How Minnesota’s switch to a presidential primary might impact the 2020 election

precinct caucus
MinnPost file photo by Bill Kelley
Minnesotans have registered their presidential preferences in precinct caucuses for most of the last century.

Excitement over wide open Republican and Democratic presidential primaries brought 320,000 Minnesotans, or about 8 percent of eligible voters, out to pick  presidential candidates on a cold March night in 2016.

Such a showing would be abysmally low for a presidential election in Minnesota, when voter turnout routinely tops 70 percent. But it’s a really big showing for a caucus. So big that it overwhelmed some of the state’s precinct locations with lines hour-long lines, and, in some cases, not enough ballots.

Two months later, then-Gov. Mark Dayton signed a bipartisan bill that changed the way the state chooses who its presidential delegates go to, switching from the party-run caucus system to a state-administered primary election. (Party caucuses aren’t going anywhere — they’re just not how Minnesota chooses presidential candidates anymore.)

Minnesota’s not alone. States are increasingly souring on the caucus system as a means of awarding presidential delegates to pick a party nominee.

Experts say the switch could change not only who participates in presidential selections, but also the way candidates campaign and maybe even which candidates are chosen.

The caucus system

Minnesotans have registered their presidential preferences in precinct caucuses for most of the last century.

As opposed to a primary, where voters go to their polling place and cast a ballot, caucuses are like big neighborhood meetings. In addition to picking candidates, caucuses are held to discuss party business. They start at a given time — usually 7 p.m. on a Tuesday, and end an hour or two later.

Fans of caucuses say the discussion component makes them a higher quality system, said Costas Panagopoulos, a professor of political science at Northeastern University who studies voting behavior. “The deliberative nature of these caucuses, and the more direct interaction with voters and neighborhoods, et cetera, is something that is perceived by many to be an advantage and a much higher-quality process,” he said.

precinct caucus
MinnPost file photo by Bill Kelley
In a caucus, residents go to the location where the party of their choice is meeting, discuss party business and actually chat about candidates with their neighbors before expressing their preference.
Detractors say the fact you have to be there at a specific time to make your preference known limits who shows up.

Caucuses are deeply rooted in American political tradition, beginning as meetings where party elites would decide party business and choose candidates. Over time, the process opened up to a wider swath of participants. Seeking to further open up the process, lots of states started switching to the primary process in the ’70s.

Minnesota has flirted with both systems, switching from caucuses to presidential primaries, and then back again, every three to four decades since the nineteen-teens, according to a history of Minnesota primaries by Eric Ostermeier, a research fellow at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs.

Moderating influence?

Primary turnout is always significantly lower than general election turnout in the same election cycle. But if primary turnout is low, caucus turnout is lower.

Amid the 2016 election, Sabato’s Crystal Ball, a political predictions website, found that turnout was more than three times higher in states that had held primaries, as of late April, than in states that had held caucuses.

It’s not just that fewer people show up to caucuses. Caucus voters also represent a different part of a party’s ideology than the primary electorate. Research shows people who show up to caucus tend to bring with them views that are further to the right or the left, depending on the party, than primary voters or rank and file voters.

“It’s much more likely that the more ideologically moderate candidates have a better chance in primaries compared to caucuses, and the views that voters espouse on policy issues tend to be less extreme overall in primary systems,” Panagopoulos said.

On the Democratic side in 2008, caucus states favored Barack Obama over Hillary Clinton. In 2016, on average, they favored Bernie Sanders over Hillary Clinton. On the Democratic side, the Upshot found that, accounting for demographic differences, Hillary Clinton had a 20 percentage point disadvantage in caucus states compared to both Obama and Sanders.

In Minnesota, Obama won the majority of the state’s delegates, with 66 percent of caucusgoers’ support in 2008. Eight years later, Bernie Sanders won the majority of Minnesota delegates with 62 percent of cacucusgoers’ support.

Looking ahead

It’s too early to tell exactly what the new primary system means as far as who Minnesotans will support with their presidential delegates in 2020.

