by John Stafford
(Disclosure: I am a member of the Democratic Party in South Seattle, and am a supporter of Bernie Sanders. On March 26, 2016, I ran an area caucus (comprised of six precinct caucuses) on Beacon Hill.)
The 2016 Democratic Caucuses, held in Washington State on Saturday, March 26, from roughly 10:00 a.m. until noon, have generated considerable debate. The issues raised can be divided into several categories: attendance and demographics; the merits of a caucus versus a primary election system; timing; and the ethics of superdelegates. This article explores each of these topics.
There are about four million registered voters (out of a population of just over seven million) in Washington State. At the 2016 caucuses, there were 230,000 people in attendance – less than 5.8% of registered voters. From an historical perspective, this was “very strong attendance,” and there were many reports of overfilled caucus sites. Indeed, this year’s attendance rivaled the remarkable Obama- driven 2008 attendance levels of 250,000. For most years, turnout is much lower than these figures. This illustrates two points: caucus attendance – even when high by historic norms, involves a low percentage of voters; and caucus attendance is mercurial – fluctuating wildly based on each year’s election dynamics.
In addition, those that do attend the caucuses are not representative of the Democratic voter base. The ability and proclivity of individuals to spend several hours on a Saturday morning to caucus is not uniformly distributed across demographic groups (ethnic, immigrant, age, disability, etc.). In particular, there are indications that minority participation rates were low. Indeed, a recent academic paper from BYU found that those who caucus nationally tend to be “…the wealthy, educated, white and interested.”1 It is possible that additional voter outreach efforts can help in this area, but this remains a major concern.
The caucus process also tends to favor the candidate with the more activated base. By combining these observations, one can argue that the caucus approach (relative to a primary election) structurally favored Sanders relative to Clinton: lower minority turnout (which heretofore has favored Clinton), more appeal to an activist base (which characterizes Sanders’ campaign), and the fact that many caucuses were held in public schools, which may facilitate youth turnout (which also favors Sanders). Certainly, these factors were not the primary determinants of Sanders’ dominant performance in the state. Nonetheless, it is worth noting that a certain approach to the primary (e.g., caucus versus election) can structurally favor one candidate over another.
CAUCUS VERSUS PRIMARY ELECTION
These observations lead to the question of whether a primary election (by mail) would be a better vehicle than a caucus. There are, of course, myriad tradeoffs.
As just discussed, primary elections tend to have much better turnout and lower turnout variability between years. Earlier this year in Massachusetts (a state with a slightly lower population than Washington), 1.2 million Democrats voted in the primary election – more than five times as many than voted in the Washington caucuses.2 Some analysts (e.g., Danny Westneat of The Seattle Times) argue the use of a caucus, with its lower turnout, is inconsistent with the Democratic Party’s opposition to other measures that suppress voter turnout.3
The main argument in favor of caucuses is that they provide neighbors with a chance to interact and debate the merits of candidates. This can contribute to a sense of community, and allow more thoughtful deliberation on the candidates. Others argue that in the age of social media, there is more than enough information available on the candidates, rendering caucuses anachronistic. Some also claim that verbal participation in caucuses favors the loudest, most aggressive (but not necessarily most insightful) speakers, and that there is always the risk that speakers may be staff members for a campaign. Moreover, during this year’s caucuses, a number of attendees complained that there was not enough time to debate the candidates. It does seem reasonable to ensure that if the caucus approach continues in the state, they should be reformatted to allow more time for candidate debate.
The cost to the Democratic Party to operate the multi-stage caucus process is significant. There are, however, a number of benefits that accrue to the party. Caucuses serve as broader civic forums, where signature gatherers can work on initiatives and referendums, and candidates for other races can appear and talk with voters. They also generate meaningful data on attendees (addresses, phone numbers, e-mail addresses, etc.) via the sign-in sheets, which can be used for a variety of purposes. And caucuses generate press and visibility, which is especially advantageous when only one party in the state uses the caucus process to allocate delegates. Seen in this light, one may argue that the caucus process is a financial investment by the party to generate party cohesion, press attention, and voter data, all in the process of selecting a presidential candidate.
Finally, it is important to note that there are ways to structure the caucuses to seek to combine the benefits of caucuses and the primary election. For example, the caucuses offer an early mail-in option (where an individual sends in their vote in advance by claiming they have other plans on the caucus date). If this option were more broadly communicated and made available with fewer restrictions, it could serve to provide two effective options to voters – mail in ballot or caucus.
