Explain This

Should We Care About the Difference Between Primaries Versus Caucuses?

Yes, because this is why the fight between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders supporters continues.

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If you spend any time on Twitter, odds are you’ve seen some skirmishes over open versus closed Democratic primaries, and how the elevation of caucuses, as opposed to primaries, is the bright and shining future of the all-new, inclusive Democratic Party.

You may not pay close enough attention to politics to know this is, basically, yet another proxy battle between the hard-core Bernie left and the mainstream Hillary Clinton wing for the future of the Democratic Party.

What does it all mean?

To quote Washington Post reporter David Weigel, “For a certain kind of 2016 Sanders supporter, the primary never really ended. It grew into a defining, eye-opening event — a moment when it became clear that the Democrats could not be trusted, were not worth co-opting, and might literally be getting away with crimes.”

One example of this brand of political paranoia was the fervent embrace of right-wing conspiracy theories by Bernie supporters — stories that insinuated Hillary Clinton was responsible for the death of Democratic National Committee staffer Seth Rich, who was shot in the early-morning hours on his way home after leaving a D.C. bar. Seth Rich was reborn as a patriotic secret Bernie supporter who leaked the DNC emails to Julian Assange and Wikileaks — despite the lack of credible evidence, and despite the pleadings of Seth Rich’s parents. (One screed I read claimed his parents were only saying this because they were afraid the Clintons would kill them, too.)

But the infamous DNC emails did not show collusion to keep Bernie Sanders from getting the nomination, because those letters were dated after it was already mathematically impossible for him to win.

Hillary Clinton beat Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primaries by four million votes. In any combination of alternative scenarios, she would have won.


The prime directive of politics is “First, solidify your base.” And to put it bluntly, Sanders voters aren’t the base of the Democratic party. (The base is defined as the groups of people who reliably turn out and vote Democratic, no matter what — what we used to call “yellow dog Democrats,” as in, voters who would vote for a dog that had a “D” after its name.)

Base voters don’t stay home because Hillary gave a well-paid speech to Goldman Sachs, or because her husband signed a welfare reform bill 20 years ago. Base voters know the health and welfare of our communities is dependent on the progressive policies of a Democratic majority, and they don’t refuse to vote for a nominee simply because they didn’t support him or her in the primaries. They see the larger benefits of a Democratic majority, and they consistently turn out and vote for Democrats, no matter what, to support that.

So who are these Democratic base voters, anyway? The base consists primarily of the 94% of African-American women and the 82% of African-American men who voted for Hillary, the 75% of Asian-Americans, and the 66% of Latinos. (Compare that to the 53% of white women and 63% of white men who voted for Trump.)

Because this is our base, Democrats get a little annoyed when Sanders supporters dismiss them as mere “identity politics.”

All politics is identity politics.

Recent data shows an estimated 12% of Sanders voters voted for Donald Trump in numbers large enough to put him in the White House. (See “base,” above.)

Also, a reminder of something that will be relevant later in this discussion: Bernie Sanders is not a Democrat. He might have briefly switched his registration to Democratic during the primaries, but he’s  an Independent again now, as he always has been.

As a way of making nice with Sanders voters after the bitter primaries, the DNC formed a Unity Reform Commission during last year’s Democratic National Convention.

Which, of course, only made things worse.

One of the mandates in the approved proposal that established the URC was to “make recommendations to encourage the expanded use of primary elections.” (In practical terms, that means using incentives to get state parties that still use caucuses to switch, like decreasing their power to select delegates.)

The proposal also included recommendations to make the caucus process  “less burdensome and more inclusive, transparent and accessible to participants.”


●      Closed Primary: One in which only registered members of a party can vote.

●      Semi-closed: Also allows unaffiliated voters to vote. Depending on the state, independents either make their choice inside the voting booth, or by registering with any party on the day of the election.

●      Open Primary: A registered voter may vote in any party primary regardless of his party. An example of what can happen in an open primary? Someone like Rush Limbaugh telling his listeners to vote for the candidate Republicans prefer as an opponent — which happens more often than you think.

●      Semi-open: When a registered voter usually has to pick a party-specific ballot — either in front of election judges, or on the ballot itself.