With Republican President Donald Trump set to seek a second term, it looks as though the main primary contest will be among Democrats. While the Democratic field is getting crowded, there’s still time for more candidates (like Joe Biden) to enter.

Ken Martin, the state DFL chair who supported the switch to a primary, isn’t ready to make predictions about what will happen in 2020 in the newly minted primary state. “We don’t know what the field looks like, we don’t know who’s going to win Iowa or who’s going to be around by March 3,” the date of Minnesota’s presidential primary. He is expecting turnout to be high.

Minnesota Republican Party Chair Jennifer Carnahan says she never missed an election as a Republican voter, but it wasn’t until she showed up at her precinct caucus in 2016 that she decided to get involved in politics.

There are pros and cons to both primaries and caucuses as methods of choosing a presidential nominee, she said — caucuses might inspire people who show up for the presidential contest to get further involved in party politics like herself, but primaries open up the process to more people.

“The changeover will for certain drive a higher turnout to the primaries, and will probably drive a lower turnout to caucuses,” she said.

As for what it will mean for candidate selection in 2024 and beyond, Carnahan says that’s too far out to tell.

“The individuals who go to the caucus or have been attending caucuses for many years are what I would call our highly engaged super activists, who are really involved in party politics,” she said. Now, “you’re generally just going to have a larger quantity of people turning out.”

Changing the campaign game

Several states that caucused in the presidential nomination process in 2016, including Minnesota, Colorado and Washington, have switched to primaries for 2020. Just six states are lined up to caucus in the forthcoming presidential contest, including Iowa, the first state to pick candidates.

Will that have a huge effect on who wins the Democratic nomination? Maybe not: Despite Sanders’ and Obama’s substantial advantages in caucus states, the Upshot found it only translated to a 3 percentage point advantage in delegate count for each.

“If the 2008 election season had been run by the 2020 rules, it is not clear whether Mrs. Clinton could have become the Democratic nominee, even though it was one of the closest nominating contests in history. It would have basically been a tie,” the Upshot wrote.

The switch by many states from primary to caucus might just change the way candidates campaign, Martin said.

“In a primary, you have to run a much bigger campaign. Most of it is TV and mail, and it’s not focused as much on organizing at the grassroots level. It’s much more expensive,” Martin said. “Those states that still have caucuses tend to favor those candidates who can organize the grass roots, who can inspire people to come out and commit to that process.”

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Comments (15)

  1. Submitted by Gene Nelson on 04/23/2019 - 11:11 am.

    I have never liked the idea of using caucuses to determine candidates as they can be completely influenced by the few.

    • Submitted by Jim Spensley on 04/23/2019 - 08:03 pm.

      I have never liked Primaries because the outcome is determined by advertising purchased by special interests.

      Even the caucuses were influenced by PACs and big donors. Being represented by candidates who more or less bought a general election spot on the DFL side is a contradiction of democracy. On the other hand, going on to a post-endorsement primary isn’t regarded a bad thing by the caucuses anymore. We all ought to think about the situation: “I’ve heard her name online but I have no idea what she really thinks needs to be done.”

      • Submitted by Pat Terry on 04/24/2019 - 10:28 am.

        Primaries allow everyone to vote. Caucuses disenfranchise large groups of people. What some people think passes for deliberative discussion at caucuses is nothing more than white privilege.

      • Submitted by lisa miller on 04/24/2019 - 11:08 am.

        Have attended many caucuses and rarely do candidates other than local show up. There is little discussion of the candidates stands and the discussion of issues is like an argument at the Walmart check out line. The Senate level is a bit better, but again, you vote for people who are not obligated to vote for the candidate you caucused for–it’s crazy. Issues can be discussed at the Senate and State level with some input from the precinct. It’s time for primaries, where all can attend and vote, people can find info on the candidates online and in paper.

  2. Submitted by Pat Terry on 04/23/2019 - 01:06 pm.

    Caucuses disenfranchise voters. They are undemocratic and un-American. Good on Minnesota for eliminating this travesty in presidential elections.

  3. Submitted by James Hamilton on 04/23/2019 - 04:30 pm.

    Deliberative? The man has never been to my precinct caucus. Virtually every resolution passes, with little or no discussion and no attempt to improve any of them.

