country. That is, policy, politics, and culture are very different in the east coast state of New Hampshire than the southwest state of Texas. The decentralized nature of parties allows for flexibility to handle this regional diversity and this is reflected in the multitude of ways primary elections are held.

What’s a caucus and what’s a primary? Some wonder this question and the differences can get us into the deep details that are not all that helpful but, in general, a caucus is a type of primary election where citizens gather together in person at one time and cast their votes typically in a series of votes. It is sort of like a group of small meetings or mini-conventions where people cast their votes in person. Caucus’ are generally fully run by the party and do not involve electoral administration by the state. The Caucus format is declining overall as states change over to primaries and at this point only three states and a few territories still have caucuses. Primaries, or direct primaries are the most common. These are traditional elections where people go to the voting booth to cast their vote, the elections are administered by the state government, and votes are tallied and verified by the state. Primaries are popular for parties and candidates because the rules are more clear, they are predictable in terms of administration, and appeal more to voters.

Campaigns, especially primaries, are candidate centered activity. They are almost fully the effort of the individual candidate to bring together the resources and staff necessary to be considered a serious candidate. During the primary, the party plays almost no role in the campaigns themselves. In this way, candidates can be fragile or vulnerable to small missteps or mistakes. The actions of their campaign is fully their responsibility and it makes them very dependent on the continual flow of money to run their large operations. Historically, the lack of money, driven by underperformance in small primaries in early states, is what knocks a candidate out of the race. Once you start underperforming you run into the problem of not having enough donations to support your campaign.  Although this has changed some in the last two elections with the entry of millionaire/billionaire candidates and funders, it is still a big consideration.

The party primary schedule is very long and strung out. For both parties, the primaries happen across about five months with various states or clusters of state taking their turn from about the beginning of February to the beginning of June. The dates of when states get to go is set primarily by the party and can be very contentious. There is, of course, an advantage to be an earlier state as you will have more influence on the outcome of the race. For example, the first two states in the primary calendar (Iowa and New Hampshire) represent a very small and very racially white sampling of the electorate yet for many candidates, if they do not perform well in these states it can mean the end of their campaign. Even the two states after that are relatively small (South Carolina and Nevada) but they have much more ethnic and cultural diversity. Once the schedule gets beyond these first few states it then typically proceeds in clusters of states including the big “Super Tuesday” election which will be on March 3rd where 14 states will have their primaries including two of the most populous states, California and Texas. And besides the actual primaries, candidates officially launch their campaigns usually 9 months to a year before the first primary happens. It is a long and expensive process.

And now the candidates, who are they? At this point, there are five major candidates that appear to be contenders on some level. They have consistently been in the top three or four in terms of polls and now that we have had our first two state primaries, are also placing in the top tier. These include (alphabetically) former Vice President Joe Biden, a mayor from the midwest Pete Buttigieg (pronounced Boot-edge-edge),U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar, U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders, and U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren. There is one additional fast rising unknown and that is multi-billionaire media mogul Michael Bloomberg. Bloomberg’s strategy is to self finance his campaign and take a strong stance against Trump as a corrupt and failed leader (he has spent an astounding $250 million dollars on the TV advertising so far and that is in only a few regions of the country). Key to his strategy was his late entry into the election, skipping the early primaries, and focusing hard on states that are coming up after those initial primaries (and likely thinning of the field). At least on paper he is still a long shot using a strategy that has not been tested before but his poll numbers in states where he is advertising are going steadily up. So pay attention to him begging with the “Super Tuesday” races on March 3rd.

Ideologically this is a broad selection of candidates. From very moderate centrists like Amy Kolobuchar to the very left (at least in the U.S.) candidates like Bernie Sanders, along with candidates who span the spectrum. Throw in a multi-billionaire like Mike Bloomberg and there is a wide selection of competitors. Democrats haven’t quite figured out what they want and who can beat Trump and this is driven in part out of a desire to simply oust Trump and less of an attachment to bold policy positions.

Currently, the two strongest contenders appear to be Sanders and Buttigieg. But remember nothing is certain, it’s early in the primary and things are changing constantly. Sanders and Buttigieg essentially tied in the first caucuses in Iowa and in New Hampshire Sanders finished first with Buttigieg finishing about 1% behind him in second. Not far behind was moderate Sen. Amy Kobuchar whose campaign was once seen as failing but is now surging after notable performances in the candidate debates. Following behind them was progressive Sen. Elizabeth Warren in fourth and Vice President Biden in 5th. These two early races are important, especially in terms of fundraising, name recognition, and media attention. But they are very small and homogenous states and the current leading candidates are facing difficult challenges to repeat their performance in upcoming primaries.

