Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Brown's Signature Sends California Primary Back to Super Tuesday for 2020


There had been some speculation in the time since the California state legislature passed legislation to move up the Golden state presidential primary for 2020 over whether Governor Jerry Brown (D) would sign the measure. That speculation ended barely a week after the legislature wrapped up its session by passing the primary bill.

Brown signed the bill -- SB 568 -- and in the process, moved not only the presidential primary into March but the statewide (midterm) primary as well.

Much has already said about what this move means. It means California shifts up 91 days on the calendar; bigger than any move during the 2016 cycle, and that the Golden state is joining an already crowded date on the 2020 calendar. Texas, Virginia and Massachusetts among others have been stationed there since at least 2016.

For more about what the move means, and perhaps more importantly, what it doesn't, please see our earlier primer on the subject.

Monday, September 18, 2017

California Primary Bill Passes Legislature. What It Means and What It Doesn't

On the final day the California legislature was in session for 2017, both chambers did what state legislatures often do at the close of a year: in short, legislate. The volume and pace of activity tends to markedly tick up as some bills make it through while others fall by the wayside. The final day in the Sacramento was no different.

But the bill FHQ was eyeing was SB 568, the amended legislation that would shift the California primary -- a consolidated presidential and statewide primary -- from the first Tuesday after the first Monday in June to the first Tuesday following the first Monday in March. That is not a proposal without significance, but in its amended form was scaled back from the more ambitious version that was originally introduced in February.

[Rather than rehash all of the particulars of the evolution of the bill here, I will encourage readers to check out those links from earlier in the year.]

It was that simpler version that eventually came up for a third reading and vote in the Assembly on the day the legislature was set to adjourn. Heading in, the early handicapping projected passage, and that was to be expected given Democratic support of the measure and the party in control in both chambers. Moreover, a similar bill that originated in the Assembly passed the lower chamber on a near party line vote back in July.

The vote on SB 568 mirrored that earlier vote on AB 84, passing 55-21 largely along party lines. Three Republicans crossed to vote in favor of the legislation while only one Democrat defected to vote no. That sent the amended bill back to the state Senate for concurrence where it, too, passed -- 26-10 -- on the strength of mainly Democratic votes. One member from each party opposed the party positions on the vote.

At this point, it seems as if Governor Jerry Brown (D) will sign the bill into law (but even in the event of a veto, Democrats have supermajorities in both the Assembly and Senate and would need to keep either nearly all of their members on board or the same supporters together to reach the two-thirds threshold to override the veto).

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Regardless of how it gets there, it looks like this bill will become law, and California will see its presidential (and statewide) primary shift up three months from June to March in 2020. What does it mean?

As it turns out, as others have gotten wind of this potential move, there has been no shortage of reactions to its impacts. Most have seen BIG STATE MOVING LOTS OF DELEGATES TO THE FRONT OF THE 2020 CALENDAR and have (over)reacted in predictable ways. Let's look at some of these reactions and offer some context along with some other notes of interest about the likely move.

Point I: 
Some have contended that a California move to the earliest date allowed non-carve-out states by the national parties will advantage homegrown candidates.

Counterpoint: 
That really is not an unreasonable conclusion. Someone like Kamala Harris would seemingly have a leg up in terms of organizing in the state, raising money from donors -- big money and otherwise -- in the state, and has already won statewide there. That looks good on paper, but is also a hypothesis that has been tested in other states with other candidates in past cycles. And the results have been mixed, and anything but a clear advantage for home state candidates.

Jimmy Carter's nascent 1980 team was involved in nudging legislators in both Alabama and Carter's own Georgia to move their primaries to coincide with the Florida primary in March. The idea was similar: give a candidate from the region (the South) some early wins. In addition, the primary motivation for the Carter team was to counter early hypothetical wins by Ted Kennedy in New Hampshire and Massachusetts. Of course, Carter benefited from but did not necessarily need that southern counterpunch after winning in New Hampshire.

And that is a decent lesson to take from this: unintended consequences. [Actually, that is a good lesson for anything involving the patchwork presidential nomination process.] Just because a candidate's home state has a well-scheduled primary or caucus, it does not mean that the move will pay dividends when it counts.

The reasons are quite simple.