    “Fans of caucuses say the discussion component makes them a higher quality system, said Costas Panagopoulos, a professor of political science at Northeastern University who studies voting behavior. “The deliberative nature of these caucuses, and the more direct interaction with voters and neighborhoods, et cetera, is something that is perceived by many to be an advantage and a much higher-quality process,” he said.”

  4. Submitted by Joel Stegner on 04/23/2019 - 08:18 pm.

    8% participation was pathetic and frankly as some who convened a caucus in 2016, even at that level there were too many people to manage. What we need is use of online to inform people. Five minute clips of all the candidates. As for tgd issues people, bring them up early and allow people to vote for the ones they support the most. Our election process needs work, so let’s keep trying to make it better.

  5. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 04/24/2019 - 07:17 am.

    I was a member of an organized political party for a single election cycle, years ago when I lived in Colorado.

    Never again.

    I attended a caucus with a couple dozen people far less concerned about candidate electability than doctrinal purity, served as a representative to the party’s county convention, which seemed largely contrived, but was also heavily populated by ideologues, knocked on front doors, handed out campaign literature on street corners, and, when the election was over, spent the next election cycle trying to get my name removed from mailing and telephone lists. It took years – and a move to a different county – to accomplish that.

    By way of comparison, my first half-century or so was spent in Missouri, where voting in a primary was as commonplace as eating breakfast. Show up at the polling place, ask for the ‘x’ party ballot, fill in the ovals, and get on with the day’s activities. No need to declare a party, join a party, attend a caucus, or otherwise tell neighbors or the state about my personal political affiliation(s). The whole process was hassle-free, and quite a bit more representative of the electorate as a whole than the caucus process in Colorado or Minnesota.

  6. Submitted by Kent Fralish on 04/24/2019 - 12:51 pm.

    “undemocratic travesty”, “influenced by the few”, “purchased by special interest”, “large groups disenfranchised” “white privilege”. Sounds like lobbyists to me! Anyone ready to outlaw them?

    • Submitted by lisa miller on 04/25/2019 - 10:11 am.

      So your answer is to have a system controlled by a few–a primary allows people to vote even if they have to work or can’t find daycare. It is amazing how no matter the political bent, some want to control who the candidate is. At least with lobbyists you can challenge their narrative. Primaries have shown greater participation. A primary is less of a ‘I know better than you, here’s the candidate’ than a caucus.

  7. Submitted by Frank Phelan on 04/25/2019 - 09:01 pm.

    Get rid of primaries. No other country has them, and few people turn out.

    Let candidates pick their candidates for the general election however they want. Don’t who a party runs? Don’t vote for that candidate.

  8. Submitted by Tom Anderson on 04/25/2019 - 11:47 pm.

    Any system that will add length to the TV commercial system (think Nov. 2019 all the way to Nov. 2020) is a good thing. Primaries will bring ads by the boatloads to our airwaves starting in only a few months. Let the fun begin!

  9. Submitted by Andrew Engen on 05/01/2019 - 07:07 pm.

    I kind of wish we would just get rid of the caucus system entirely for all elected offices. I actively participate in the caucus process and I find it extremely tedious, time consuming and the people who show up are not representative of my neighborhood. (I live in North Minneapolis so it’s pretty easy to tell.) And the people in charge often don’t know what they’re doing at times so the whole thing takes even longer than necessary.

    But I guess considering the last two governors didn’t win their party’s endorsement in their initial races, the caucus system seems less crappy because it isn’t doing as much to determine who the candidates are. Party endorsements had too much power before. At least for the DFL. The GOP still has a mess on their hands where they can’t win statewide so they seem to coalesce around a candidate more so because they can’t afford the big primary battle. Which only shuts out the GOP’s best candidates because the best ones have to manage a nonsense caucus system that leans too conservative.

  10. Submitted by Darryl Carter on 05/05/2019 - 02:41 pm.

    Has the Legislature removed the requirement for voters to request a ballot on which only one party will appear ? No such violation of the SECRET ballot should be inflicted on the Electorate.

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