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Yes, Minnesota’s political parties are holding precinct caucuses this year. Here’s what you need to know about them.

On Tuesday night, precinct caucuses for both the DFL and Minnesota GOP will be held in more than 4,000 locations around the state. 

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.
MinnPost file photo by Bill Kelley

The creation of a new presidential primary election in Minnesota has stolen much of the attention away from the state’s Republican and Democratic precinct caucuses. 

And yet, the March 3 primary hasn’t eliminated them. On Tuesday night, precinct caucuses for both the DFL and Minnesota GOP will be held in more than 4,000 locations around the state

Why? Because though the primary will determine which presidential candidates get delegates at the national nominating conventions, the caucuses remain one of the fundamental organizing events for the parties. (The Legal Marijuana Now, Grassroots-Legalize Cannabis Party, Green Party and Libertarian Party will also be holding caucuses Tuesday, even though they will not take part in the March 3 primary.) The caucuses are also the first step toward deciding which Minnesotans get to represent the parties at the conventions.

Ken Martin, chair of the state Democratic Farmer Labor Party, is pitching his caucuses as a party-building exercise: the first chance for party adherents to really get involved in the 2020 election. “They are a tremendous opportunity for Minnesotans to get to know like-minded neighbors, make new friends and build deeper connections with their communities,” he said.

How the caucus system works in 2020

The fundamental difference between the 2020 caucuses and the 2016 caucuses is what isn’t happening. This year’s gatherings will have nothing to do with which presidential candidates win delegates to each party’s national nominating conventions. In fact, there will be no votes taken in any form at the caucuses — no straw poll, show of hands, applause meters — to indicate how many attendees support the presidential candidates. 

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Instead, attendees will talk about what issues should be advanced into the party platforms; which resolutions might be posed at the state conventions; and which attendees should be sent on to the next rounds of caucuses and conventions. 

Yet the precinct caucuses are only the first in a process that involves multiple steps. The second step involves what the DFL calls Organizing Unit Conventions and the Republican Party of Minnesota calls Basic Political Organizational Unit (BPOU) conventions, terms that reference geographic boundaries sometimes defined by state Senate or state House district, and sometimes by county. 

The next level for each party is congressional district conventions, and the fourth is the state party convention. It is at those last two meetings where delegates for each party’s national conventions are elected.

So how do you actually become a delegate? 

The Minnesota GOP caucuses are less complex than the DFL caucuses, so let’s start with them. 

The Republican Party allocates a total of 36 delegates for Minnesota — three for each congressional district and another 12 elected at the state convention — and the party has a winner-take-all system for their distribution. (Spoiler: President Donald Trump will win them all.) 

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Three of the slots are already spoken for: the state party chair, state national committeeman, and national committeewoman are all automatic national delegates. The Minnesota GOP also selects 35 alternates who, along with the 36 state delegates, get to attend the GOP’s national convention in Charlotte from Aug. 24–27.

Under the Minnesota GOP rules, The delegates at each level are the ones who elect the delegates who go to the next level, state Executive Director Rebecca Alery said. In other words, delegates elected to congressional district conventions, which will take place between March 7–28 this year, or to the state convention in Rochester on May 15–16, will get to decide who becomes a national delegate. 

Minnesota GOPers can run for national delegate at the congressional conventions or at the state convention, and those who are unsuccessful delegate candidates at the congressional level can try again at the state convention.

State Rep. Jenifer Loon, lower right, speaking to the crowd assembled at a 2018 Republican caucus in Eden Prairie.
MinnPost file photo by Briana Bierschbach
State Rep. Jenifer Loon, lower right, speaking to the crowd assembled at a 2018 Republican caucus in Eden Prairie.
Jen Niska, the chair of the state convention platform committee, was a national delegate for Sen. Marco Rubio in 2016, when she also worked as a Rubio staffer. One of her duties was coordinating delegate selection. That meant organizing to get the candidates’ supporters to turn out at precinct caucuses, making sure those elected to the next level actually show up, and vetting people who want to represent the candidate at the national convention.

While the national campaigns might suggest people for delegate slots, the tradition is for the people at the congressional district and state conventions make those choices for themselves. “Delegates don’t want some small group telling them they should elect someone,” said Niska, who ran successfully in 2016, though she didn’t stress her connection to the Rubio campaign. 

Rebecca Alery
Minnesota GOP
Rebecca Alery
The state party’s nominations committee does review delegate candidates and make recommendations — a way to make sure delegates support the presidential candidate they are pledged to and that they’ll uphold general party principles, Alery said. 