First, those favorite sons and daughters have to survive to the point on the calendar on which their state primary is scheduled. California will be fifth among at least seven other states on March 3, 2020. Harris, Eric Garcetti or any other Californian vying for a presidential nomination in 2020 will still have to show some progress in the four likely February states, Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina. Four losses and a month's worth of potential negative press/fundraising as a result is no way to go into what would become a do-or-die contest back home in the Golden state. And no, Rudy Giuliani, you cannot just skip those first states and put all your chips in the California -- or in the former New York mayor's case, Florida -- basket. One runs the risk of losing any positive reaction to good showings in the early states and/or the race and other (victorious) candidates passing you by.

Second, as mentioned above, candidates will have options other than California on March 3, 2020. Texas or Virginia or Tennessee or take your pick. Candidates can go elsewhere in search of delegates. The Democratic candidates in 2008 that survived to Super Tuesday steered clear of Illinois, for example. They ceded the state to Obama and focused elsewhere. The same was true of Arkansas on the same date that year. No one ventured into the Natural state either, yielding to Clinton (and Huckabee) there.

Third and alternatively, a home state contest could also be a net negative for their candidate(s). And that is not necessarily because there may be multiple Californians in the race. There will be winnowing during February that will likely guard against that (multi-Californian) negative. No, home state contests can become must-wins for their candidates or may be opportunities for opponents to deal a death blow to the campaign of those from that state by beating them there. Both Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio in Florida in 2016 comes to mind on both those points. Each had discussions about primary timing and allocation with Sunshine state legislators in the lead up to 2016, and both Bush and Rubio and their teams were thinking the same thing: an unpenalized, winner-take-all Florida primary sure would be beneficial.

On paper, well in advance of 2016 voting, it was. However, presidential nominations are not won and lost on paper. Few elections are. What looked good to Rubio's and Bush's teams during the invisible primary in 2013-15 looked far different in 2016. Bush did not make it to Florida on March 15 and the loss there knocked Rubio from the race. It takes time to organize elections, and in that time -- from date scheduling to actual election -- conditions can change and ruin even the best laid plans.

None of this is to suggest that California will not be a boon to one of its home-grown candidates. Rather, the point is to provide some context. It is much to early to come to any such conclusion with an level of confidence and that is mainly a function of how similar moves have played out in other states and for other candidates during the post-reform era.


Point II:
Others have argued that an early California primary could price out some candidates; that the financial burden will now be too great for all but the candidates richest in resources.

Counterpoint:
While there is a kernel of truth to that contention -- big, populous, expensive state newly early on the calendar makes it tougher on candidates -- another way of approaching the analysis of the impact is to look at how things would be in 2020 without California alongside seven or more other states in early March.

After all, there are already states in that position on the calendar for 2020 and California was not alone in 2017 in looking at moving its primary there. Legislation to move primaries to the beginning of March was also put forth in Arkansas and North Carolina this year (and in Nebraska in 2016). No, those efforts were not successful, but movement in the year following a presidential election is atypical. It just is not a priority for most legislators until the year before a presidential election. Additionally, the three caucus-turned-primary states for 2020 -- Colorado, Maine and Minnesota -- have a history of contests on that same date or in early March. It would not surprising to see those new primaries end up next to California. And Georgia would likely strongly considered setting its date there again if the remnants of the SEC primary remain on the date. [Georgia "Gardner-ized" its primary scheduling process ahead of 2012, allowing the secretary of state the power to set the date. It resets every cycle. More on this below.]

None of this even considers other states that may also look at this early March position between now and mid- to late 2019.

The point here is to highlight the fact that California has chosen a landing spot on the calendar that tends to be overly clustered with other contests and has typically allocated the most delegates of any date on the calendar in most cycles. That was certainly true in 2016. With or without California, the point on the calendar most often dubbed Super Tuesday was going to be super anyway. That creates an obstacle -- having to compete in many places at once -- for candidates that has usually separated the wheat from the chaff (if that winnowing had not already occurred to some degree during the preceding invisible primary and early contests).

Yes, California adds to that burden from a delegates and expenditures standpoint, but what is the marginal effect adding the Golden state to the mix on Super Tuesday? Do any more candidates drop out because of their -- California's -- addition to the line up? In real time, in the midst of primary season, probably not many. The effects will most likely be felt during the invisible primary, where much of the nomination maneuvering has transitioned to throughout the post-reform era.

