The 2020 Presidential Primary: Enduring Truths

By Steve Phillips

While much has changed in American politics and culture over the past few years, there are certain fundamental realities that will shape the 2020 presidential primary election.These enduring truths will have to be navigated by all the candidates and will go a long way towards determining who emerges from the primaries and caucuses as the Democratic nominee.

Demographics and Delegates

Much of the punditry and media coverage about elections is far too superficial and monolithic for those seeking a deep and accurate understanding of the electorate and what is required to win a presidential election in 2020. There is no monolithic grouping known as “the voters.” Democratic primary participants are comprised of various parts of the population, and a successful candidate must assemble a majority (or at least a plurality) of all those voters by stitching together support from various constituencies. Based on a weighted analysis of the exit polls from that presidential election cycle, the 2016 Democratic primary electorate looked like this (women comprised 57% of all primary voters, cutting across all categories):


Source: Public Opinion Strategies and author’s calculations

Heading into 2020, due to population changes that continue apace (despite the best efforts of the current Oval Office occupant), it is likely that the Black, Latino, and Asian shares of the electorate will be slightly larger than they were in 2016.

It sounds simple and is often overlooked, but candidates must accumulate delegates by winning sufficient support from the respective sectors of the voting population.

The specific configurations of these demographic groupings differ dramatically from state to state. In Iowa and New Hampshire for example 93% of the voters are White, while in South Carolina 61% are Black. The successful candidate must cobble together sufficient support from the various constituencies state by state.

This leads to the next enduring truth and one of the most significant reasons that Cory Booker has a very good chance of becoming the next president.

The Black Vote is Key to Victory

No person has won the Democratic nomination in the modern era without overwhelming support from African American voters. On February 6, 2008, Obama led Clinton by 24 delegates. By February 28, 2008, Obama’s lead had quintupled, growing to 127 delegates, the size of his final margin of victory. During that three-week stretch, Obama won eight states in a row, and five of those states—52 percent of the delegates Obama won during that period—came from states with large African American populations: Louisiana; Washington, D.C.; Maryland; Virginia; and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Eight years later, in 2016, Bernie Sanders’ momentum from a near-victory in the Iowa caucus and a resounding win in his next-door state, New Hampshire, stalled in heavily Latino Nevada and then evaporated when the campaign turned to the largely Black Southern states of South Carolina, Alabama, Georgia, and Virginia. Those states alone gave Clinton a 133 lead in the delegate count, a lead she never surrendered. While the 2020 field may end up with multiple Black Democratic candidates, there will also be even more White candidates splitting the pie. As such, each candidate’s strength among Black voters, his or her ability to inspire and mobilize African Americans and make them feel seen and heard on the issues that matter to them, will still be key to electoral success.

The Calendar Counts and Momentum Matters More Than Early Polls

Most of the polling between now and the commencement of actual voting in February 2020 will be fairly meaningless (although poll results are not entirely irrelevant: they affect fundraising and volunteer recruitment). Early polling largely reflects name recognition and is minimally predictive of outcomes. This table from FiveThirtyEight shows what the polling has looked like a year out in previous elections.


Due to how presidential primaries unfold, early states generate huge momentum that then upends and scrambles prior polling numbers. This will likely happen with the Iowa results as was the case for Obama in 2008 and John Kerry in 2004. The contests play out throughout February, however, and a candidate can recover with a strong showing in the more diverse states such as Nevada and South Carolina.

Much has been made of the fact that California has moved its primary up to March 3, 2020, and California absentee voters will receive their ballots right when the voting starts in Iowa. But rather than eclipsing Iowa, this may actually result in increasing the importance of a strong first-state showing. I’ve lived in California for 36 years, and voters here—and everywhere—don’t want to waste their votes on a candidate who doesn’t have a chance of winning. What happens in the early states will be closely watched in the Golden State.