It appears that the Democratic Party is not inclined to change its system. Jamal Raad, a spokesman for the Washington State Democrats, says that the party’s 176 member central committee voted overwhelmingly last year to keep the caucus system.4
There are two issues associated with timing. The first is whether Washington State should be late in the national primary process. A benefit of going earlier is that the state becomes more influential, with heightened visibility; a benefit of going later is a more informed vote. Later dates also tend to generate more variability in attendance – higher in a very close race but lower in a race that has already been decided. The second is the issue of concurrence with the Republican Party. This year, there is nothing close to overlap — the Democratic Precinct Caucuses (March 26) occur in between the Republican Caucuses (February 20; used to select delegates) and the Republican Primary Election (May 24; used to allocate delegates). As noted previously, the fact that only the Democratic Party uses its caucus to allocate delegates and that it occurs on a date with no Republican presidential nominating activity makes the Democratic Caucuses a strong magnet for press coverage.
The topic of superdelegates (a national, not just a state practice) is perhaps the most controversial of the entire process. Washington State will send 119 delegates to the national convention. Of these, 101 are allocated based on the caucus process, and 18 are superdelegates. The superdelegates are elected officials and party leaders (e.g., Jay Inslee, Parry Murray, Maria Cantwell, Jaxon Ravens, etc.) who can choose to support either candidate and are not bound by the state’s caucus voting. In Washington State, Sanders won in each of the 39 counties in the state, earning 73% of the vote, which will translate into about 75 of the state’s 101 delegates. Of the superdelegates, however, everyone who has declared a preference thus far is backing Clinton. Thus, the state’s voters voted predominantly for Sanders, but the people they elected in other offices and their party leaders (the superdelegates) are going to vote predominantly for Clinton.
This disconnect between delegates and superdelegates is playing out nationwide. Clinton has won 56% of the delegates, but 98% of the superdelgates. It is not surprising that the nation’s Democratic Party officials are favoring a longtime member of their own party, rather than a Democratic Socialist. That being said, this leads to the possibility that Sanders could win the national delegate count, but still lose the nomination due to the preferences of the unelected superdelegates.
This raises several issues. First, many argue that the practice of using superdelegates should be abolished, given that they are not democratically elected. Indeed, the Sanders campaign is arguing that Washington’s superdelegates should change their votes to reflect the voters’ preferences. Second, there are concerns about the process by which the superdelegates make their voting decisions. In a Crosscut article entitled, “Superdelegates poison the democratic process,” former Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn explains that there is a pre-caucus “perception primary,” where party leaders and advocacy groups evaluate the viability of candidates, and that this process influences superdelegate preferences. He writes: “But when the election appears to have been decided before the first vote is cast, it puts real pressure on endorsers. Remember, the perception primary told everybody that Hillary was a sure winner and Bernie was an unlikely long shot. The clear message was ‘get on board or be left behind.’”5 Third, one may argue that in some instances, the superdelegate process is inherently corrupt. Elected officials who have an interest in serving in an upcoming presidential cabinet have some incentive to support the candidate most likely to win, in order to increase their chances of being considered for a cabinet post. It goes without saying that the superdelegate dimension of the primary process is likely to remain highly controversial.
The 2016 Washington State Democratic Caucuses were very well attended by historic norms, and they expressed a clear preference for presidential nominee. They also raised a number of questions regarding attendance, demographics, benefits versus a primary election, timing and superdelegates. Perhaps the two most salient questions are: (1) Are caucuses the best way to conduct the Democratic presidential primary in Washington State? Do they provide a much needed forum for individual exchange in an increasingly technological and impersonal age, or are they an unnecessary anachronism? (2) Is it appropriate to utilize superdelegates, or are they an unwelcome hindrance to the democratic process? There are many views on these important questions.
John Stafford is a senior substitute teacher for Seattle Public Schools, and a former partner with Strategic Planning Associates, a management consulting firm in Washington, D.C. He was a candidate for Washington State Senate in the 37th Legislative District in 2014. He is writing a monthly article on public policy for the South Seattle Emerald.
- The BYU paper is cited by Danny Westneat, The Seattle Times, 3/30/16.
- Seattle Times, 3/30/16.
- Danny Westneat, The Seattle Times, 3/30/16.
- The Stranger, 3/23/16.
- Mike McGinn, Crosscut Daily Newsletter, 3/29/16.
Feature image: CC Licensed photo by Doran Bastin/