Now, to be clear, this California move is endogenous to candidate decision-making. Prospective candidates may look at a slate of contests that includes California, Texas and others and say, "Hey, I can't compete with the fundraising (or endorsements, media attention, organization) of candidate X! I'm not running." But again, I am skeptical that those candidates would not arrive at the conclusion even if California still had a June primary in 2020.

And to be fair to Walter Shapiro, who wrote the article cited in the "Point" above, we really do not have a clear and specific answer to the the question of how Democrats will adapt to super PACs in 2020. The Republican experimentation in 2012 and 2016 likely indicates the limits, but the Democrats lag in that experimentation in the primaries phase following an uncompetitive race in 2012 and a battle in 2016 where super PACs and the Citizens United decision were negatively viewed.


Point III:
Still others have made the case in the lead up to these final votes on the California primary bill that California will provide a big net delegate margin that will effectively end the race for the Democratic nomination.

Counterpoint:
This is a problematic claim from at least a couple of perspectives.

First, that may be true, but not necessarily because of this California move. Again, legislators in the Golden state have settled on a date that is already moderately crowded with other contests and may get even more crowded between now and the end of 2019. Sure, that could lead to the effective conclusion of the nomination, but that depends on a lot of factors: invisible primary fundraising, media coverage and organization not to mention how the likely first four contests go in February. There is a scenario where someone runs the table like Al Gore did with a similar calendar in 2000. Such a scenario would likely see this hypothetical frontrunner build not a delegate majority but enough of a delegate advantage to render a comeback by a trailing candidate nearly impossible.

Absent that clear frontrunner running away with the nomination, however, the 2020 race is unlikely to see the race run its course by early March. That is even more true in light of the fact that the field of Democrats seeking the nomination looks like it will be quite large. There will be some winnowing in February, but it remains to be seen just how much the field will have shrunk by a Super Tuesday that includes California. There are and will be too many moving parts shifting between now and that point in the cycle.

Speaking of building delegate leads, the second reason California's presence on Super Tuesday will not be the decisive contest (via large delegate advantage) is the allocation rules. The Democratic National Committee has maintained a proportional allocation mandate on all states for every cycle stretching back into the 1980s. That affects the math. One candidate -- homegrown or otherwise -- is not going to waltz into the Golden state and leave with a win and nearly 500 delegates. California is not winner-take-all. Instead, it would take a significant victory in the state to produce what Matt Seyfang calls a net delegate margin large enough to offset potential delegate wins elsewhere for other candidates. Hillary Clinton has won each of the last two competitive California primaries by around 8 percent. That translated to a +38 delegate advantage in February 2008 and a +33 delegate margin in June 2016. That represents a significant building block in any race for delegates, but not a death knell to other candidates unless combined with many other wins across the Super Tuesday slate of contests. And to state the obvious, a 30-40 delegate advantage coming out of California is a far cry from a nearly 500 delegate margin under winner-take-all rules.


Point IV:
Further out on the fringes of social media, some are contending that moving the California primary is yet more evidence of the Democratic National Committee "rigging" the presidential nomination process.

Counterpoint:
The DNC is not rigging the nomination.

National parties create the overarching rules that provide guidance on the parameters around how states -- state parties and state governments -- behave in the process. The DNC has put in place limits on the timing of primaries and caucuses and has a mandate for proportional allocation (with minimal latitude provided to the states). Both parties have various ways of doing this, but both examine the rules from the previous cycle in the two years after a presidential election. In recent cycles, both parties have completed that process and approved new rules for the next cycle in the late summer or early fall of the midterm election year.

That gives the states about a one year window in which to respond with any tweaks to their previous scheduling, allocation or participation regulations, or to leave well enough alone if the previous configuration remains compliant with the national party rules regime.

If anything, California is acting perhaps too early by moving up its primary before the national party rules are complete for 2020. A change at the DNC level could mean that California is non-compliant and would have to again make legislative changes to the primary date. This is the main reason most states hold off until the year prior to the presidential election to make any changes. There is more certainty then in terms of the national party restrictions and how other states may be reacting to them.

