Get Ready for Primary Season!

If you follow the news closely, you may be aware that approximately 5,000 people are running for the Democratic nomination for President. And that’s great! For two reasons. First, it’s a sign of excitement among progressives, from the halls of Congress to local party volunteers, about the 2020 election—people are ready to fight and believe we can win. Second, primaries are important—primaries are how we build power as progressives. This is our big opportunity to highlight candidates who are taking bold positions, and move candidates on the issues that are most important to us. If we want a strong, progressive nominee, who can inspire a broad and diverse coalition of voters and ultimately win the election, the primary is one of the most important steps to getting there.

This explainer covers three main topics:

  • What can your group start doing right now to ensure you can engage in the primary in a healthy, effective way—and stay friends afterwards?

  • What is a primary and how does it work? Have you heard of superdelegates? How about the Invisible primary? Peek behind the curtain at how candidates compete and win.

  • Key dates in the primary calendar. Check out when the primary in your state is happening, as well as other big events to watch out for.

What Can Indivisibles Start Doing Right Now to Engage in The Primary?

The invisible primary has already started—that’s where candidates jockey for early advantages in media attention, money, and grassroots momentum. Here's what you need to understand: if you are reading this, that's because you, as a grassroots activist, are now also part of this invisible primary. You have power during this time. How you engage will affect the election, and we’re here to help you figure out what that might look like.

We are working to put together a plan for how to maximize our combined movement power and will be getting input from groups like yours for how to best to do that, but in the meantime, there are ways you can engage right now, on your home turf. The first step—like with any big new initiative—is to have a conversation within your group about your goals for the primary. Remember that primaries ultimately are an important opportunity to move all the candidates on the issues that matter most to us, as well as to celebrate candidates for taking bold, progressive positions.

But primaries can be divisive if you don’t have a plan to work together as a team. We recommend you have a conversation within your group and try to cover the following things.

  1. Primaries are about issues. What issues are most important to the members of your group? You don’t have to negotiate or argue or get down to just your top 2—just make a list so everyone knows what you’re working towards. We’ll share more about what we think the most important issues are in this election in the coming months. Spoiler alert: saving our democracy is at the top.

  2. Make some commitments together. This is really about how your group wants to engage, but we recommend that everyone agree to engage respectfully, without attacking candidates, and particularly without criticizing their supporters. We’re all going to need to work hard to elect the eventual nominee, so it’s best if we don’t make too many enemies in the meantime.

  3. Speaking of which: please, please, please agree you’ll all support the eventual nominee. We love primaries here at Indivisible, but the stakes are just too high for anyone to sit it out if their favorite candidate doesn’t get through.

  4. Talk about when you’ll support, and when you might (and when you won’t) endorse, a candidate. This goes both for the whole group and for individuals in it. We recommend that you agree to each wait to endorse a specific candidate until the group decides together, so you can work as a team instead of against each other. We also recommend that you do not consider endorsing a candidate until at least fall of 2019. If you endorse a candidate too early, you lose your opportunity to push all the candidates on the issues you care about, which ultimately makes the primary less impactful for progressives.

  5. Discuss how you want to engage. This will be Indivisible’s first time ever working on a national election, and it’s a much different beast than the 2018 midterms! We’ve compiled some examples of what we’ve been thinking about, but this is just a preview of ideas—we’ll roll out more info as we get closer to the debates and the field begins to look more settled.

    • Birddogging candidates or surrogates. a beloved grassroots tradition, “birdogging” is the act of finding and confronting a candidate in person to ask them a direct, specific question. Some of the most viral moments from campaigns have been the result of birddogging. Watch out for candidate events in your state for good birddogging opportunities.

    • Using your social media megaphone to celebrate candidates positions—or ask them to do better. Indivisible groups have developed an impressive following on social networks. And whether you know it or not, reporters and voters are looking at your feeds for your takes on candidates and their platforms; use that power to amplify messages you agree with or call them out when they disappoint (but don’t troll).

    • Collaborating (conspiring?!) with our amazing national staff team. National Indivisible has a pretty impressive media megaphone, but candidates care a lot about the constituents in key states and districts. Working together, we can push 2020 hopefuls to respond more quickly and more fully than otherwise.

    • Organizing Indivisible spaces or events to plan for how we weigh in from a statewide perspective. There’s power in numbers, and unified voices only amplify that power! Work with other groups in your state to speak with a single voice on issues that matter to your people at critical moments.

