Bernie Sanders’ surprise performance against Hillary Clinton in 2016 was fueled by his dominance in a slate of states that voted by caucus, a format that allowed the Vermont senator to capitalize on his smaller but more fervent base of supporters.
In 2020, Sanders will lose some of that edge.
Story Continued Below
Several states that caucused in 2016 will hold primaries instead in 2020, potentially dealing a blow to Sanders and other Democratic hopefuls with zealous followings.
“It’s absolutely going to make a difference in 2020,” said Robby Mook, Clinton’s 2016 campaign manager. “The caucuses tend to award the candidate who has the greatest intensity among a smaller group of supporters, rather than a candidate who has a broader base of support.”
Caucuses are seen as a boon for candidates with die-hard supporters because they can last for hours and require participants to vote out in the open. The beneficiaries are often candidates representing the ideological poles of each party, the most liberal Democrats or most conservative Republicans.
David de la Fuente, a political analyst for the centrist think tank Third Way, said the abandonment of caucuses is “going to have a big, big impact” and are “likely to benefit the most mainstream Democrats rather than more far-left or populist Democrats.”
Sanders’ allies aren’t buying that it will be hurt his chances if he runs for president again, though.
Jeff Weaver, Sanders’ 2016 campaign manager, said “the practical effect on a Bernie Sanders 2020 run is — I don’t think there is any.”
Weaver agrees with the premise that passionate voters can have an outsized effect in low-turnout caucuses: “If you have a dedicated group of folks, because the number of people at caucuses is generally lower, they can have a bigger impact.”
But there’s a flip side, he said: It’s easier to persuade infrequent voters to show up to a primary than a caucus — and “Bernie Sanders and other progressive candidates will disproportionately get the votes of people who are not consistent voters.”
Sanders won 12 of the 18 states and territories that caucused in 2016 — compared with 11 of 39 primaries. In 2008, Barack Obama also outperformed Hillary Clinton in caucus states.
In 2020, four of the caucus states that Sanders won — Nebraska, Idaho, Minnesota, and Colorado — will use primaries to determine how many pledged delegates were allocated to each Democratic candidates.
More could soon follow. Utah has a new law on the books permitting political parties to use presidential primaries, and an official in the state Democratic Party said it expects to opt in. Maine passed a bill in 2016 to establish a presidential primary, but a top state Democrat said it sunsetted and was not immediately funded.
Third Way has called for an end to caucuses, arguing that they suppress voting among the elderly, people with disabilities, and those who work at night or on weekends, when caucuses often take place. The group has also run ads against Sanders online.
Assuming the Democratic National Committee’s allocation remains relatively the same, de la Fuente said that 8 percent to 9 percent of pledged delegates would be chosen by caucuses in 2020 — compared with 14 percent in 2016.
That dramatic shift could affect not only Sanders if he runs, Democrats said, but progressives in general.
Ed Rendell, the former Pennsylvania governor and DNC chairman, named Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris as others who could “suffer” from the change. Rep. Beto O’Rourke was another potential 2020 contender who Democrats said could be negatively affected.
Meanwhile, former Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Amy Klobuchar and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg would gain from the change if they ran for president, Rendell predicted. Rendell has expressed high regard in the past for Biden and Klobuchar as potential 2020 contenders.
“I think it helps Biden a lot,” he said. “Although he’s very popular among Democrats, he doesn’t produce the same kind of frantic dedication as some of the most active progressives.”
A 2013 report by Brigham Young University professors Christopher Karpowitz and Jeremy Pope found that caucuses “systematically deter the moderate, less consistent voters.” However, the same paper noted that past research on the topic had been inconclusive.
Like Weaver, Jane Kleeb, the leader of the Nebraska Democratic Party and a Sanders supporter in the 2016 primary, dismissed the notion that the rise in primaries would harm a bid by the senator.
“I just don’t believe that. There’s no data to bear that out,” she said. “Anybody who’s saying that is literally pontificating.”
Democratic Party leaders in the states that adopted primaries said they did it for several reasons: Caucuses are expensive for the party. Primaries allow more people to vote. And in 2016, Democrats often underestimated caucus turnout, leading to long lines and frustrated voters in some areas.
“The line was a mile-and-a-half long,” said Evangeline Beechler, first vice chair of the Idaho Democratic Party, of the 2016 caucus where she worked. “We couldn’t really handle it.”
Some Democrats hope that primaries will boost turnout in the general election. They also expressed relief that they could spend the money previously used for caucuses on other things — namely, defeating Republicans.
Others, however, worry that abandoning caucuses will relinquish a key party-building tool, especially for rural states.
“In 2016, caucuses drew a lot of people into the party that otherwise would not have engaged,” said Crystal Rhoades, a Democratic county chairwoman in Nebraska. “We also capture a lot of information at caucuses — often the participants’ phone numbers, their emails. … It’s unfortunate we’re not going to be able to collect that data.”
Several of the states that are holding primaries to allocate delegates will still utilize caucuses to elect party delegates and conduct other business.
Last year, the DNC announced that states with caucuses must provide absentee ballots or another method for those who can’t attend to participate — a change that was backed by both Clinton and Sanders supporters on the party’s Unity Reform Commission. The DNC also recommended that states use primaries “where possible.”
Howard Dean, a former DNC chairman and 2004 Democratic presidential candidate, pushed for the DNC’s caucus reforms, arguing that primaries are “much more democratic with a small ‘d.’”
Dean said the question of how the extra primaries will affect the nomination process is “very interesting” but disagreed with the notion that caucuses help more liberal candidates: “There’s just not a lot of evidence to suggest that certain candidates do better in caucuses. The ones who do better are the ones that are well-organized.”
Third Way’s de la Fuente predicted the move away from caucuses could affect the 2020 Democratic primary even more than California’s bombshell decision to push its nomination contest to an earlier date in the year, possibly giving more influence to the most populous state in the nation.
“Everyone’s talking about California being a Super Tuesday state now, but California was a Super Tuesday state in 2008,” he said. “There hasn’t been this few caucuses ever.”