And there is not any apparent evidence that the national party was in any way involved in the introduction of the legislation to move the primary up. For one thing, when frontloading and Iowa's and New Hampshire's carve-out positions on the calendar were being discussed at the first meeting of the Unity Reform Commission -- the group tasked with reexamining the Democratic delegate selection rules -- the California bill was raised. Sanders appointee, Gus Newport, mentioned in passing that he "thought" the California legislature was looking at moving its primary up to an earlier date. There was no reaction from the rest of the group; no angry denunciations, no commentary on how California has tried this in the past and its impacts, and no discussion of the implications for 2020 from Clinton or Sanders appointees. Nothing. And that was a day after one of the bills in the Golden state passed through its chamber of origin. It is not that the URC not responding is evidence that the DNC was not intervening in California. Rather, what was noteworthy at the time is that no outrage was expressed over it.

If anything the existing DNC rules -- directly or indirectly -- constrained the legislative actions in California. The bill that now heads to Governor Brown's desk for consideration began in a much more provocative form. The original legislation that passed the state Senate called for moving the primary to the third Tuesday in March, but with the added provision that the governor could shift the date up even further onto the heels of Iowa and New Hampshire. Under a hypothetical scenario in which the California governor opts in 2019 to move the primary into February, said primary would be non-compliant and thus open the state up a 50 percent cut to its delegation.

But that provision disappeared in late August and in its place was a more convention move to the first Tuesday after the first Monday in March that, more importantly, would be compliant with the DNC delegate selection rules that are likely to carry over to 2020.

Of course, the DNC Rules and Bylaws Committee (and later the full DNC) could change that in reaction to this move in California. The party will have the time to do that, but whether the inclination is there is another matter. There are a few Californians in the DNC that may balk at such a move.

But the reality of this likely shift in California is that it has been a self-interested maneuver aimed at increasing the state's influence in the process. Many state actors have sought as much many times in previous cycles. And that is something the DNC is hands off about unless a move violates the parties rules (see Florida and Michigan, 2008).


Point V:
Finally, some have argued that a California move will draw or has in the past drawn other states forward on the 2020 calendar.

Counterpoint:
This is trickier to tackle. The process is obviously complex as all of the above indicates. It should also be said that from a superficial angle, it makes sense to reason that if a big state moves up, others will follow. FHQ has even done that. However, when we do those exercises hey tend to be in the abstract with some historical examples to back it up.

The California move to late March for the 1996 cycle brought Oregon along for the ride, but that sort of intra-cycle call and response was unusual then. Yes, the majority of southern states coordinated a move nearly en masse to early March for the 1988 cycle, but prior 2000 most of the movement happened in a more independent (uncoordinated) fashion and between cycles rather than within them. There are exceptions to that -- the Great Lakes primary of mid-March 1996 or the aforementioned Oregon shift that same year -- but that began to change in 2004 and 2008.

States, then, reacted to California's 1996 move in 2000. California actually reacted to its 1996 move in 2000 by moving up from late to early March. So there was both intra- and inter-cycle reaction to California's double move.

But California's impact on the de facto national primary that developed for 2008 is being overstated by Politico in the article cited above. Democrats aligning their timing rules with the Republican National Committee by allowing February contests in 2004 set the stage for the formation of the 2008 calendar. There were 17 Democratic contests in February 2004, seven of which were on the first Tuesday in February. An additional four states moved to the first Tuesday in February before 2007. That is 21 February states that were either going to repeat February contests by law in 2008 or had a history of them in 2004.

Then add in wide open contests for both nominations.

All of this was in place before California moved its primary for 2008 during the first half of 2007. There was already a foundation in place drawing states to earlier dates on the 2008 calendar. California and three other states had legislation introduced in January 2007 to move their primaries to February 5, 2008. Only an additional seven primary states initiated legislation to shift to February or earlier positions after California began its effort to shift into February 2008. An argument could be made that California contributed to that stampede to what was called Titanic Tuesday. However, what was not witnessed in 2007 was "more than 20 other states also mov[ing] up their contests in response."

That is false. The conditions were already in place for a massive move before California legislators began their work on the effort in early 2007.

What is different in 2020 is that California has moved much earlier than most states tend to move.


Fun fact:
Should Governor Brown sign SB 568 into law, the two most populous states will occupy the same [early] spot on the calendar for the first time. Texas is already scheduled to have an early March primary in 2020. Those two states have never shared a date on the presidential primary calendar in the post-reform era. New York shared an early date with California in March 2000 and February 2008, but Texas had already slipped past New York in population by 2000. Texas offers another option for those [non-Califorinian] candidates who would be seeking delegates on that date outside of  the Golden state. But together, they are quite the pairing so early on the calendar. And likely to be joined by others.


