Before Americans pick a president in November, they get to pick the candidates in a series of primaries and caucuses. It’s a wonky process that has evolved over the course of the country’s history and continues to evolve today.
Here’s what to know:
What is a primary? It’s an election to select candidates, usually for a particular political party, to appear on the general election ballot.
Who is running in the primaries? For Democrats, Joe Biden is the sitting president and he’s running for reelection, which makes him the incumbent candidate.
Incumbents rarely face serious competition. There are some Democrats challenging him in the Democratic primaries, including Rep. Dean Phillips of Minnesota and author Marianne Williamson. But they have not yet generated much support, at least in opinion polls.
For Republicans, former President Donald Trump has long been the front-runner, meaning he appears in polling to have a lead over five other candidates who are still in the race.
Trump, as a former president, also projects some of the power of an incumbent, although he lost the last election. His is the first serious campaign by a former president for his party’s nomination since Teddy Roosevelt tried and failed to reclaim the Republican nomination in 1912.
Anti-Trump Republicans appear to be interested in two main options: former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. Haley has polled better in New Hampshire and DeSantis has focused on Iowa. Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy and former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson have had more trouble gaining support.
Who can vote in a presidential primary? It varies by state. Primaries are generally conducted in polling places like any other election.
But some states have “open primaries,” meaning any registered voter can vote in either the Democratic or Republican primary. Other states have “closed primaries,” meaning only people registered in a particular political party — usually Republicans or Democrats — can vote in that party’s primary.
Others offer voting day registration, which essentially opens the primaries to most registered voters.
When do the presidential primaries occur? The first date on the presidential primary calendar is January 15, although it is not technically for a primary.
On that day in Iowa, Republican Party members gather at events called caucuses, where they hear speeches from a campaign’s supporters and then vote for their preferred candidate. Unlike primaries in other states, these events are overseen by state parties and are not conducted like normal elections.
Democrats will also gather that day in Iowa, but their vote for president will be conducted by mail ending on March 5.
In some states, presidential primaries are conducted on one date and primaries for other offices are conducted later in the year. See the full calendar.
After Iowa, New Hampshire holds its “first-in-the-nation” primary on January 23, although Democrats are not sanctioning the event. Democrats want their first official primary to take place on February 3 in South Carolina, which is a more racially diverse state, and the first place Biden won a primary in 2020. That will then be followed by Nevada’s primary on February 6.
The calendar spreads out from there. Republicans compete in Nevada’s caucuses on February 8 and South Carolina on February 24.
Read more about the 2024 primaries.