●      Run-off: A primary in which the ballot is not restricted to one party and the top two candidates advance to the general election regardless of party affiliation. There is a second round only if neither candidate gets a majority in the first.


There’s something uniquely appealing about the concept of caucuses. The thought that neighbors could meet, argue respectfully, and advocate for their candidates is downright inspiring.

It doesn’t always work out that way.

For one thing, caucuses can last hours — as long as six hours.

Caucuses are held in Iowa, Alaska, Colorado, American Samoa, Minnesota, North Dakota, Wyoming, Kansas, Kentucky, Maine, Hawaii, Idaho, U.S. Virgin Islands, Washington state, and Guam — majority-rural states and territories, without dense populations.

States conduct caucuses for several reasons, but the biggest reason? The same reason networks have so many reality shows: They’re cheaper.

And depending on the state, they’re complicated and time-consuming — again, as long as 6 hours.

One thing you should understand is that caucuses are geared toward outlier candidates. The voters who are young, healthy, energetic, and idealistic are mostly the ones who can spare an entire day to argue their way through a series of votes for their candidates. This is why Bernie Sanders did so well in caucuses, and not so well in primaries.

But here’s the thing Clinton Dems keep pointing out: Caucuses are far from democratic. They discriminate against the working poor, the infirm elderly, and parents of young children. Caucuses are usually held on Saturdays, when those who work in retail often have to work. Parents have to find someone, and usually pay them, to watch the kids during a four-hour caucus. Observant Orthodox Jews and Seventh Day Adventists are just two mainstream religious sects that would be unable to attend a Saturday caucus. And, for a variety of health issues — bad knees, respiratory or cardiac problems, to name a few — many older voters can’t stand at a caucus. (There is a lot of standing at some caucuses.) Caucuses often take place on snowy days, when the elderly are afraid to leave their homes because they could fall on ice and break a hip.

If you leave before the end of most caucuses, your vote won’t count.

Also: People get in your face and scream at caucuses. There’s no way around this: You, personally, may have had a wonderful experience at your local caucus, but at far too many of them, participants (especially women) report being bullied into backing a candidate they don’t like.

How does that happen? Well, caucuses are a lot like courtroom trials. The defense attorney presents his or her version of events, and then the prosecutor speaks. You, the jury, are supposed to be paying close enough attention to catch any lies or discrepancies.

So you listen closely, and you hold your ground. But if your caucus is one vote short of a majority, and you’re the holdout, you may find yourself the target of a lot of angry people, yelling at you for preventing their candidate from winning.

If you don’t enjoy fighting (or Twitter swarms), you may be uncomfortable. (I like fighting, but I live in a state with primaries.) Also, there’s peer pressure: Not everyone wants their neighbors to know how they voted.

Supporters of insurgent candidates prefer caucuses because they’re a lot easier to dominate, and caucus wins are useful. They can give the perception of campaign momentum for relatively marginal candidates. That means more donations, and the potential to win yet another state. So supporters of long-shot candidates tend to take them very seriously.


Armando Lloréns-Sar, a lawyer and long-time Daily Kos writer, wrote in June about a Twitter exchange he had with Nomiki Konst, a reporter for The Young Turks and an activist Bernie Sanders supporter. (She is also a Sanders representative on the Dems’ Unity Reform Commission.)

Lloréns-Sar said he opposed caucuses and called them “truly racist.”

“They favor non-POC who are more likely to have the time and resources to travel to caucuses rather than participate in state-run primaries,” he wrote. “There really is no principled defense for favoring a caucus that is relatively sparsely attended to a state-run primary that includes magnitudes more voters, especially voters of color.”

He is openly suspicious that the Sanders-designated URC delegates plan to propose a rule that calls for states to hold open presidential primaries, and if the state refuses, and instead holds a closed primary, that a state party hold a caucus instead to select presidential nomination delegates.

He wrote that he believes Konst and her fellow Sanders delegates not only support it, “but I believe they plan to make it a deal breaker. I believe they will walk out of the commission if they do not get their way.” (I guess we’ll know soon enough.)

Konst keeps insisting she does not want caucuses to replace primaries, but if Lloréns-Sar is right, she is simply taking a back road to the same place. Such a rule would turn primaries into mere beauty contests and all the real power — that is, the ability to elect delegates for a specific candidate — would reside in the caucuses.

