I was up in Broomfield for the Colorado state Democratic Assembly yesterday. The Republicans held their event simultaneously. In case you missed the big news, of the four major statewide races (governor and U.S. Senate in both parties), three of them were won yesterday by people who were not their party's presumed frontrunners. On the Democratic side, Andrew Romanoff beat out Michael Bennet for the Senate nod by about 20 points. On the Republican side, Ken Buck won the Senate contest (presumed nominee Jane Norton decided not to compete) and Dan Maes narrowly beat out presumed gubernatorial nominee Scott McInnis.
What does this mean? In practical terms, not all that much. Winning at the state assembly means you get top line on the primary ballot in August. The research on the effect of ballot order is mixed, but generally leans toward the conclusion that the vote impact of being first on the ballot as opposed to second is either small or nonexistent. (This paper from Michael Alvarez, Betsy Sinclair, and Richard Hasen does a nice job reviewing the legal and political science research on the topic.)
Now, if a candidate doesn't get at least 30% of the assembly vote, she does not get to appear on the primary ballot at all, although she can later petition onto it. Only if a candidate fails to achieve 10% of the vote is she actually prevented from continuing as a candidate.
What does winning at the assembly mean politically? Well, it provides a short-term media story -- party activists reject presumed frontrunner -- but that quickly fades. And really, at this point, it's odd that it even generates that much media interest. A thorough scholarly review of the Colorado assembly/convention system has yet to be done, but the available evidence suggests that it often ends like it did yesterday, with the party activists rejecting the presumed frontrunner.
Why is that? Well, the party insiders who anoint a frontrunner don't wait until May of an election year to go about their business. Those who are really influential at this level -- and here I'm talking about the businesspeople who picked McInnis and helped pressure Josh Penry out of the race, and of course President Obama and his involvement on Bennet's behalf -- did their work back in 2009. They made judgments based on what they knew about the candidates and the state and on what they expected the political environment to be like by the fall of 2010. These sorts of insiders are ideological but have a pragmatic streak; they want to win. So, to some extent, they err on the side of caution, looking for candidates who stand for something but are still moderate enough to win with some margin of safety. So they pick a Scott McInnis, who has solid GOP credentials but whose commitments to the pro-life and Tea Party causes are less than certain. They pick a Michael Bennet, who is well within the mainstream of his party in the Senate but is hardly a rabid left-winger. And so on.
And then we get to the caucus-assembly process, a three-stage procedure involving ever-more-hardcore party activists with each successive stage. And they're basically asked, Do you like the relatively centrist presumed nominee you've been handed? Of course they're going to say no. They're activists. They're way toward the ideological extremes. They believe a) that a more ideologically extreme candidate can still get elected if given half a chance; and, b) that losing an election once in a while isn't as bad as selling out everything you believe in. So they stand up and say, We want a different nominee! We should expect to see this by now. Really, it would be remarkable to find the party activists embracing the presumed nominee. That sort of happened among Democrats with Mark Udall in 2008, but even he had a challenger within the party. It's rare.
So, in sum, the whole assembly/convention thing doesn't actually matter that much. It rarely disqualifies a candidate with any sort of serious backing, and it provides the winner little more than bragging rights. Which begs the question, why do we do it? I mean, reasonable people may disagree over whether party activists should have the power to pick or reject nominees like they do in Utah -- but at least there it matters. The Colorado system seems more like a chance for activists to express preferences but with little actual power to see them enacted. At this point, based on everything I know about how primary elections actually work, I would say the odds still strongly favor Bennet, McInnis, and Norton winning the August primaries. I'd love to be proven wrong, of course (I am a Romanoff delegate, after all), but given where the money and endorsements are, that's the likely outcome.
So why are we doing this?