Interesting possibility:
One early reaction to the California bill passing both legislative hurdles was from the heart of the SEC primary move for 2016. Like 1988, there was some coordination among some southern states to coalesce on an earlier spot on the 2016 primary calendar. That effort was spearheaded by Georgia secretary of state, Brian Kemp. Asked for comment in the wake of passage in California, Kemp's office suggested one option may be to move the SEC primary to a later date.

For the most part, states have not tended to unilaterally disarm in that way, moving to a later date. To the extent that has happened, it has usually been budgetary. It is a function of states experimenting with a separate and earlier presidential primary, but not getting as large a return on investment as expected. States like Alabama, Arkansas and North Carolina have decoupled their presidential primaries from (pre-convention) May and June consolidated primaries only to reverse course soon thereafter. The costs of funding a new and separate presidential primary were too steep to carry out more than once; particularly after it failed to net any of them the influence they sought.

The other scenario where states have moved to later dates is when forced to by a change in national party rules. It was mentioned above that in 2004 both parties allowed February contests. After the de facto national primary in 2008 and some of the other maneuvering that pushed Iowa and New Hampshire into the year prior to the presidential election, both parties moved to protect the early states -- carving out February for those four contests -- and prohibiting other states from holding contests prior to March. That left a lot of states with February primaries on the books in their states that were forced to move back in 2012. Some shifted to the newly established earliest allowed date -- the first Tuesday in March -- while others pushed back even further.

But those states were prompted to move by a change in the national party rules. At this time, there is no such prompting -- via penalty or incentive -- from the national parties. That may change between now and 2018 when the 2020 rules are finalized.

One final aspect to an SEC primary move, especially if it is to a much later date, is that on the Democratic side, such a move would mean shifting back a meaningful segment of the Democratic primary electorate: African Americans, who make up over half of the primary electorate in a number of those southern states. The optics on that would likely be bad, but it remains to be seen whether Republican-controlled legislatures across the south would view that as a roadblock.

Still, that is an implication of the SEC primary potentially moving back.


Interesting possibility II:
California had not adjourned its session before talk emerged from Oregon about the possibility of the Beaver state dislodging itself from its traditional May primary position to perhaps join California in March. But California was only part of the rationale in Oregon. Efforts in 2015 and 2017 to shift the Washington state primary from May to March were also a part of the Oregon secretary of state's calculus.

SEC primary meet a PAC12 primary (or at the very least a West Coast primary)?

Let's focus on the coastal states. There is some reason to be skeptical of Oregon and Washington joining up with California based on the evidence we have now. There are several factors that complicate matters for the Golden state's northern neighbors.

First, the efforts in both states to this point are mainly Republican-driven. It was the Republican secretary of state in Oregon last week who said he would push for an earlier primary. But Oregon has a consolidated primary in late May, one they would have to split up and fund to have an earlier presidential primary. The statewide primary cannot be earlier -- in March -- because it would conflict with the state legislative session and that is prohibited in the state (no campaigning by legislators during their legislative session). The key question in Oregon, then, is whether Democrats will be willing to fund a separate and earlier presidential primary in March 2020. They tried that in 1996 and went right back to the current set up in 2000.

In Washington, Secretary of State Kim Wyman (R) spent some of 2015 trying to get Democrats in the Washington state legislature to go along with a plan to move the primary there to the second Tuesday in March for 2016. That got bottled up in committee. In the grand scheme of things, that has everything to do with Democrats having opted out of the state-funded primary since it came into being via ballot initiative in 1989. Washington Democrats have just preferred caucuses. They -- caucuses -- are much easier to move around because they don't have to go through a legislature in most cases. And Washington has had earlier caucuses in the recent past. One could see Democrats there opting for caucuses aligned with a California primary, but again, there is reason to be skeptical that Secretary Wyman will be successful in lobbying to get the primary moved up.

Should Washington Democrats pull the trigger on such a move, it could put some pressure on Oregon Democrats to follow suit with a primary move. But that likely won't happen until 2019. And it goes without saying that at this point, March 3 looks like it is going to be quite crowded which could minimize the impact of a western (sub)regional primary. Should the SEC primary states disarm and move back, then maybe that western primary will be noteworthy, but see the above discussion about that SEC primary possibility.