This goes to the heart of the argument. Long-time Democratic activists suspect that Sanders activists don’t actually care about the future of the Democrats; they accuse his supporters of wanting to game the system to elevate whatever works for Bernie Sanders, and not the Democratic party.

To that potential end, Sanders activists are also pushing hard for open primaries (explained above). As an example, they cite Sanders supporters in New York state who could not vote for Sanders in their state’s primary, because they hadn’t registered as Democrats before the early deadline.

That idea doesn’t sit well with long-time Democrats. Inviting Republicans and independents (who mostly lean conservative) to vote in the presidential primaries?

Esquire writer Charles P. Pierce warned:

Don’t do this. A political party that conducts open primaries is a political party just begging to be hijacked by the loudest voice in the room and/or ratf*cked by any half-witted operative on the other side. Your party’s nominating process should be kept within your party. And caucuses are completely worthless, both in terms of practical politics and in terms of the basic function of finding a nominee.

To go to open primaries and caucuses will work in many states to dilute the influence of minority voters, which is the true Democratic base and has been for several cycles now. I realize that the Sanders campaign was a transformative experience for a lot of people. But there is nothing in its history or its outcome that would lead anyone to believe that it was successful at anything except pushing the platform to the left, which was a very good thing. The 2016 Democratic platform was the most progressive of my lifetime.

But times and circumstances are different now. There is an existential threat to the Republic unfolding in Washington. Mass marches are fine; everybody should go to one. But the only actual vehicle with which to confront this political disaster is the battered old Democratic Party, which needs to consolidate itself as a force, and not spend all its time handing out participation ribbons to angry people.


This chasm between the Sanders and Clinton wings of the party is only exacerbated by the tendency of Sen. Sanders (who, as I reminded you earlier, is not a Democrat) to take every opportunity to attack the Democratic Party.

At the recent People’s Summit in Chicago, he said: “Trump didn’t win the election; the Democratic Party lost the election. Let us be very, very clear: The current model—the current model and the current strategy of the Democratic Party–is an absolute failure.”

Democratic Clinton activists think Sanders’ vicious attacks on Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party during the primary did much to turn young people away from her in the general election, and see Sanders as an opportunist who coasted on the backs of the Democratic Party because he refused to do the daunting work of forming a third party.

And Hillary Clinton did beat Donald Trump by 3 million votes — despite Russian hacking, Republican voter suppression, the last-minute Comey letter, and an all-out fake news attack via social media. If Bernie voters had voted for her instead of Trump, she’d be sitting in the Oval Office right now.

Which leads to another common complaint about Sen. Sanders. When he finally did begin to stump for Clinton, his lack of enthusiasm was palpable. He leaned heavily on his own campaign stump speech and had little to say that was positive about Clinton. Instead, he seemed to present her to his voters as merely the lesser of two evils.


Sen. Sanders is well-liked among mainstream Democrats, the people who don’t follow the minutiae of intra-party fighting. He is a forthright critic of moneyed interests, a powerful advocate for universal health care, and an inspiration to an entire generation.

But he is, shall we say, also a tad egotistical who is famous for his inability to play well with other members of Congress. He sees the world in political shades of black and white — which is why he hasn’t been able to wrangle any major legislation.

How do Democrats deal with this hostile outsider in their midst, someone whose supporters want to reshape the primary system to his benefit?

Experienced activists are not going to sit down and shut up as they watch newcomers pursue policies and changes that their years of experience tell them will threaten the long-term growth of the party.

Is it really counterproductive to expect that Democratic primary voters should be members of the Democratic party? Even more important: Is it unreasonable to require that someone who wants to run for president as a Democrat should be a Democrat?

Sanders activists want to put all their eggs in one basket marked “Bernie Sanders” — a man who will be 80 years old by 2020. Will he even want to run?

Despite accusations from the Sanders camp, this is not a case of the “establishment” trying to protect the status quo. These are long-time party activists who have spent years fighting to expand voting rights for Democrats, in the face of Republicans who are trying to limit them.

Democrats don’t want to discourage the enthusiasm of so many young, new voters. But neither do they want to give the newcomers the final word on such important issues as how we choose the party’s presidential nominee, because Democrats are dedicated to inclusion — and that won’t change anytime soon.

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