Primary or caucus? 9 factors Michigan Democrats must consider

About 18 months from now, the Best Damn Political Party on the Planet will meet for its 47th National Convention to nominate a ticket which will ensure the White House stays blue and the economy keeps growing.

It’s already time for state Democratic Parties - including Michigan's - to consider how they will go about selecting its delegates to the Convention. By early May, all state Democratic Parties must submit Delegate Selection Plans to the DNC, which will then undertake a months-long due diligence process to ensure that each state conforms to the myriad delegate selection rules designed keep the process fair and open to all.

The first - and arguably most important - decision that must be made is whether to allocate our delegates via a primary or a caucus. That decision requires the MDP to consider a number of factors and trade-offs, while keeping in mind the long-term interests of the Party.

These factors include:

1. The state of the race

To meet the May deadline, the MDP State Central Committee will likely meet in late April 2015 to approve the Delegate Selection Plan. By that time, we’ll have a better idea of how the presidential race is unfolding.

If Hillary jumps in - and if she’s able to clear the field by mid-April - the race may appear to be settled early on (as with Al Gore in 2000). In that case, Democrats will want a caucus for reasons I explain below. On the other hand, if we appear to have a competitive race on our hands - almost certain if Hillary doesn't run and still possible even if she does - Michigan will want (and need) to have influence in the nominating process. A March primary will draw the candidates to our big, diverse state.

2. Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada

Four states - Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada - are being allowed to hold their primaries and caucuses in February. Al Gore's wins in Iowa and New Hampshire cemented him as the nominee, while John Kerry's early victories gave him the momentum he needed to win the 2004 nomination. No candidate has ever won both Iowa and New Hampshire and gone on to lose the nomination.

If a candidate is in strong enough position to sweep the February states, the race will probably be settled before any of the other 46 states (including Michigan) weighs in, negating any influence that could be gained with a March primary.

3. Data

Gathering data has been a priority for the MDP for a number of years, especially under Lon Johnson’s leadership. The more candidates and parties know about voters, the more targeted their messaging can be. Under the current presidential primary law (in place for 2008 and modified for 2012), the parties learn not only which voters vote in the primary, but also whether they voted Democratic or Republican.*

Remember the primary foul-up of 2008? Remember the uncontested nomination of 2012? In both of those years, we didn't have Democratic primary campaigns rallying, organizing, knocking doors, and calling voters to goad them to the polls. Our voters didn't have a reason to come out and vote.

Yet some of them did. And if you're the type of person who votes in a Democratic non-primary while Republicans have a contested race, the parties will know that - and they'll assume you’re a Democrat.

In 2016, Republicans will almost certainly have another competitive primary. If Democrats do too, Democratic voters who may have stayed home or "crossed over" in 2008 or 2012 will likely "come home" and vote in the Democratic primary, providing more accurate clues as to the voter's political leanings. (Given the choice between two competitive primaries, you're probably going to choose the party with which you more closely align.)

On the other hand, if 2016 is quiet on the Democratic side (i.e. Hillary has it wrapped up), don't expect our voters to come out and vote in what amounts to a meaningless primary. The MDP will be much better off getting data via other means.

4. Delegates

These days, the later a state holds its primary or caucus, the more delegates it gets. It would benefit both the delegates and the MDP to have more delegates representing our state, making connections with Democrats from around the country while getting fired up for the fall election.

Knowing that Obama was a lock for renomination, Michigan held a caucus in early May 2012, allowing us to send 203 delegates to Charlotte. On the other hand, if we follow a March primary, we'll have fewer delegates.

5. The Legislature

Both Democrats and Republicans are looking to increase the state's influence in their party's nominating process without breaking their party's rules. Under current law (passed for the 2012 cycle), a primary is to be held the last Tuesday in February (i.e. February 23, 2016). A February primary would penalize both the MDP and MRP,  so any primary would have to be in March at the earliest.

With bipartisan support, the state Senate (including all Republicans and all but three Democrats) voted to move the date to March 15; the House didn't take it up before the end of the session. With a new legislature in office, look for the push to be made once again. If Democrats are to use a primary, it would be at the mercy of the Republicans, who will likely have the legislative votes to set whichever primary date they feel is best for their party.

6. No More 2008-like Messes

We all remember what happened in 2008: In search of influence, the MDP moved from having a February caucus to a January primary - one which violated DNC rules and resulted in a demoralized base, a protracted battle over seating delegates, and a feeling of being left out compared to Democrats in other states.

And no influence.

The MDP better not tempt fate again.

7. Ruth Johnson

In 2012, Secretary of State Ruth Johnson put President Obama's name on the presidential primary ballot despite the fact that Democrats decided to allocate delegates based on a caucus. Look for her to do the same again in 2016, giving Democrats a primary whether we want it or not - but also giving the MDP the data as to who voted in our (yet-again-meaningless) primary.

But it will still be up to us whether we want to choose to allocate our delegates according to the results of that primary. Hence this discussion.

8. Is a Caucus Worth It?

Holding the caucuses will require a lot of legwork. We'll need help with site selection, running the caucuses, tabulating, and more. In 2012, caucus turnout was relatively small - only about 4,000 people showed up, thus calling into question whether or not these caucuses really serve to "fire up" the base. (At some caucuses, turnout was in the low single digits.)

But we'll at least be able to decide when to hold the caucus.

It should be noted that the 2012 Delegate Selection Plan required at least 200 caucus sites statewide. Take the number of Democrats who voted in the caucus, divide that by fewer caucus sites, and you have more people per caucus.

9. Unity or Disarray

In the 2012 Democratic primary - a nonbonding contest between President Obama and Uncommitted - Obama got 89.3% to just 10.7% for Uncommitted. But in the 1st and 10th Districts, Uncommitted got more than the 15% threshold needed to get a delegate at either the state or district level. If we'd allocated delegates according to the primary, Obama would've had 181 of 183 pledged delegates; Uncommitted would've won two; and the other side would've won the right to brag about disarray among Democrats.

Since we used a caucus - where hardly anyone voted Uncommitted - all 183 pledged delegates went to Obama.

What if the race is still unsettled in March? Voters will come out to vote for their favorite candidate - but they won't vote Uncommitted. Uncommitted will still be an option, but people won't flock in droves to vote Uncommitted unless we see a repeat of 2008.

Which Will It Be?

A primary gives us the potential - but only the potential - for more influence and more data, but at a cost of fewer delegates. And we have little to no say on when that primary will be.

A caucus would require planning and volunteer effort. But we'll be able to decide when it will be held - and more Democrats will be able to attend the Convention.

Whichever route the MDP takes, its critical that we live up to the traditions, values, and promise of our Party. The more we can respect, empower, and include Michigan Democratic activists and voters in the process of choosing our Democratic presidential nominee, the better for all of us.

*Note the difference between a presidential primary and the August primaries for congressional, state, legislative, and county seats; in those primaries, you pick up a ballot and choose whether to vote for Democratic candidates or for Republican candidates. In a presidential primary, when you sign in to vote, you declare whether you want to vote in the Democratic primary or the Republican primary. You're then given the ballot for that party.

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