Welcome to Phase 3 of the United States presidential nomination process. This is the three-month period from early March to early June when about three fifths of the 50 states, spread across the nation, hold many presidential primaries and just a few caucuses.
The action begain this past Tuesday, when six states, including Michigan, cast their 2020 primaries and caucuses ballots. Then on March 17, four more states will vote. Three of them, however, are populous states with many delegates at stake — Florida, Illinois, and Ohio.
If one candidate sweeps those three big states, at that point the Democratic contest could be over and the winner the de facto Democratic nominee.
To review, Phase 1 of the primaries and caucuses was the four contests in Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina. With their individual early voting dates officially designated by the Democratic National Committee, these four states received direct personal campaigning from the major party candidates for president. The popular image of hope-to-be presidents meeting families in their kitchens in Iowa and New Hampshire is an accurate one.
Phase 2 was last week’s Super Tuesday, when 14 states, seven of them in the South, voted all on the same day. Colorado joined the Super Tuesday voting for the first time in 20 years. Because only three days separated the South Carolina Democratic primary from Super Tuesday, there was no opportunity for Iowa/New Hampshire-style personal campaigning in the Super Tuesday states. Candidates turned to the internet, television advertising, television debates, and speaking to large audiences in major cities to make their plea for votes.
Phase 3 is a jumble. Individual states schedule primaries and caucuses anytime in the three-month period they want to. No rational individual or organized group set out to create this lengthy period in which many states hold nominating contests. Each state does what its state legislature, or in some cases its political party leadership, decides for it.
Here is what to keep an eye on in Phase 3:
• It is different every four years. States move their primaries or caucuses around frequently from one date to another. Some even move back and forth between Phase 2 (Super Tuesday) and Phase 3. California and New York are two populous states that have moved their presidential primary day around quite a bit over the past 40 years or so. Over the long haul, Colorado has had trouble choosing between primaries and caucuses as well as whether to vote on Super Tuesday or not.
• There are big days on which a large number of populous states are holding primaries or caucuses. Then there are times when just one populous state is voting. States voting on big days receive less campaigning from candidates because of so much activity crammed into just one day. In contrast, states that are fortunate enough to have the voting day all to themselves will experience many more candidate visits.
• It is good for a candidate during Phase 3 to enlist the support of state and local party elected officials. Endorsements from a state’s governor, U.S. senators, mayors, and state legislators give the candidate good publicity at virtually no cost.
• National media coverage is the best way to campaign for votes during Phase 3. An interview on a national news program creates free TV exposure in every state holding a primary or caucuses on a particular day.
• An occasional problem in Phase 3 is there is no way to determine when a candidate has definitely won his party’s nomination for president. Some losing candidates take themselves out of the race, something that has already happened in 2020 with a number of major Democratic contenders. Other candidates, however, refuse to quit and continue their campaign long after the news media have declared that another candidate is the certain party nominee.
Since 1960, a winning candidate has generally emerged in both political parties prior to the end of Phase 3. In some cases, winners have been declared after Phase 2 (Super Tuesday) or right after Phase 1 (Iowa, New Hampshire, etc.). In 2008 a lengthy competition between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton was not decided until almost the start of the Democratic National Convention (Obama got the most delegates and the nomination).
Throughout the past 60 years, Phase 3 (or earlier) has essentially produced both the major party nominees for the November election.
This year’s race for presidential party nominations is proving lengthier than most. Vermont U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders did best in the first four primaries and caucuses (Phase1), but former Vice President Joe Biden scored a stunning come-from-behind victory on Super Tuesday (Phase 2). Right now it looks like Phase 3 is going to be a slugfest for the Democratic nomination between Sanders and Biden.
Prepare for what may be a lengthy, and exciting, Phase 3 grind.
Tom Cronin and Bob Loevy were longtime political science professors at Colorado College in Colorado Springs. They regularly write about Colorado and politics.