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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

The Last Caucuses

As most commentators moved on after Nevada, I reflected on the future implications at New York:

This year’s Democratic caucuses are not entirely in the rearview mirror yet: There is one more on April 4 in Wyoming. But after the Caucus Night meltdown in Iowa, and then a near brush with disaster in Nevada, the odds of this form of nominating contest surviving into the next presidential cycle is somewhere not far north of zero.

Nevada Democrats were lucky on several counts. Most obviously, they had Iowa’s example to put them on high alert. Their basic caucusing procedures were modeled on Iowa’s; they had the same huge new complications based on the multiple reporting requirements imposed on them by the national party, exacerbated by a large field of candidates, and were originally planning to use the same technologies. On top of that, Nevada was experimenting with an “early caucusing” option utilizing ranked-choice voting that created another layer of complexity.

Horrified by the possibility of a second meltdown, the DNC offered a lot of technical assistance to the Nevada party and helped mobilize volunteers from other states to staff the event. But with all that, on Caucus Day the results came in v-e-r-y slowly. There were just enough returns, however, to justify the release of full entrance polls, and the really lucky thing for Nevada is that there was a clear winner, which allowed media types to spend many fine hours agitating the air about the Greater Meaning of a Bernie Sanders nomination — as though the thought had never occurred to them before — instead of complaining about the slow count.

“The statement is as follows:

“’I am so proud of the Nevada Democratic Party, its talented staff, and the thousands of grassroots volunteers who have done so much hard work over the years to build this operation. We have the best state party in the country, and that was shown again this past week after another successful caucus that featured a historic four days of early voting with more than 10,000 new voter registrations.

“”With so much Democratic enthusiasm in Nevada, demonstrated again by the tremendous caucus turnout this year, I believe we should make the process of selecting our nominee even more accessible. We’ve made it easier for people to register to vote here in Nevada in recent years and now we should make it easier for people to vote in the presidential contests. That’s why I believe it’s time for the Democratic Party to move to primaries everywhere.'”

No, of course, there’s no problem with holding caucuses: It’s just that primaries are even better! They didn’t just get that way, of course, but Reid knows when it’s time to count your blessings and move on. Besides, he and other Nevada Democrats have more important fish to fry:

“’I’m glad to have fought to make Nevada the first Western state in the Democratic nominating process since 2008, and we have proven more than worthy of holding that prominent early state position. I firmly believe that Nevada, with our broad diversity that truly reflects the rest of the country, should not just be among the early states — we should be the first in the nation.'”

A big part of the Great Iowa Freak-out of 2020 was attributable not just to the Caucus Night brouhaha but to long-standing and rapidly intensifying complaints about the state’s exceptionally pale demographics. Part of the reason Nevada and South Carolina got moved into the charmed circle of privileged and officially designated “early states” was to protect the status of Iowa (“First-in-the-Nation Caucus”) and the equally honkyfied New Hampshire (“First-in-the-Nation Primary”) by giving more diverse jurisdictions some representation. Now Nevada wants it all: to move past Iowa and New Hampshire to go first in a system without caucuses. Certainly Iowa is in no position to insist on a future with caucuses, and New Hampshire cannot hold on to the status quo forever on its own.

The abolition of caucuses may have been inevitable even without this year’s caucus issues. As Geoffrey Skelley noted last spring, fully 11 states that held caucuses in 2016 moved to primaries this year, mostly because the national party kept insisting on safeguards to improve access and accountability (e.g., all those raw-vote tabulations) that are difficult to reconcile with old-school party-run caucuses. You might wonder what states whose legislatures refuse to conduct and pay for partisan presidential primaries do instead of caucuses. There is the option (which four states will exercise this year) of a party-run primary — sometimes called a “firehouse primary,” because they typically use limited publicly owned polling places to hold down expenses.

Those of us who were fond of caucuses for the deliberative voting process and the sheer sense of community they fostered will have to move on in the great cattle drive of life.

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