Five Things to Know about the Presidential Primary Election

February 24, 2020 - Karessa Weir

Super Tuesday is quickly approaching and the predictions are ramping up as to who will win the 2020 Democratic primary election.

Matt Grossmann – associate professor of political science and director of Michigan State University’s Institute for Public Policy and Social Research – wants you to slow down, take a step back and learn a few important points about presidential primaries before you get overwhelmed by the rapid news cycle.

1. The process is sequential and majoritarian.
Because the U.S. does not have a national primary election, each state party holds its own contest that allows candidates to gain primary delegates for the national party conventions.

“The entire process is designed to get less popular candidates to drop out as support solidifies for a few top candidates,” Grossmann said. “The process is going about as normal as usual, but we started out with a really high number of candidates. Expect the number to continue to go down as we get more results.”

2. Media narratives self-perpetuate.
You may have heard the term “horse race coverage,” which is when media focus on quick changes in polling. But primary political coverage almost always follows the same pattern of discovery, scrutiny and decline, Grossmann said.

An initial surge of media coverage – mostly positive – leads to greater scrutiny and often uncovers scandals or unfavorable facts. This leads to an increase in negative coverage.

“In 2012, Herman Cain’s poll number went up and then there were allegations of affairs and his polls slide downward as the coverage turned negative,” Grossmann said.

3. Wait to go negative in multi-candidate races.
“With such a crowded field as the 2020 Democratic primary, candidates avoid attacking other candidates for several reasons,” Grossmann said.

Most often, “going negative” will hurt the attacker as well as the target and a third candidate will reap the benefits, he said.

“Attacks lead to counter-attacks and gets ugly fast,” Grossmann said. “Warren might attack Bloomberg but that could hurt her and help Sanders.”

4. Parties tried to repair the system they broke.
The primary system seems like one big mess, but Grossmann reminds us that it was actually worse before the parties “reformed the system to allow for more voters to be involved.”

Before that, party elites essentially chose the candidates leading to more Richard Daleys and fewer Ralph Naders. However, while high name endorsements continue to play a strong role, this year’s primary has also seen record amount of private money spent by candidates such as Mike Bloomberg and Tom Steyer.

5. Much will be forgotten by November.
Perhaps the most important thing to remember, Grossmann said, is that the primary is not the end but the beginning of the true presidential election in November. The negative ads pitting one Democrat against another will largely be forgotten as party loyalists coalesce around their candidates and campaigns begin to chase the elusive “undecided” or independent voters.

“We are likely to have a campaign of two unpopular figures – just like last time,” Grossmann said.

At this point, Grossmann expects the field to narrow to two or three candidates following the March 3 Super Tuesday primary. When Michiganders go to vote a week later on March 10, they will be playing a strong role in solidifying the top runners, he said.

“If Sanders loses Michigan, it matters more than losing other states because he won Michigan last time,” Grossmann said.