The “Indivisible Primary”: We’re Making It a Thing

Have we mentioned yet that primaries are exciting? Get excited—we’re excited. But that doesn’t mean we’re going to be endorsing anyone anytime soon—just like we recommend above for local groups, the same thing applies to us. Our first commitment in this process is to this movement, so we’re focused on finding alignment among local groups before making any decisions. This is a big move, and it won’t be unilateral. In the meantime, we’re going to be pushing all the candidates to be bold and center their campaigns on grassroots engagement. Stay tuned for more, but here’s just some of what we’re thinking about:

Using our megaphone to celebrate candidates’ positions or ask them to do better

If the last month or two are any indication, there’s going to be a lot to celebrate—and there’s also going to be a lot of asks to do better. We’ve got our Twitter fingers ready.

Inviting candidates to join activist calls

During the 2018 midterms, Indivisible staff worked to get several high-level Democratic officials to join us for nation-wide activist calls, like Elizabeth Warren and Kirsten Gillibrand. We’ll be looking for opportunities to do so again with as many 2020 candidates as possible.

Issue Forums and large grassroots mobilizations:

Indivisible will explore ways to facilitate large-scale events and mobilizations, possibly including candidate issue forums or grassroots rallies.

Demystifying primaries and caucuses

Indivisible national will be investigating all the different ways we can take down barriers around the primary and caucus process and get as many people engaged and in-the-know as possible (let us know what you’d like training on!).

Ensuring party stakeholders and other partners are inviting the grassroots into debates, not just party heads

Indivisible’s national presence and inside-outside strategy gives us the ability to push the party to pay more attention to the grassroots. We’ll do everything we can to keep the grassroots centered in this primary.

What Is a Primary And How Does It Work?

How does a candidate win the nomination?

To win the Democratic nomination, a candidate must win the votes of a majority of the delegates at the Democratic Convention in July 2020. Bigger states get more delegates, but unlike in the electoral college, those delegates are NOT winner-take-all; candidates win a share of the delegates based on what percent of the vote they won. For example, Obama won two-thirds of the vote in Georgia’s 2008 primary, so about two-thirds of Georgia’s delegates pledged to vote for Obama at the convention, and the other third voted for Hillary.

The process for deciding how many delegates each state gets makes the electoral college look downright simple, so much so that campaigns have staff dedicated just to figuring out how many delegates they’ve won so far. Want to know the nitty gritty details? Check out these resources from online sites The Green Papers and Frontloading HQ.

What about super delegates?

Delegates that attend the DNC convention are either “pledged”, which means they have to vote the way their state voted, or “unpledged”, which means they get to make their own decision. These unpledged delegates are also called “superdelegates”—they are party leaders such as current or former elected officials and DNC members and they make up about 15% of the total delegates.

In past years, superdelegates have been able to vote just like delegates that represent the will of voters. But after the 2016 election, the DNC agreed to reform the role of superdelegates. Now, superdelegates ONLY get to vote if no candidate wins a majority when the pledged delegates vote, which is extremely rare (the last time it happened was 1952).

What’s the Invisible Primary?

The term “Invisible Primary” refers to the campaigning that happens before the actual primary voting begins. Candidates compete for media attention, money, staff, and endorsements to generate a sense of viability and momentum for their campaigns. The campaign cycle is long, and candidates often drop out once they (or the public) believe it’s impossible for them to win. During the 2016 election, five Republican candidates dropped out before the Iowa Caucus—a process that is often called “winnowing the field.”

The term is also used to refer to the way that party elites control the field of candidates or pick an establishment-favorite before voting even begins. This year the superdelegate system has been reformed and many candidates are pledging not to take corporate PAC dollars, both of which should help reduce the influence of elites and big donors. Even though progress has been made, we know that wealthy elites still have an outsized influence in our system, so we need to make sure candidates hear the voices of the grassroots and are accountable to our values.

Key Dates in The Primary Calendar

The first votes won’t be cast until the Iowa caucus on February 3rd, 2020, but candidates have already started hosting big rallies, meet-and-greets with local leaders, and fundraisers. Then there are the “can’t miss” events that happen every election—benchmarks like the Iowa State Fair, where candidates give “soapbox” speeches, or the NAACP convention, where candidates traditionally speak about civil rights and racial justice.

