Will Upcoming Caucuses Make or Break Hillary Clinton?

Caucus states may have cost her the nomination in 2008. What does this year look like?
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Caucus states may have cost her the nomination in 2008. What does this year look like?
Hillary Clinton hosts a small business forum with  members of the business and lending communities at Bike Tech bicycle  shop on May 19, 2015, in Cedar Falls, Iowa. (Photo: Scott  Olson/Getty Images)

Hillary Clinton hosts a small business forum with members of the business and lending communities at Bike Tech bicycle shop on May 19, 2015, in Cedar Falls, Iowa. (Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Hillary Clinton's narrow defeat of Bernie Sanders in Saturday's Nevada Democratic Caucuses reminds us of the importance of the caucus states. Caucuses are notoriously difficult to predict and a challenge to organize, but they can end up being pivotal.

Roughly 15 state Democratic parties will select their presidential convention delegates through a caucus system this year. Next week, there will be three caucuses (in Colorado, Minnesota, and American Samoa) joining nine primaries for the Democratic contests on Super Tuesday. How might this affect the Democratic contest?

It's important to consider how caucuses differ from primaries. Because caucuses require so much more time and effort to participate in than primaries do, they tend to see substantially lower turnout. It's no small thing to spend two hours arguing and voting and discussing issues on a weekend or a weeknight. It's deeply democratic and very inspiring, but for quite a few people, this is both inconvenient and intimidating.

In 2008, just over 120,000 people participated in Colorado's Democratic caucus. There were about 1.1 million registered Democrats in the state at that point, meaning turnout was around 11 percent of eligible voters. And that was a record high, during a heated and very competitive race between Clinton and Obama. It's unlikely this year's turnout will be much higher, if it's even that high.

Caucuses are deeply democratic and very inspiring, but for quite a few people, this is both inconvenient and intimidating.

Hillary Clinton famously under-prioritized the caucus states that year. Barack Obama largely ran the table on those contests and accrued substantial numbers of delegates. Given the closeness of that nomination contest, it's conceivable that had she put more effort into organizing and canvassing in those states, she'd be president today. This is clearly not a mistake she intends to repeat. She's been spending considerable time and money in early caucus contests like Iowa's and Nevada's, and she's been working to make sure that her supporters show up.

Yet her opponent, Sanders, has a number of advantages in those contests. Given the type of event that they are, caucuses tend to turn out joiners—people who really like democratic activism and want to be part of a movement. And given the relatively low turnout, it's not hard for a very passionate group, even if it's a minority of the party's voters, to dominate such a contest. That worked really well for Obama in 2008—he did around 15 points better in caucuses than he did in primaries. It may well be an advantage for Sanders this year as well.

On the other hand, many caucuses (including Colorado's) are closed contests, meaning that the only people who can participate in them are people who have been registered with their party for several weeks or months. Sanders' supporters tend to lean well to the left, but a fair number of them, like Sanders himself, are not longstanding members of the Democratic Party. Sanders has made considerable efforts to reach out to such voters and get them to register as Democrats before the deadline, but it remains a source of some uncertainty just how many of them will show up on caucus night.

The low turnout and uncertain nature of Sanders' base make this contest a particularly hard one to forecast. We can't have a great deal of faith in recent polls like this one, especially given how many people claim to be participating in next week's contest. We just don't know exactly who's going to show up.

Sanders has some real advantages going into the contest, but given the results of Iowa and Nevada's caucuses, it's clear that Clinton knows how to blunt some of those advantages and eek out at least narrow victories.

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