There is also the chance of a more expansive PAC12 primary. Colorado has a primary now and the first Tuesday in March is an option at the governor's disposal in the Centennial state under the new state law. Additionally, Utah passed legislation earlier this year to fund a presidential primary. But the legislature will have to go back at some point and revisit the timing. The February and June options available to the state under law are both non-compliant with national party rules on timing. Finally, Arizona would have to move up a couple of weeks in March as well. There is no sign yet that anything along those lines is in the works. Overall, it is something that could gain traction if there are both Democratic and Republican proponents across those states.

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In the end, it looks as if California will move up to March for 2020. But be careful about coming to conclusions about what that means. It is still early yet.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Caucuses, the Unity Reform Commission and Democrats in 2020

The Democratic National Committee Unity Reform Commission recently reconvened for its third of four meetings.1 On the agenda were caucuses, support for state parties and superdelegates.

If you had told me heading into the meeting that superdelegates were going to be one of the topics -- even one of many -- then I would have assumed that superdelegates would have been the point of controversy coming out of the meeting. And that assumption is not without a foundation. The unpledged delegates in the Democratic presidential nomination process were a wound reopened in late 2015 and one that continued to fester not only throughout primary season, but into and beyond the national convention in Philadelphia. Ripping that particular scab off, then, would, it stands to reason, reanimate those divides within the party.

But that is not what happened recently in Chicago. And there is a reason for that. The Unity Reform Commission was chartered in Philadelphia with the express purpose of reexamining a number of items within the nomination process. Most of that was open-ended. The Clinton campaign and its proxies took issue with, for example, the caucus process, and those affiliated with Sanders had concerns about, say, how the party was reaching out to unaffiliated voters. The URC was tasked with working together to discover, devise and recommend any changes to the rules to address those issues (if the need was pressing enough and/or if consensus could be built). However, there was little guidance in the charter as to the shape those recommendations would take.

That was not the case with respect to superdelegates. The task there was more defined and much less open-ended. In other words, there is a specified recommendation the URC has to make via the charter on superdelegates; to trim their ranks by roughly a third by pledging DNC members based on the primary or caucus results in their home states. That, in turn, has the effect not of limiting the discussion on the place of those unpledged delegates in the process, per se, but rather, putting in place a floor on the discussion where one does not exist on the other matters. The URC, then, could go beyond that mandate for a recommendation, but could find it difficult to find consensus (and/or design an alternative that would pass muster with the Rules and Bylaw Committee much less the full DNC).

Regardless, superdelegates were not controversial (or any more than they already were) coming out of the meeting. Strangely, caucuses elicited the biggest response. And to be clear the controversy was mostly external to the URC meeting; more in reaction to the topic discussion than anything else.

Again, this is unusual. The Democratic National Committee is limited in what it can do on caucuses. As the Unity Reform Commission heard in their first meeting in DC, primaries are mainly state-funded, giving those state governments some limited input on matters of scheduling and participation.  There are state party-funded primaries, but they are exception rather than rule and have mainly died out. Both South Carolina and Utah have had party-run primaries as recently as 2004, but if a state is not funding a primary, then caucuses have become the default alternative.

Indeed, that is an important point. Caucuses, to the extent they remain in the current context, are a function of, in most cases, a lack of a state-funded primary. Of the 14 states -- not including the territories -- that had Democratic caucuses in 2016, 11 of them were in states where there is no state-funded primary option. Only the state parties in Idaho, Nebraska and Washington -- the states in lime green below -- opted out state-funded primaries for the most recently completed cycle.


Furthermore, if one overlays the recent open primaries map (below) on top of the remaining yellow states on the map above, the picture fails to clear up any further for Democrats. The important thing to eye there is the stripe denoting partisan control of state governments. In only Hawaii and Washington are there unified Democratic state governments that could, if they were so inclined, shift from a caucus system to a primary. And obviously one of those states, Washington, has seen its state Democratic Party opt out of the state-funded primary since it was brought into being by ballot initiative in 1989. In each of the seven intervening cycles, Washington Democrats have chosen to record presidential preference and select national convention delegates through a caucus/convention system.


