2020·8 min read

2020 Presidential Election Explainer: Here’s Everything You Need to Know

2020 Election
Jan 27, 2020

The patriotic brick road to the White House is a long one. Here’s everything that happens along the way.

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Primary campaigns: The part where people say ‘you know what, I think I’ll run for president.’ 2020 candidates started entering the race as far back as July 2017. Since then, they’ve been on the road, hitting the debate stage, and rolling out policies on everything from health care to climate change. 

The Details: There were six Democratic primary debates in 2019, and there are six more in 2020. The Republican National Committee, on the other hand, is positive President Trump’s their man and hasn’t held any primary debates with the other GOP candidates. 

Stage 2 

Primary voting begins: The part where voters decide who should be their party’s nominee.

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The Details: Voting at this stage occurs in two formats: primaries and caucuses. To get the party nomination, candidates need to win a majority of their party’s delegates. For the Dems that’s at least 1,885 and for the GOP it’s 1,276. Delegates are awarded based on how candidates do in the primaries. This is also the stage where candidates start dropping (out) like flies.

A number of states' Republican parties have canceled their nominating contests, which is seen as a sign of support for Trump. It's not an unusual move when either party’s incumbent seeks a second term.

Related: Need help figuring out who to vote for? Check out our candidate guides here.

Here are some of the key dates to have on your radar. Note: this isn’t a complete list of every primary or caucus happening in 2020. 

Monday February 3: The Iowa caucuses

  • The first state to vote in the 2020 election. Though it’s largely made up of white, rural voters, its spot in the voting lineup means it helps set the stage for the rest of the primary season. 

  • Whoever wins Iowa could get a lot of momentum, attention, and donor dollars. 

  • Thing To Know: Former President Obama won the Iowa caucuses in 2008. The win changed the trajectory of his campaign and took him from an underdog to a serious contender. 

Tuesday February 11: The New Hampshire primary

  • The second state to vote. Similar to Iowa, New Hampshire has a reputation for propelling forward candidates that may go on to be president.

  • In recent years, both New Hampshire and Iowa have faced criticism over their influence on the election, given their largely white populations. Some have argued winning there isn’t representative of the desires of a diverse US population and therefore shouldn’t matter as much as it does. 

  • Thing To Know: After New Hampshire, the frontrunners typically separate from the rest of the pack. Only one person in the last 40 years has lost both Iowa and NH and gone on to be president: Bill Clinton.

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Saturday February 22: The Nevada Democratic caucus 

  • Another key early state that pollsters and political analysts pay attention to. 

  • This is the first state to vote that has a significant Hispanic and Asian-American population. Its population is more racially diverse and urban than Iowa or New Hampshire. It's also reportedly a high-turnout caucus. Which means more people’s perspectives may be taken into account.  

  • Because of this, some in the Democratic party consider Nevada the first state to vote that’s representative of the party. As the Democratic electorate becomes increasingly diverse, winning here confirms a candidate’s ability to appeal to a variety of voters. 

Saturday February 29: The South Carolina Democratic primary

  • Another early state that helps candidates gain momentum heading into Super Tuesday.

  • The first state with a significant black population to vote. The black constituency is considered a key voting bloc for Dems.

  • Winning over black female voters will be crucial. Black women had a large turnout in the 2018 midterms and emerged as one of the most active voting blocs. Candidates will have to prove they are committed to issues that this bloc cares about, like maternal health and equal pay. 

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Tuesday March 3: Super Tuesday

  • Party pants on. Super Tuesday accounts for almost 40% of all the delegates up for grabs. Performing well today is key to winning a party’s nomination. 

  • Super Tuesday is going down in: Alabama, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Vermont, and Virginia. Plus, there's the American Samoa Democratic caucus. 

  • Thing To Know: California has the most delegates in the whole country. Translation: if you want to be a presidential nominee, you want to win Cali.

Related: Don't know what caucuses are? Confused about delegates? We explain it all over here.

Tuesday March 10: Idaho, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, and Washington primaries; North Dakota Democratic caucus.

  • In early March the state of the race could still be up in the air.