Candidates generally focus on traveling to early primary states, such as Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina, since a good early showing in those states is key to being seen as a serious contender with potential to win the nomination.

2019

January
The New Hampshire Politics and Eggs series begins. Each breakfast features a keynote speech from one candidate; it’s designed as a way for business leaders to hear from candidates in a smaller setting.
 
Feb 22
New Hampshire’s McIntyre-Shaheen Dinner. One of the first “cattle calls,” events where all Democratic presidential candidates are invited.
 
Late Feb
The Democratic National Committee is scheduled to announce where the 2020 convention will be held—the three cities in contention are Houston, Miami and Milwaukee.
 
Mar 31
End of the first fundraising quarter. Candidates report their fundraising and spending numbers to the Federal Election Commission. These numbers are public, and journalists cover the results as indicator of whether a campaign is strong or struggling. In 2008, Obama matched Hillary’s fundraising in the first quarter, which helped establish him as a contender rather than fringe candidate.
 
May 31 - June 2
California Democratic Party Convention. Multiple candidates will likely attend and give speeches. California’s primary is earlier this cycle this year, which makes the state (and this convention) even more important.
 
June
First debate hosted by the Democratic National Committee. The DNC has pledged to hold 12 debates total; the first debate will be broadcast on NBC News, MSNBC, and Telemundo. Candidates can qualify either by getting 1% in three polls or by receiving donations from 65,000 people in at least 20 states.
 
Late June
Iowa Democratic Party Hall of Fame Dinner.
 
June 30
End of the second fundraising quarter.
 
July: NAACP Convention in Detroit. Candidates are traditionally invited to a forum and given equal time to speak. The NAACP cannot endorse a candidate but this forum is still crucial for candidates—black voters are the base of the Democratic party, and would-be nominees can connect with and energize the convention audience.
 
July 11 - 13
Netroots Nation is an annual conference for progressives, activists, and grassroots organizers. In the past, Netroots has been an opportunity for progressives to not only hear from candidates, but to make candidates listen.
 
Aug 8 - 18
The Iowa State Fair is a must-attend for candidates, who give speeches and (more importantly) mingle with crowds while eating fairground classics like corn dogs, pork chops, and funnel cake.
 
Sep 2
The AFL-CIO hosts a labor day breakfast in New Hampshire that candidates often attend.
 
Mid Sep
New Hampshire Democratic Party Convention. Most candidates will attend and give speeches, since this is the best chance to talk to NH democrats in advance of the states important early primary.
 
Sep 21
The Polk County Democrats Steak Fry in Iowa is a chance for candidates to speak on stage in front of grassroots activists and have their photo taken flipping steaks on the grill.
 
Sep 30
End of the third fundraising quarter. In past cycles, candidates that are struggle in fundraising have dropped out around this time.
 
October 
The Iowa Democratic Party Fall Gala is one of the most well attended party fundraisers. Both Hillary and Bernie spoke in 2015.
 
Nov 7
Election Day in Virginia, Mississippi, Kentucky, and New Jersey.
 
Dec 31
End of the fundraising year.

2020

Jan - Apr
The DNC will hold 6 debates in 2020. Dates and locations are to be decided, but the first 4 will likely be in early primary states.

Feb 3
Voting begins with the Iowa Caucus. This year, the Democratic party is also hosting series of “virtual caucuses” to make the event more accessible to those who can’t attend in person.

Feb 11
New Hampshire Primary. Early Voting in Texas begins.

Feb 22
Nevada Caucus.

Feb 29
South Carolina Primary.

Mar 3
Super Tuesday. Primaries or caucuses on this day: Alabama, California, Massachusetts, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, Vermont, and Virginia. Super Tuesday now includes both Texas and California, the two states with the most delegates. Once Super Tuesday voting is over, almost 40% of the total delegates will have been voted on and pledged to candidates.

Mar 10
Primaries in Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, and Ohio.

Mar 17
Primaries in Arizona, Florida, and Illinois

Mar - June
Primaries continue with about one primary a week. The D.C. primary comes last, on June 16th. States also use this time to elect delegates to send to the convention. Every state has different rules about who can serve and how they are selected, but delegates always choose to be “pledged” to a candidate and vote for that candidate at the convention.

July 13 - 16
2020 Democratic National Convention. In past election cycles, the nominee has been clear before the convention began, but this makes it official! In addition to the voting sessions, the convention lineup includes all sorts of forums and speeches featuring Democratic and progressive leaders.