Niska said the committee also looks for events or statements in someone’s background that could later embarrass the party or the presidential campaign. 

The top 12 vote-getters at the state convention become national delegates. But anyone who wants a national slot has to apply and give a short speech. In 2012, even then-U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann had to give a speech to become a Romney delegate. 

They also need to campaign, and some even have websites and distribute literature. To illustrate how open the selection of delegates can be, Niska likes to recall her experience at the 2016 convention in Duluth, where she was approached by a woman who was new to the party. Niska was impressed with how hard the woman was working, and she agreed to sign her nomination form. 

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That woman was Jennifer Carnahan, who’s now chair of the Republican Party of Minnesota. “She can walk in, put her name in, give a phenomenal speech and get herself elected,” Niska said. 

Minnesota Democrats will have more national delegates, more process, and more drama than the GOP this year. And while most of the attention will be focused on the presidential primary, the caucuses are the true starting point for the party. Delegates elected there will move up the process and make decisions about platforms, resolutions, party endorsements and ultimately the election of national delegates. 

The media — and whoever gets the most votes on March 3 — will declare someone a winner of the primary. But Martin points out that because of the complexity of the DFL process, someone could “win” the primary and not end up with the most delegates from Minnesota.

Jen Niska
Jen Niska
Minnesota will send 75 pledged delegates to their national convention, which will be held in Milwaukee from July 13–16. Of those delegates, 49 will be elected from Congressional districts, with the rest being elected as at-large delegates at the state convention in Rochester, May 29–30. But candidates for national delegate do not need to start at the precinct level and don’t have to be delegates to the congressional district conventions or state convention.

The DFL distributes more delegates to congressional districts that have more DFLers, as demonstrated by vote totals in past elections. For instance, the 5th Congressional District, which encompasses Minneapolis and several inner-ring suburbs, gets 10 national delegates. The 4th Congressional District, which includes St. Paul, gets eight. By contrast, the 6th and 7th congressional districts get four each.

A candidate like Bernie Sanders is likely to do very well in the Twin Cities but less well in Greater Minnesota. And a candidate like Amy Klobuchar could work to split the delegates in the 4th and 5th and then try to sweep in other districts. At both the congressional district and statewide level, candidates need at least 15 percent of the vote to win any delegates.

“The way most sophisticated campaigns are working it, they’re taking not a state-by-state approach but a congressional district-by congressional district approach, Martin said. “Even if you lose the state you can squeeze some delegates out at the congressional district level,” Martin said. “It benefits the campaigns that are organized on the ground, that have the bandwidth to focus in on congressional districts. 

“You could have a scenario where someone wins the statewide contest but ends up coming out of Minnesota with fewer delegates.”

The primary results will be used to distribute additional national delegates: 10 who are party leaders or elected officials and 16 at-large delegates. All are elected at the state convention. 

At-large delegates are often used to assure equal distribution of men and women and to reach other goals around representation: to have at least 11 African-American delegates, six Latinx, three Native Americans, six Asian-Pacific Islanders, 11 LGBT, 12 people with disabilities; 30 people between the ages of 18 and 35 and six veterans. Delegates often fill more than one category. 

Ken Martin
Ken Martin
The DFL also has automatic delegates, once called super delegates, that include former Vice President Walter Mondale, Gov. Tim Walz, all Democratic members of Congress and the state’s members of the Democratic National Committee. But unlike in 2016, these automatic delegates will not get to vote on the first ballot in Milwaukee and will only participate on subsequent ballots.

The last time a Democratic convention required more than one ballot was 1952. Still, Martin is worried that a reform he offered and helped pass at the national level — reducing the clout of super delegates — could backfire if they become the brokers of a deadlocked convention.

“If we get to a place where we are going to a second ballot, now you have 760 super delegates who are gonna come into the mix and most of those are going to move en masse to the same candidate, I would imagine, and ultimately they will be deciding who the nominee is,” Martin said, a scenario that represents the “complete opposite” of the purpose of the reform.

Presidential campaigns have the right to veto people who seek to be a pledged delegate for the candidate, but Martin said that rarely happens. Campaigns do offer slates to guide their convention delegates, however. 

State parties do not pay delegates’ way to the conventions, though the DFL has a small number of grants, a few hundred dollars each, for delegates who need help. In fact, delegates can expect to pay between $2,500 and $4,000 for travel, five nights in a hotel and meals, though there are plenty of hosted events that can lower meal costs. Delegates have held fund-raising events with their local party members or created crowd-sourcing sites such as GoFundMe or Kickstarter.