Sunday, March 14, 2010

Caucus primer

I was recently asked by a reporter to explain how important Colorado's caucuses are and why party "frontrunners" aren't necessarily favored to win them this year.  I'm not sure how much of my response will make it into print, so I figured I'd just jot it down here in case it's of some value to my obscenely large readership.

How important are the caucuses?  That's a tricky question.  There have been a number of high profile candidates in recent years who lost the caucuses and went on to win their party's nomination anyway (e.g.: Ken Salazar and Pete Coors in '04).  Winning the caucus is neither necessary nor sufficient for getting nominated.  However, it can be influential.  The candidate that wins the caucus will get top ballot position in the primary.  And if a candidate gets too small a caucus vote, he or she may be eliminated from the primary altogether.  Beyond that, the caucuses are mainly an opportunity for longstanding party activists to make their voices heard.

One of the real reasons that "frontrunners" aren't favored in the caucuses is because caucus participation is so limited.  Even in the 2008 presidential election, only about 6 percent of Colorado's eligible voters turned out to participate in the precinct caucuses -- and that was historically high.  Participation this week will be substantially below that.

The people who actually participate in caucuses tend to be the most active partisans.  They're highly informed and passionate on behalf of their party and particular candidates.  Unlike most other voters, they tend to follow politics all year round, rather than just prior to a major election.  As a result, their preferences tend to be somewhat different from those of the larger population.

This year in the U.S. Senate race, we have an interesting dynamic.  In both parties, party elites appear to have anointed a particular candidate, and party activists are rebelling against that choice somewhat.  On the Democratic side, Gov. Ritter appointed Michael Bennet to the U.S. Senate last year, a move that caught many Democratic activists by surprise, and Democratic leaders in DC, including President Obama, have rallied to support Bennet.  Many state Democratic activists were bothered by this decision being forced upon them, even if they have no particular problem with Bennet's behavior in the Senate.  These activists have largely rallied behind Andrew Romanoff, who has spent years working for Democratic causes in Denver and across the state.  Since these are the folks who will dominate the caucuses this week, Romanoff is likely to do very well in that contest, even though Bennet has raised far more money thus far.

On the Republican side, many party activists have chafed at the apparent anointment of Jane Norton.  Although they haven't quite settled on an alternative candidate for the nomination, those who are resisting her nomination will likely turn out in high numbers.

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