Bernie Sanders’ acolytes cheered this past weekend as the Democratic National Committee changed superdelegate and caucus rules for the 2020 primary season. They really shouldn’t have.
While on the surface the rule changes seemed to benefit progressives, a closer look suggests the exact opposite. These rule changes will likely harm the progressive cause more than help it.
The superdelegate change really is not much of a change at all. Yes, superdelegates won’t have any real power on the first ballot. They can still vote on the second ballot though.
Remember, Sanders lost among pledged delegates in 2016. Superdelegates didn’t cause him to lose. Eight years earlier, Clinton’s large early superdelegate lead didn’t mean anything when Obama ended up winning among pledged delegates. The superdelegates fell in-line.
Only if no candidate has a majority of pledged delegates would superdelegates have likely come into play without any rule changes. The same as it is now.
Rather, the biggest change put into effect this past weekend was to drastically reform the caucus process. The new rules require any state that has a caucus to provide absentee ballots. They also encourage caucus states to switch over to primaries.
The only reason Sanders was remotely competitive in 2016 was because so many states used caucuses instead of primaries. His supporters would have shown up to a caucus on a boat in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean at midnight. Hillary Clinton’s supporters tended to sit out caucuses more so than Sanders’s.
Anything that makes caucuses easier to access or eliminates them likely hurts movement candidates like Sanders.
You can see the major difference between the caucus and primary electorates in Nebraska and Washington. Both states had a caucus and a primary with the caucuses determining delegate allocation. Sanders won both of the caucuses by double digits, though he lost the higher turnout primaries in both states by around 5 points. The same held true when comparing the North Dakota caucus results and the South Dakota primary outcome. Clinton lost by about 40 points in North Dakota and barely won in South Dakota.
Eight years earlier, when Clinton was unsuccessful in fending off movement upstart Barack Obama, a similar pattern emerged. She did far worse in the caucuses in Nebraska, North Dakota and Washington than she did in the primaries in Nebraska, South Dakota and Washington respectively. Clinton also lost the Texas caucus held on the same day as her victory in the Texas primary.
When my former colleague Nate Silver and I tried to figure out how caucuses affected the 2016 primary, we argued that the system wasn’t rigged against Sanders as his supporters argued. If anything, the system was rigged against Clinton. Had all caucus states used primaries, Clinton’s pledged delegate lead would have expanded by over 150 delegates or a little less than half the margin Clinton beat Sanders by among pledged delegates in 2016. That 150 is more than the margin by which Obama beat Clinton in pledged delegates in 2008.
Primaries are especially dangerous to candidates who rely on the grassroot bottom to top neighborhood politics that Sanders likes to espouse.
One of the major differences between caucus and primary voters is that caucus voters tend to be more civically engaged than their primary counterparts. This makes sense given that a caucus is a community experience.
In 2016, Donald Trump supporters tended to be less engaged in their community. According to a Public Religion Research Institute spring 2016 poll, Trump beat Cruz by 16 among those who said they participated on a sports team, PTA or neighborhood association only a few times a year or less. Cruz won by about 10 among those who participated in them at least once a month.
On the Democratic side, Sanders won by about 10 among those who participated in one of these at least once a month. He lost by a similar margin among those who didn’t. On the two extremes, Clinton won among those who never took part in one of these community activities by 25 points, while Sanders won by about 20 who did so more than once a week.
Another way of thinking about this is that movement candidates like Sanders benefit from caucuses because supporters see themselves as part of a community.
The Trump example should also be a warning flag to establishment Democrats who might be celebrating the move against caucuses. Primaries are less controlled and less predictable. Voters in them are less part of their neighborhood and therefore not as tied down to a particular type of candidate by their community connections. The fact that primaries benefited both Trump, and Mitt Romney four years earlier, is proof that primary electorates don’t always act in predictable ways.
Indeed, more primaries make it easier for Democrats to get their own Trump and harder for them to get their own Sanders. That’s not exactly what I would think Sanders’s fans would hope for.