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Caucuses vs. Primaries, and What the Switch Will Mean for Colorado

March 2, 2020

Following Colorado’s chaotic 2016 presidential primary caucuses, which one Denver Post columnist colorfully likened to “a flea market during the apocalypse,” on Tuesday voters in the state will participate in a primary election instead. Gone are the prolonged wait times in loud and crowded auditoriums, but also lost are neighborly debates over the merits and drawbacks of preferred candidates. In short, Colorado has switched from being a caucus state to a primary state, and there are a few things worth knowing about this change.

Main Differences

The simplest distinction is that caucuses are operated by political parties, whereas primaries are state-run. In more practical terms, caucuses have fewer associated costs, which may suggest part of their perennial appeal to taxpayers. In-person caucusing does not require the extensive balloting required of primary elections, a cost borne by the state. Conversely, caucuses impose a separate cost on voters’ time, which restricts participation to a more limited portion of the electorate that is able to attend the caucus during certain hours.

This is crux of the debate between caucuses and primaries: Caucuses cost less, but often fewer voters are able to participate in the time-consuming process. Primaries cost more, but mail-in or secret ballots minimize time constraints and reduce barriers to voter participation, while also reducing the societal pressure some may feel to vote in a certain way.

Colorado’s History of Switching Systems

In 1992, Colorado voters participated in a presidential primary election, but by 2004 they had returned the state to a caucus system, as had last been practiced in 1988. Why? Cost, of course. In 2004, the savings equaled roughly $2.7 million, equivalent to more than $3.8 million in 2020 dollars. In this context, voters’ decision to switch back to primaries again in 2016 seemingly follows a swing in sentiment every three or four election cycles.

It’s important to remember, too, that primary elections and caucuses wherein voters even have a say in their party’s nominee are relatively new. Historically, party leaders arrived at conventions ready to debate amongst themselves the question of the party’s nominee, and in 1910 Oregon became the first state to use popular elections to pick delegates for national conventions who were bound to a particular candidate. Still, it wasn’t until 1972 and the beginning of the modern political era—brought about by the widely criticized 1968 Democratic nomination contest and the subsequent reforms it invoked—that the process ostensibly exited the proverbial smoke-filled back rooms.

What 2020’s Return to a Primary Election Will Change

To answer this question and more, we consulted Michael Berry, PhD, associate professor of political science at CU Denver and frequent political expert, to further explain what this year’s changes will mean as voters once again cast their ballots in a primary election to help determine their party’s nominee.

How Will the Shift to a Presidential Primary Impact Voter Participation?

[Berry:] “The most obvious change will be a substantial increase in turnout as the election this cycle will use mail-in ballots and also allow unaffiliated voters to participate. According to January 2020 data from the Secretary of State’s office, there are nearly 1.4 million unaffiliated, active voters in Colorado who represent a plurality of the state’s electorate.

“Given that President Trump is not facing a competitive primary challenge, I would expect many unaffiliated voters to participate in the Democratic primary. This likely means a more ideologically heterogeneous electorate on the Democratic side relative to last cycle when Senator Sanders won the state convincingly. I expect Sanders to perform well again in 2020, but the Colorado electorate will likely be more moderate than it was in 2016.”

Are there Benefits of a Caucus System that Colorado Will Lose?

“Those who favor maintaining the caucus system for presidential elections would likely lament the loss of the deliberative aspect of caucus where community members have an opportunity to dialogue with one another, exchange ideas on candidates and policy, and make a case for their preferred candidate.

“However, as we witnessed last cycle, many Democratic caucus locations experienced difficulty accommodating the number of voters who showed up to participate, and the Republican caucus did not pledge delegates to the GOP convention. In those respects, perhaps the caucuses had already lost some of their unique aspects, which may have influenced the collective decision by voters to switch to the primary system.

“Given the problems that occurred with this year’s Iowa caucuses, Coloradans may be experiencing a sense of relief that the state has jettisoned the presidential caucuses in lieu of a primary.”

What Does the Possibility of a Contested Convention Mean for Super Tuesday States?

“While the contests to date have been important in shaping the contours of the race including a dramatic shift in the frontrunner, less than 4 percent of the total delegates have been at stake. In contrast, the 16 states voting on Super Tuesday represent greater than one-third of all the convention delegates.

“If a candidate other than Senator Sanders performs well, it could reshape the race by winnowing the number of remaining candidates, and those who would prefer a nominee other than Sanders may consolidate their support behind one candidate such that the contest becomes a two- or three-person race.”

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