Teach This: America’s Presidential Primaries, Explained

Use this video to introduce your students to the history of presidential primaries and to spark a discussion about the role of primaries today.

As the primary season continues, your students may have questions about the primary process and the reasoning behind it. “America’s Presidential Primaries, Explained,” a video from Vox, offers a bipartisan history of the primary process and provides students with a brief introduction to current debates about which states should vote first. Watching and discussing this video with students can open a conversation about representation and power; help students better understand the political procedures that shape our democracy; and push them to consider their role in maintaining or changing these processes.

Here’s how you might start:

1. Check Students’ Previous Knowledge

You can begin by brainstorming words or phrases that students associate with our primaries to see how familiar students are with the process. Be sure to define a few key terms, including primary, caucus, delegate and convention

You might also have students free-write for a few minutes about the question, “What is the fairest way to choose our presidential candidates?”

2. Watch Together 

Ask students to watch the Vox video “America’s Presidential Primaries, Explained.” As they watch, they should jot down answers to a few text-dependent questions. For example:

  • According to the video, why is the Iowa caucus “a hugely influential part” of the primary process?
  • How was the order of primary states chosen? Why is the New Hampshire primary so early?
  • How were candidates chosen before 1968? Why did this change?
  • What is one objection to holding primary contests in Iowa and New Hampshire first?
  • What is one reason why a national primary might be a problem?
  • In the video, Li Zhou summarizes three possible suggestions for reworking the primary system. What are they?

In pairs or small groups, have students compare their answers to these questions before sharing out with the class.

3. Share Necessary Background

Provide additional context for students by connecting this conversation to primary elections in your state or to the party conventions that follow. You might try one or more of the following:

  • Compare the date of your 2020 primary to that of other states, and identify which (if any) candidates left the race before your state’s primary.
  • Review the 2016 primary data for your state with students, and identify which (if any) candidates had left the race before your state had a chance to vote.
  • Follow the election process a bit further with students by teaching students about party conventions. This short video from the Brookings Institution provides a clear introduction to what actually happens at a convention.

4. Talk Together

Facilitate a discussion with students about the primary process. You might begin with the following questions:

  • Were you surprised by the complexity of the process? Do you think that a simpler process would be fairer? Why?
  • Iowa and New Hampshire, the first two primary states, both have disproportionately white populations. Why does this matter? What might be some of the effects of this?
  • In the video, Zhou mentions a project by FiveThirtyEight that reordered the Democratic primary calendar based on representative demographics. They chose to evaluate states based on race, ethnicity and education level. Do you think these are the best ways to find representative states? What other information might we use to decide on which states vote first?
  • The video presents three alternatives to our current primary order. Which do you think would be best? Why?
  • The demonstrations at the 1968 Democratic National Convention have become famous for changing the way our primary process works. What do you think it would take to promote change today? 

For more resources for teaching about elections and voting, check out our Future Voters Project.

Teaching Tolerance collage of images

Welcome to Learning for Justice—Formerly Teaching Tolerance!

Our work has evolved in the last 30 years, from reducing prejudice to tackling systemic injustice. So we’ve chosen a new name that better reflects that evolution: Learning for Justice.

Learn More