Elimination of caucuses, then, does not appear to be in the offing in 2020 and beyond. Unless the DNC is willing to pony up or state parties raise the cash necessary to conduct party-run primaries in states where no state-funded option is available, then caucuses, for better or worse, will be a part of the presidential nominating process.

And while it is true that caucuses are not going anywhere anytime soon, they have gradually dwindled in number over the course of the post-reform era. Primaries have proliferated as the main means of presidential preference expression across the nation since 1972. Then there were only 22 primary elections. The remainder were caucuses. In the time since, the balance has tipped and even more decidedly toward primaries. Not counting the territorial contests in 2016, there were, as was mentioned previously, just 14 caucuses left in mainly small and medium-sized states. That number will be scaled back even further in 2020. Already Colorado, Maine and Minnesota have made moves to add state-funded primary options for the next presidential nomination cycle. And in the latter two, the state parties have a say in the date selection for the primary and thus have incentive to opt in. In Colorado, the state parties are structurally hemmed in by the new law and national party rules and likely have no other recourse but to utilize the primary for delegate allocation.

That leaves just 11 caucus states at this point in 2017 for 2020. And other than Washington, the remaining caucuses are in small states. None have more than four members in the House. Participation rates in caucuses, though reduced by comparison to primaries, are reduced by less in small states than in large states. Those are all steps in the right direction for those who are proponents of scaling back or eliminating caucuses. The reality is that this is much like the Democratic Change Commission (DCC) deliberations on the caucuses subject. Minus funding, the most feasible path is through a tweaking of the processes and the development of what the DCC called "best practices," a more uniform process across states.

That remains the most likely URC outcome/recommendation where caucuses are concerned.

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While the spotlight is on caucuses, I want to take an opportunity to address a rather strange narrative on caucuses that has blossomed during the summer months. The idea, as proffered by Armando at Daily Kos and picked up by some in the national media, amounts to this: Sanders-affiliated members of the URC are aiming to propose "a rule that will call for the the Democratic Party Presidential nominating rules to require a state either hold open primaries or if the state refuses, and instead holds a closed primary, that a state party hold a caucus instead to select presidential nomination delegates."

Now, on the one hand, this would create an expansion of the types of contests in which Sanders was most successful during the 2016 presidential primary calendar. That would be an understandable push for Sanders-appointed members on the Commission, and the behavior would not necessarily be that atypical. Proxies advancing the interests of their candidates in these settings is nothing new. What would be different is the Sanders folks attempting to include such a proposal among the recommendations the URC will make as 2017 comes to a close.

I say that for a number of reasons.
1) Nothing along these lines has come up at any of the three Unity Reform Commission meetings.

2) It is not that the Sanders appointees cannot push a measure like this, but rather, that they would likely have a difficult time garnering the votes necessary -- a majority -- to make such a recommendation. Clinton-affiliated members outnumber those appointed by Sanders, and new party chair, Tom Perez, filled the remaining three slots on the URC. And even if the votes were there, the measure would still have to make it through the Rules and Bylaws Committee and the full Democratic National Committee to be enacted.

3) That is even less likely given that the supposed proposal would face some of the same roadblocks as a rule eliminating caucuses, namely, funding. The Democratic National Committee would find it difficult to force a state/state party to have caucuses in lieu of a closed primary. First, the political landscape currently is not amenable to opening primaries as has been dealt with already. Republicans, at the moment, control too many of the state-level levers of power. That may change in 2018, but is unlikely to be reversed to an extent that newly-empowered Democrats could -- or even would -- open up primaries. And to force states in that category to hold caucuses would be unnecessarily and historically (in this context) punitive. State parties would have to give up a funded election and foot the bill for caucuses. Some states do that, but they are, as was pointed out above, very few in number.

4) It would be odd to allow states constrained by state-level partisan factors to apply for a waiver from penalties on something like what Minnesota Democrats faced in 2012 because of their statutorily mandated caucuses scheduling and not on something like how opened a primary is to unaffiliated voters. There would be an inconsistency there. There are inconsistencies in the delegate selection rules to be sure, but they tend to be on matters much less consequential than penalties on violating states.

5) The history of carrots and sticks offered by the DNC does not match this hypothetical proposal. Those have been used to combat issues where there was a widespread view that the matter was problematic. Frontloading is a great example. That increasingly more states were moving up their delegate selection events and clustering on earlier dates was seen regardless of which candidate one was rooting for on past rules commissions was seen as a problem for the nominating system, not just a particular candidate. This proposal would mark a significant departure from that pattern of rule making.