  • If there isn't a clear frontrunner after Super Tuesday, winning Midwestern states like Michigan will be vital. It may signify how people in the suburbs, black voters, and working-class white voters feel about the candidates.

  • The Midwest was an important player in the 2016 presidential election. States that have typically been blue – like Wisconsin and Michigan – flipped red, helping Trump win the presidency. 

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Tuesday March 17: Arizona Democratic primary, Florida and Illinois primaries; Northern Marianas Republican convention. 

  • Florida has the largest delegate count out of all the battleground states. 

  • Both parties will want a candidate who can do well there. They’ll try to appeal to the state’s independent voters (about 3 million people) who really make Florida say ‘swing.’ 

Tuesday April 7: Wisconsin primaries

Tuesday April 28: Ohio primaries

Tuesday June 2: Connecticut, DC, Delaware, Indiana, Maryland, Montana, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and South Dakota primaries


National conventions: It’s party time. The conventions usually last about four days. It’s where delegates officially nominate their party’s nominee. 

The Details: Each party has their own convention rules but they look pretty similar from the outside. Think: lots of party supporters in their best red, white, and blue, speeches, TV crews, balloons. Oh and thousands of delegates voting for a nominee. To win a party’s nomination, a candidate typically needs a simple majority of delegate votes. Spoiler: the primary system means everyone pretty much knows who the nominees will be at this point. It wasn’t always like this. But now the conventions are basically a sales pitch to the American people, with a focus on unifying the party heading into the general election. 

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August 17 – 20: Democratic National Convention

  • Going down in Milwaukee, WI. 

  • The Democratic National Committee says this is the first time in more than a century that a Midwestern city other than Chicago will host the event. 

  • The DNC also says Milwaukee is a good representation of the party’s “working people.”

  • The location is seen as a symbolic choice. It’s a sign of the party’s commitment to winning back a state that went for Trump in 2016.

August 24 – 27: Republican National Convention Loading Spinner

  • Going down in Charlotte, NC.

  • Surprise: Trump’s expected to be the nominee. Since 1900, only five presidents have lost their reelection campaigns, so the odds are in his favor. But his polling averages aren’t necessarily singing ‘winner winner chicken dinner.’ Throughout his presidency, his Gallup approval rating has fluctuated between 35% and 46%. 


General election season: The part where the presidential nominees get their big campaign energy on. Cue large cross-country rallies, town halls, and televised debates.

The Details: To elect a president, the US uses the Electoral College. There are 538 electoral votes total. Each state gets a certain number based on the number of lawmakers it has in Congress (in both the House and Senate). To become president, a candidate needs 270 electoral votes. 

To get to 270, it goes a little something like this: on Election Day, you cast your ballot. In most states, the candidate with the most votes gets all of that state’s electoral votes (vs awarding electoral votes proportionally). Meaning even if a winning candidate, say in New York, only gets 51% of the popular vote, they get 100% of the state’s 29 electoral votes.

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The Electoral College winner isn’t always the popular vote winner. This is where things get contentious. The Electoral College has become more controversial in recent decades due to instances where candidates won the popular vote but lost the electoral vote…and the presidency (see: 2000, 2016). The general argument against the Electoral College boils down to it not being representative of what the people want. And giving certain states outsized influence on who becomes president. On the flip side, some people think going with the popular vote wouldn’t be fair either – because it gives more populous states like California and Texas more weight than smaller states like Rhode Island. 

Tuesday September 22: National Voter Registration Day

  • You won’t make it to E-day unless you put in the work now. Get registered here. To check your voter status, click here

  • Registration deadlines vary by state. To check your voter registration deadline, click here.

Tuesday September 29: First general election presidential debate 

  • University of Notre Dame in Notre Dame, Indiana.

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Wednesday October 7: Vice presidential debate

  • University of Utah in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Thursday October 15: Second presidential debate

  • University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Michigan. 

Thursday October 22: Third presidential debate

  • Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee. 

Tuesday November 3: Election Day

Time to head to the polls and cast your vote. It’s always the first Tuesday (after the first Monday) in November. And depending on your state, you can vote early or absentee.

Related: Get to know the 2020 candidates and the main issues driving this election.

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