Caucus states mull primaries ahead of 2020 Dem fight

Caucus states mull primaries ahead of 2020 Dem fight
© Getty Images

A battle over the future role of superdelegates within the Democratic Party is overshadowing a more subtle transition that will have a significant impact on the 2020 presidential campaign, as several states move toward dropping their traditional party caucuses in favor of primary elections that would draw tens or hundreds of thousands of new voters.

The changes reflect a recognition that state Democratic parties may be ill-equipped to handle a massive spike in turnout to ordinarily sleepy caucuses. But observers say there is a political angle as well, one that might favor more well-known and traditional candidates over insurgents who build an enthusiastic network of volunteers and grass-roots donors.

Colorado, Maine and Minnesota have already passed legislation — either through citizen initiative or in state legislatures — allowing political parties to hold primaries instead of their traditional caucuses. Utah’s legislature added funding for a primary, though a final decision will be made next year.

ADVERTISEMENT

Nebraska Democrats last week voted to advance a resolution that would scrap its caucuses in 2020. The state party will make a final decision in March, when the Democratic National Committee (DNC) issues guidance for how states may operate their nominating contests.


The largest state that holds caucuses, Washington, is also considering shifting focus to a primary election. Washington voters can already cast a ballot in a primary, but those votes do not determine which candidate wins delegates. Washington Democrats in recent years have resisted overtures from Secretary of State Kim Wyman (R), who favors a binding primary.

“We will see a pretty significant contraction in terms of the number of Democratic caucus states in 2020,” said Joshua Putnam, a political scientist at North Carolina State University who tracks internal party rules at his Frontloading HQ blog.

In recent presidential nominating contests, states that opted to hold a caucus rather than a primary were overrun by massive turnouts. A state like Iowa, which has practiced its caucuses for decades, is far better prepared for handling such a huge influx than a state like Maine, where voters in Portland waited in line for two or three hours during the 2016 nominating contest.

“Caucuses are labor-intensive and difficult to pull off,” said Kathy Sullivan, a member of the DNC from New Hampshire who observed the Maine caucuses last cycle. “Iowa has been doing it for a long time and is so proficient that its turnout equals some primary states. But if a state is not prepared, it can be overwhelming.”

There is also a cost issue: State parties pay the costs associated with a caucus, such as renting a venue, hiring security and tallying votes. Holding a primary shifts those burdens to the state, which pays for elections even if they ultimately serve only to elect delegates to a party’s nominating convention.

“We are in a new era of contested primaries, where because of the collapse of campaign finance laws, a candidate can stay in much longer than they used to be able to. It used to be when you fell below a certain level in the primaries, you didn’t get matching funds anymore,” said Elaine Kamarck, a member of the DNC’s Rules and Bylaws Committee. “These days, nobody takes matching funds. The system is basically dead.”

The DNC’s Unity Reform Commission, established after the bitter battle between Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonFive takeaways from Cruz, O'Rourke's fiery first debate Heller embraces Trump in risky attempt to survive in November Live coverage: Cruz, O'Rourke clash in Texas debate MORE and Sen. Bernie SandersBernard (Bernie) SandersFive takeaways from Cruz, O'Rourke's fiery first debate Ben & Jerry’s co-founders announce effort to help 7 Dem House challengers Dems look to Gillum, Abrams for pathway to victory in tough states MORE (I-Vt.), recommended that states move toward a government-run primary election. Many of those recommendations were adopted by the party’s Rules and Bylaws Committee, which sets the procedures by which nominating contests are run. 

“State-funded options very simply are more efficiently administered. And on top of that, the resources saved by opting into a state-run primary are better used elsewhere by state parties,” Putnam said.

Supporters of some candidates contemplating runs against President TrumpDonald John TrumpHannity urges Trump not to fire 'anybody' after Rosenstein report Ben Carson appears to tie allegation against Kavanaugh to socialist plot Five takeaways from Cruz, O'Rourke's fiery first debate MORE will undoubtedly note the shifting terrain, as primaries and caucuses favor different types of contenders. In both 2008 and 2016, the last two open Democratic nominating contests, Clinton — the favorite of most of the party establishment — did far better in primary states than in caucus states. Her liberal rival on both occasions outperformed her in caucus states.

In 2008, then-Sen. Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaThe Hill's 12:30 Report — Trump questions Kavanaugh accuser's account | Accuser may testify Thursday | Midterm blame game begins Dems look to Gillum, Abrams for pathway to victory in tough states Ford taps Obama, Clinton alum to navigate Senate hearing MORE’s (Ill.) campaign placed a premium on caucuses in small states, where just a few voters could swing several delegates. Obama won 15 caucuses, beginning with Iowa’s. His chief rival, Clinton, won only one, in American Samoa. Clinton won 61 more delegates than Obama in states that held primaries, but Obama netted 137 more delegates than Clinton in caucus states.

“Winning the Iowa caucuses played an important role in Barack Obama getting elected president,” said Chris Lu, who served in several positions in the Obama administration and is now a member of the DNC and a senior fellow at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center. “The strength of the Obama ’08 campaign was really organizing, and caucuses tend to lend themselves better to organizing.”

Eight years later, the difference between caucus states and primary states was even more pronounced. Sanders netted more delegates in caucus states, 147, than Obama in 2008. Clinton won more primaries than she did in her first run, and netted 511 delegates from those contests, enough to win the nomination.

Sanders backers asked the DNC’s unity commission to implement reforms to caucus states, including better record keeping. Sanders’s 2016 campaign felt stung by a lack of a mechanism for conducting recounts after narrowly losing in Iowa.

David McDonald, a longtime member of the DNC’s Rules and Bylaws Committee from Washington state, said caucuses can serve as important party-building operations. But in reality, caucuses require voters to show up at a specific time and place, making access difficult for those serving in the military, students away at college, those with disabilities or those who have to work.

“While in a perfect world I tend to think a caucus is the best system, in the real world as the volume of voters participating escalates the benefits of the caucus fade and choice between the two is far less clear,” McDonald wrote in an email.

And that volume of voters is likely to increase substantially in 2020. Democrats set a record for caucus participation in Iowa in 2008, after eight years out of the White House, when more than 239,000 Iowans braved snowdrifts and freezing temperatures to choose Obama over Clinton and then-Sen. John Edwards (N.C.). That was nearly double the number of Iowans who caucused in 2004.