The primaries now shift largely to the south and then to the west and other parts of the country. This is a substantially different demographic especially in terms of race and ethnicity so we are likely to see election outcomes change and perhaps even out. Joe Biden is very strong in the south and we would expect that he would do better in the upcoming primaries. If he does not it would likely mark the end of his campaign.

What’s the takeaway of all this? First, it is all very fluid regardless of what pollsters and campaigns say. Second, the range of outcomes go from Bernie Sanders sweeping the primaries and winning handily to so much division that the nominee won’t be selected in the primaries but instead at the national convention. Third, at this point what we see forming is a field that will be “Bernie Sanders plus ‘someone else’”. That is, Sanders as the representative of the left part of the party and one of the others as representative of the moderate wing (right now that is Buttigieg but it could end up being Kolbuchar or Biden as well). Fourth, the Bloomberg campaign has the potential to blow up all of this come Super Tuesday or his campaign could fail miserably once that election comes.

There are several core issues driving the campaign but in this campaign there seems to be a single issue — defeating Trump. In fact, since there is no clear front runner that can unite the party, this issue has been creating quite a bit of angst among observers, party regulars, and voters. Questions constantly arise, “can Bernie bring moderates into the Democratic column,” “can Biden bring Bernie supporters into his camp,” “can a little known mayor from Indiana create enough excitement to bring out votes in the general election.” You often hear interviewed voters and others say, “I don’t care who we pick as long as they can defeat Trump.” It has truly become a single issue for Democrats. There is no consensus of who can beat Trump but it is mostly focused on voter turnout. If the candidate that is selected can be palatable to a broad range of Democratic voters, then most believe they have a strong chance of winning. It is thought that any division within the party would make it difficult to beat Trump or make gains in congress. In many ways this is why voters have expressed nervousness about Sanders, he is not embraced by moderates and even less so by very moderate Republicans who are turned off by Trump and are looking for an excuse to vote Democratic.

Beyond this core issue of electability, the traditional questions that continue to be discussed are mostly domestic in nature. The push for universal health care (in many different forms), questions about dealing with staggering amounts of student loan debt, immigration reform, dealing with Trump tax cuts for the wealthy, general issues around massive inequality in wealth and, of course, policies addressing global warming. Other issues, although very minor in terms of the election, also include the reversing of the Trump administrations dismantling of government regulation, the weakening of relations with NATO and other traditional allies, and a general theme of a weakened U.S. on the world stage.

Observers from overseas often wonder about the prospects of a Sanders nomination and eventual win given that his social democratic politics more closely align to Western European politics. The Sanders brand of this politics takes the form of a more robust social safety net and more protections for the middle and lower classes which have been left out of the most recent economic recovery and much of the economic growth of the last forty years. His major issues on the campaign trail include universal single-payer health insurance (pitched primarily as an expanded government based Medicare system which current insures elderly citizens), forgiveness of student loan debt, free or nearly-free access to colleges and universities, and a reordering of the tax system to more fairly distribute its burden or, as Sanders says, “to get the wealthy to pay their fair share.” It also includes policies to get wages to grow faster, provide for consumer protections around the financial industry, and a promise to be much more reserved in using the United State’s military powers along with a promise to reinvigorate its powers of diplomacy.

Voters are typically not used to this type of agenda which is perceived as being more left and more government centered than they are accustomed. The word “socialist” in any context in the U.S. setting is heavily avoided and is often used as a way to label someone and end a conversation. The aversion to just the term itself is not only found in the Republican party but in large parts of the Democratic party as well. It does not necessarily matter what the term means or if Sander is actually a Democratic Socialist, but if it sticks to you it can be a problem in appealing to a broader base. At least since Reagan, the U.S. has been a conservative country and even the Democratic party, starting in the late 80’s, became more conservative. To see a major change to a more clearly left candidate would be significant and many worry that the attempt to move left at a time when beating Trump is so important to Democrats might not be the best move. Sanders’ response to this is, we might lose conservative moderates, but we will drive to the polls large number of disaffected voters who agree with and embrace his policy vision. Another problem that might arise if Sanders is not nominated, much like in 2016, is his supporters opting to sit out the election or even vote for Trump which could significantly undermine the chance of a party unified around a moderate candidate.


* Lonce H. Bailey, PhD, Associate Professor of Political Science Shippensburg University, USA

Dr. Lonce Bailey is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Shippensburg University, a small public university in central Pennsylvania. His teaching and research focuses on American political thought, political parties, democracy, and public administration. He is the author of In Defense of the Founders Republic: Critics of Direct Democracy in the Progressive Era (2015) and a two volume set tracing the history of the Democratic and Republican Party.   He has presented his research and taught both domestically and at a wide variety of international institutions. He was the Academic Director of the U.S. State Department’s Study of the U.S. Institute on American Politics and Political Thought from 2009 until the closing of the program this year.