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Primary Season Made Simple (?)

by Gunnar Erickson

There are many who feel that this November's US presidential election will be the most important since McClellan ran against Lincoln in 1864. Here is the timeline.

Donald Trump has no serious challenger on the Republican side so he will be renominated. The Republican Convention in Charlotte NC on Aug 24 -27 will be an artfully scripted P.R. event. The Republican presidential primaries will be a steady, heavily promoted triumphant march to the convention.

The Democrats meanwhile are in total flux. They chose to have an open and inclusive nomination contest that has led to a circus of debates with no candidate emerging so far as a consensus candidate. The next Democratic Presidential debate is on February 7 . There will be others on February 19 (before the Nevada vote), and on February 25 (before South Carolina vote). The debates will provide the candidates more exposure albeit in a cramped format and the media will report the losers and winners.

But the only thing that counts is selecting voting delegates to the Democratic National Convention on July 13-16 in Milwaukee, and that begins with the Iowa Caucuses on Feb 3. The Iowa caucuses are not an open vote of all the Democrats in Iowa. Instead, it is a count of the people who show up at their local designated spot and vote for their preferred candidate. Generally that is a very motivated activist subset of the Iowa Democrats who may or may not represent the general constituency. Historically a lower percentage of Iowa Democratic voters attend the caucuses than Democrats who vote in other state primaries, but much depends on how hotly contested the contest is. But because Iowa is the first actual vote, it gets a lot of press attention (which is why the Iowa Democrats fight to vote first). In 2008 the winner was Barack Obama with 37.6% followed by John Edwards at 29.7 and Hillary Clinton at 29.4. In 2012 the winner was Bernie Sanders with 49.84%, followed by Hillary Clinton at 49.59%.

The next real vote for delegates takes place in New Hampshire on Feb 11. It is an actual election. People go to the polls and cast ballots. Of the approximately 3979 delegates at the Democratic National Convention, Iowa includes 41 and New Hampshire 24. But the results of Iowa and New Hampshire historically have created the momentum for Democratic presidential candidates.

In 2020, the Democrats have turned Super Tuesday - which takes place on March 3 - into a truly super and important event. California, which has 416 delegates, has moved its primary from after-the-fact June to Super Tuesday. In addition to California, voters from Alabama (52 delegates), Arizona (67), Colorado (67), Minnesota (75), Massachusetts (91), North Carolina (110), Oklahoma (37), Tennessee (64), Texas (228), Utah (29), Vermont (16), and Virginia (99) will go to the polls. In all, 34% of the Democratic Presidential delegates will be selected.

Between March 3 and 10 Democrats Abroad will be holding a worldwide presidential primary. Democrats Abroad is a worldwide organization founded in 1964 to help US citizens who live abroad vote and to also lobby the Party on issues that concern overseas voters. Democrats Abroad awards 21 delegates to the convention, holding 17 votes, of which 13 are pledged delegates allocated on the basis of the results of the process. The San Miguel Democrats Abroad chapter will be running that primary here with voting on March 5th through 7th. Since Mexico has one of the largest group of voters in Democrats Abroad and since San Miguel has the second largest number of members of Democrats Abroad in the county, those votes will matter.

By the close of Super Tuesday, about 40% of the total votes for the national convention will have been decided. Other states will have their primaries on a regular basis ending with Washington DC in June. The biggest of those are March 10 with Idaho (25 delegates), Minnesota (91), Mississippi (41), Missouri (78), Washington (107) and North Dakota (18); March 17 with Arizona (78), Florida (219), Illinois (184), and Ohio (153); and March 24 with Georgia (120).

The US Constitution does not specify the procedure for selection of a party's presidential candidates so it is largely up to the parties of each state. The Democrats generally use proportional allocation so candidates who receive a minimum percentage of votes, often 15%, divide the pledged delegates in proportion to the percentage of votes they received. Under a winner-take-all system, sometimes used by Republicans, it is more likely that one candidate can build an overwhelming majority of delegates with primary wins in some big states like California. Under the Democratic model, it is much more likely that no candidate will have a majority and the delegates will be split.

If no candidate has an absolute majority of delegates by the time the convention starts on July 13, things will get interesting. In prior years, the Democrats had a large number of super delegates, which meant that elected members of Congress and other members of the Democratic establishment received votes at the convention outside of the primary system. The idea apparently was to tamper down the risk of wild card candidate sweeping the primaries. That has been changed. Under the current rules, there are 771 super delegates in addition to the 3979 elected delegates. The super delegates cannot participate in first-ballot voting unless one candidate has cinched it. In that case, they can jump in and make the vote overwhelming.

So the Democrats might- or might not- go into the convention with no candidate having a clear majority. Assuming there is no early deal where a candidate withdraws and directs her or his delegates to vote for someone else to create a majority candidate, the procedure will be for there to be a first round of voting with all the pledged delegates voting in accordance with their states' primary results. If there is no outright winner, all bets are off. Just because a state delegate was elected based on a particular candidate's vote, delegates are not forever bound to support that candidate. If there is no outright winner after the first ballot, the convention is "contested" and delegates are released to vote for whomever they want. Some speculate that the late entries of Deval Patrick and Michael Bloomberg as candidates reflect their belief that there will be a contested convention where either could emerge as the compromise nominee.

This is the scenario that TV pundits dream of. Backroom deals, rumors and intrigue come into play under the spotlight. Amidst whatever wheeling and dealing occurs, the Democrats will continue the voting until eventually a consensus candidate emerges with a majority of the delegate votes.

The last presidential convention that began with a serious question about who would get the nomination was the 1976 Republican convention that pitted Gerald Ford against Ronald Reagan. The last multi-ballot Democratic Convention was in 1952 where Adlai Stevenson won on the third ballot.

It should be an interesting year.


Gunnar Erickson has been around, but not in politics, for much of his life. He was born in Washington DC. He served as a page in the US House of Representatives in 1968, filling in for Bill Clinton. He is a graduate of Stanford University and Yale Law School and was a founding member of Democrats Abroad in San Miguel.

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