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From left: Democrats Elizabeth Warren, Joe Biden, Andrew Yang, Pete Buttigieg, and Bernie Sanders are competing to challenge Republican Donald Trump in November.

Photo Illustration by Josue Evilla; Ethan Miller/Getty Images (Warren, Buttigieg); Al Drago/Getty Images (Biden); Christopher Lane/Contour by Getty Images (Yang); mpi04/MediaPunch/AP Images (Sanders); Matt Sullivan/Getty Images (Trump)

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JS EXPLAINS

Why Everyone’s Talking About The Primaries

State contests to choose the official Democratic and Republican presidential candidates start in February. Here’s what you need to know. 

November’s presidential election may seem like a long way off, but the race for the White House has been under way for months—and it’s about to kick into high gear.

Starting February 3, the Republican and Democratic parties will hold state-by-state elections to choose their official presidential candidates. Those preliminary elections are called primaries and caucuses.

The Republican nominee for president is all but certain to be President Donald Trump. He is running for reelection as an incumbent, with little opposition. But it is still anybody’s guess who the Democratic pick will be. When this issue went to press, more than a dozen Democrats were competing for their party’s official nomination.

How do the primaries work? How are the winners determined? And why should you care? Here’s what you need to know about these early election contests.

November’s presidential election may seem a long way off. But the race for the White House has been under way for months—and it is about to kick into high gear.

Starting February 3, the Republican and Democratic parties will hold state-by-state elections. The goal is to choose their official candidates for president. Those preliminary elections are called primaries and caucuses.

The Republican nominee for president is all but certain to be President Donald Trump. He is running for reelection as an incumbent. He has little opposition. But it is still anybody’s guess who the Democratic pick will be. When this issue went to press, more than a dozen Democrats were competing for their party’s official nomination.

How do the primaries work? How are the winners determined? And why should you care? Here is what you need to know about these early election contests.

1. What exactly are primaries and caucuses?

Primaries and caucuses are state elections that the two major political parties use to determine their presidential candidates. The candidate for each party who receives the most votes in these contests almost always becomes that party’s nominee.

Primaries work much like a general election: On dates selected by each state, voters cast secret ballots at public polling places. For a caucus, people gather in schools, churches, and other spots to discuss their party’s candidates. Then they vote—either publicly or by secret ballot. (Only a few states hold caucuses.) This year’s primaries and caucuses will take place from February through June.

Primaries and caucuses are state elections that the two major political parties use to determine their candidates for president. The candidate for each party who gets the most votes in these contests almost always becomes that party’s nominee.

Primaries work much like a general election. On dates chosen by each state, voters cast secret ballots at public polling places. For a caucus, people gather in schools, churches, and other spots. They discuss their party’s candidates. Then they vote publicly or by secret ballot. (Only a few states hold caucuses.) This year’s primaries and caucuses will take place from February through June.

2. How does a candidate win his or her party’s official nomination?

For each primary or caucus that a candidate wins, he or she earns delegates. Those are political party members who represent voters from their state at their party’s national convention. The Democratic convention will be in July. The Republican convention will be in August.

At each convention, delegates will vote based on their state’s primary or caucus results. A candidate needs a majority of delegate votes to win the nomination. But the nominees tend to be known before the conventions. That’s because delegate counts are tracked as each state’s primary or caucus results come in.

For each primary or caucus that a candidate wins, he or she earns delegates. Delegates are political party members. They represent voters from their state at their party’s national convention. The Democratic convention will be in July. The Republican convention will be in August.

At each convention, delegates will vote based on the results of their state’s primary or caucus. A candidate needs a majority of delegate votes to win the nomination. But the nominees tend to be known before the conventions. That is because delegate counts are tracked as each state’s primary or caucus results come in.

Dates of Primaries and Caucuses

Jim McMahon/Mapman®

3. What is expected to happen this time?

Trump is expected to win the nomination for the Republican Party. The Democratic race may not be as straightforward, however. There are many candidates seeking the nomination, but no clear front-runner has emerged. Experts say that if there is no obvious winner heading into the Democratic convention, there may need to be more than one round of delegate voting to select the nominee.

Trump is expected to win the nomination for the Republican Party. The Democratic race may not be as straightforward. Many candidates are seeking that nomination. No clear front-runner has emerged. Experts say that if there is no clear winner heading into the Democratic convention, more than one round of delegate voting may be needed to select the nominee.

4. Why are primaries and caucuses important?

These contests play a major role in deciding who will be the next U.S. president—one of the most powerful positions in the entire world.

They also give the American people a voice in deciding who the presidential candidates will be. People of all ages can push the issues they care about by supporting candidates who have vowed to address those concerns. Americans can raise awareness on social media, donate money, and help with campaign efforts.

Even votes for candidates who don’t win their party’s nomination can have an impact. Presidential nominees sometimes adopt a rival’s policy ideas or promises that proved popular with voters during the primaries and caucuses.

These contests play a major role in deciding who will be the next U.S. president. That is one of the most powerful positions in the world.

Primaries and caucuses also give the American people a voice in deciding who the presidential candidates will be. People of all ages can push the issues they care about. They can support candidates who have promised to address those concerns. Americans can raise awareness on social media. They can donate money and help with campaign efforts.

Even votes for candidates who do not win their party’s nomination can have an impact. Presidential nominees sometimes adopt a rival’s policy ideas or promises that proved popular with voters during the primaries and caucuses.

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