Monday, July 13, 2015

Washington State Will Have a 2016 Presidential Primary, but Caucuses, too

Working against a deadline, the Washington state legislature finished up not only a (third) 2015 special session, but completed work on a 2015-17 budget during the last week in June as well. This work had some impact on the 2016 presidential primary in the Evergreen state. Before digging into that impact, let's look at how the state parties have traditionally allocated delegates in Washington and how that set up the debate over the 2016 primary in the legislature.

For starters, Washington state parties had used a caucus/convention system to determine presidential preference in order select and allocate delegates to the national conventions in the earliest cycles of the post-reform era (1972-1988). After the 1988 cycle, however, an initiative push brought a presidential primary election to the northwest. In the time since that 1989 initiative, Democrats have never utilized the primary as a means of selecting, allocating or binding delegates. Instead, the Washington Democratic Party has opted to stick with the caucus/convention system.

Republicans in the Evergreen state have, depending on the cycle, used a two-step process with delegates being allocated based on the results of both the primary and caucuses. The rules have not been uniform over that post-initiative period for Republicans. In 2000, for instance, Washington Republicans allocated only a third of the the delegates apportioned them by the Republican National Committee via the primary. The remaining delegates were bound to candidates based on results from the caucus/convention process. Eight years later, during the 2008 cycle, Washington Republicans kept the two-step primary-caucus process, but nearly equalized the number of delegates allocated based on the results of each contest. This time 51% of the Republican delegates were allocated through the primary and the rest in the caucuses.

Republicans in Washington, then, have some history with a presidential primary. Democrats there do not.

That has some influence on how each state party and those affiliated with each in the state legislature approach the primary every four years. When Democrats control the state government and/or when Republicans do not have a competitive nomination on the horizon, the likelihood of the presidential primary being cancelled by the state legislature increase. Those reasons contributed to cancelations for the 2004 and 2012 cycles. The justification for the budget expense to fund the contest just is not there in all cycles (dependent on the political conditions in the state at a given point in time).

Unlike 2011, Democrats did not control all the levers of presidential primary decision-making in 2015. While the party retained the governor's mansion and the lower House of the legislature, Republicans won control of the state Senate following the 2014 midterm elections and the state elected a Republican secretary of state who pushed for the primary early on in 2015. That made a repeat of the 2011 cancelation a tougher sell. In fact, it was only after a bill began to work its way through the Republican-controlled state Senate to move the primary from May to March that a bill to cancel the presidential primary was even proposed by Democrats in control in the House.

This set up a stalemate on whether to move or cancel the primary between the two chambers, but it also created an impasse in the budget process over whether to appropriate funds for the election. In the case of the former, the Republican-controlled Washington Senate passed the bill to move the primary to March, but it later got bottled up in committee on the House side as the regular session drew to a close. Additionally, Washington Democrats made clear with the release their draft 2016 delegate selection plan that the party once again had no intention of utilizing any state-funded primary; at least not for allocating national convention delegates to candidates.

All of the legislation to either move or cancel the presidential primary carried over from the regular session to the first special session at the tail end of April. And the state Senate once again sent the May to March primary move bill back over to the state House. However, that was the point where the move or cancel impasse gave way to the fund or don't fund debate between the chambers. And to be clear, the two are not mutually exclusive. Not funding the primary would have canceled it, but state law calls for the election and thus the funding if there is no bill passed to cancel the election. With neither bill -- cancel or move -- likely to move, that basically forced the hand of the legislature. They had to -- and did in SB 6052 -- fund the presidential primary election, appropriating $11.5 million for an election that will apparently have a bearing on the allocation of just half of the Washington Republican delegates.

So, there is a presidential primary in Washington for 2016. What does that mean?

For Democrats in the state it means a beauty contest. Democrats can vote in the open primary (after declaring affiliation with the party), but it will not affect delegate allocation to the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia. The only benefit the Washington Democratic Party will derive from the primary is a list of participants they can use to target voters in the fall general election.

Democrats will caucus on Saturday, March 26.

The picture on the Republican side is less clear. If the party caucuses on the date they used in 2012 -- the first Saturday in March -- then they will caucus on March 5. That is just speculative though. The date of the primary is equally as unclear. It is clear now by law: Tuesday, May 24. Yet, the secretary of state -- Republican Kim Wyman in this case -- has the option of calling party leaders from both sides together to agree on an alternative. That was something that happened in June 2007 as the primary was moved into February accompanying February caucuses for both parties. And it appears at this point as if Wyman will do just that, targeting the same March 8 date embedded in the legislation to move the primary in the first place.

That would mean at least a couple of things. First, the Washington primary would be aligned with the primary in neighboring Idaho on March 8. That would make the pair the only contiguous states on that date; a potential draw to presidential candidates. However, it would also create a compact two-step primary-caucus if the caucuses end up on the preceding Saturday, March 5. There were ten days separating the Republican primary and caucuses in 2008, but a three day window for a double dip on the heels of Super Tuesday/SEC primary date could prove to be a coup of sorts for Washington Republicans.

We have a few more answers about the nomination process in Washington next year, but a handful of questions remain on the Republican side as the summer of 2015 stretches on.

Thanks to Jim Riley for the heads up on the Washington budget bill that passed in June.

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jimrtex said...

Quickly perusing Washington election laws, I don't see a requirement that a presidential primary be on a Tuesday. So Washington could set the primary on March 5.

But also remember that Washington elections are by mail, and to be counted they only have to be postmarked. So if Washington went with March 1, there would be preliminary results before the caucus. Supporters of candidates who did well, might be encouraged to also attend the caucus.

Because everyone in Washington can vote early, there would be more reason for candidates to campaign in Washington. This is one way states can reduce the kowtowing to Iowa, New Hampshire and the national parties.

Krist Novoselic said...

This is bad news for the libertarians in the state GOP. Many are PCO's who support Rand Paul. This bill could be an effort by the establishment leadership to suppress the influence of the libertarian's who tend to dominate the caucuses.