Until the evidence changes and such a proposal is put forth, this is not something that should be taken seriously. The reality is that this proposal and the weird narrative around it are an engineered vehicle for some within the broader Democratic Party coalition to vent about some of the more vocal Sanders appointees on the URC if not Sanders supporters more broadly. It just would not be a serious proposal even if all of the Sanders appointees on the URC were publicly in favor of it. Those folks are still in the minority on the Commission.

In the end, it would still be more likely to see Sanders acolytes do what Ron Paul/Tea Party folks did after 2008. That is, attempt to fairly take over state parties and opt for closed caucuses over wider turnout primaries. The Tea Party era attempts failed in that bottom line, and it is still a likelier end point for Sanders folks than this unserious "proposal".

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1 A fifth meeting has now been added for December, one that will, no doubt, be utilized to finalize the recommendations the URC will pass on to the Rules and Bylaws Committee.

Monday, September 4, 2017

Bells and Whistles Removed, Amended California Presidential Primary Bill Moves Forward

For much of 2017, there have been a couple of bills working their way through the California State Assembly to change the date of the presidential primary in the Golden state. And for much of the year both have been on a bit of a collision course. Both have made it through their originating chamber, but the bills differ from one another, requiring some reconciliation at some point.

That reconciliation came as August came to a close last week. The crux of this is that the Senate-passed bill called for the continued consolidation of the presidential primary with the direct primary for state and local offices and moving that combined primary from early June to the third Tuesday in March. Additionally, the legislation would have given the California governor the power to shift that consolidated primary up even further on the primary calendar than the newly called for March baseline.

Alternatively, the Assembly took a simpler path, more consistent with the way in which other states tend to move their primaries around. Again, the budgetary constraints placed on the state almost require the presidential and direct primaries to remain consolidated. A separate presidential primary election would cost the state more than $100 million. But the Assembly bill would leave the direct primary in June in midterm election years while shifting the consolidated primary election up to the first Tuesday (after the first Monday) in March in presidential years.

In the end, there were atypical aspects to each piece of legislation. The staggered result of that Assembly bill (AB 84) -- a March primary in one year, and a June primary in another -- is exception rather than rule in most states with consolidated primaries. Alabama and Mississippi stand out as states that have a similar, on-again-off-again approach, but again, most states -- Illinois and Texas among them -- with consolidated primaries tend to be more consistent, holding them at the same calendar point regardless of the what office is at the top of the ticket in a given year.

On the state Senate side, the uncommon provision in the bill (SB 568) was and has always been the additional power granted the governor to shift the primary to an even earlier date than the new third Tuesday in March baseline. It was always poorly designed. Basically, the earliest the governor could realistically schedule the primary was for the first Tuesday in March. There is more to it than that -- which interested readers can dig into here -- but that essentially powerless power ceded to the governor would only really give the executive in the Golden state the ability to move the primary to a point on the calendar where Assembly bill would already move it.

But as of August 31, those complications are gone. First, the Assembly bill was pulled off the active list in the Senate and the gubernatorial provision was removed from the Senate bill. What is left is a piece of legislation (SB 568) that would push the consolidated California primary election up from the first Tuesday (after the first Monday) in June to the first Tuesday (after the first Monday) in March. That calendar position would be used in both presidential and midterm election years starting in 2019, eliminating the staggering of the Assembly bill.

The amended Senate bill will now go on the calendar for a final vote in the Assembly and have to return to the Senate for consideration there before moving on to the governor for signature. With a uniform date now settled, California's potential impact on the 2020 presidential primary calendar can be more clearly discussed. As outlined in previous posts in this space, the proposed shift would move a significant chunk of delegates from late in the calendar to the earliest spot on the calendar after the four carve-out states. Such a cache of delegates moving to the beginning of March would shift up the point at which half the delegates will have been allocated in both parties by about a week depending on how other states react between now and 2020.

First, though, California has to move its primary. And that will likely take more time as the remaining Senate-passed (but now amended) bill continues its path through the legislative process.

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A tip of the cap to Richard Winger at Ballot Access News for passing along news of the amendment to FHQ.