Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Minnesota is Already a Primary State

There is an ongoing debate within the Republican Party in Minnesota about the relative merit of primaries vs. endorsements.

One thing that I hear too often among activists is people asking whether or not Minnesota will become a “primary state.”

The truth is that Minnesota is already a primary state. Minnesota holds a partisan primary for major political parties, currently in August. The winner of the primary election, by party, goes on to be the general election candidate for that party.  (This is true for all partisan races except U.S. President, which I will set aside for another post.)

An endorsement is a function of a political party. There is nothing in law that requires a party to endorse a candidate for any office. When a party does make an endorsement, there is nothing in law that requires any other candidate to drop out of the race. To the contrary, state law actually prohibits coercing a candidate to drop out if they are not endorsed.

By tradition, politicians in Minnesota running as a member of a major political party have usually abided by the endorsement of that party, meaning they drop out of the race after a convention. There have always been exceptions to that rule- Mark Dayton being a recent high profile example.

There is nothing within law that needs to be changed for Minnesota to become a “primary state.”  To do so would just require abandoning tradition, which is something I would advocate the MNGOP do post haste.

What’s wrong with endorsement?

For starters, endorsement is an exclusive process that fails to give the majority of voters a say in which candidates will represent them.

Candidates are endorsed by delegates at a political party’s convention. These delegates are selected first at caucus, on caucus night, and then later at conventions.

Delegates are elected at the precinct level on a ratio, based on the number of votes the “top of the ticket” race got in the last statewide election.

For example, in my district in 2014 we allotted one delegate for every 60 votes Mitt Romney received in 2012. This means we were able to elect up to 286 delegates. We actually elected 145.

In theory every 60 voters “delegated” their vote on who should be endorsed to one of those delegates. Because of our failure to elect a full slate, those ratio is actually closer to one per 118.

I question whether those other 59 (or 117) Romney voters are aware of the fact that by failing to run for a delegate spot at caucus, they have effectively given up their right to decide who the local, congressional, and statewide Republican candidates will be. Based on recent conversations, many are not.

Caucus attendance varies greatly from year to year, but the number of people who turn out for a caucus on a non-presidential year is usually about 7% of the people who vote in a primary election. On a “great year” (2010) it reached 15%.

When compared to the general election, caucus-goers represent about 1-2% of the total number of people who will vote for the Republican candidate for Governor in that year.

Primary election turnout also varies greatly, but during recent non-presidential years Republicans have turned out between 130,000 and 207,000 primary voters. This is in contrast to the 12,000 to 20,000 people who attended caucus. (Interestingly enough 2010 had the highest number of caucus attendees, and the lowest number of primary votes.)

I will note that in each year several hundred thousand Minnesotans turned out to vote in primary elections- despite the fact that their candidates had already been decided for them by the endorsement process!

Without a history of competitive GOP primaries it is impossible to say how many (if any) additional voters would turn out if they actually had a choice to make.  We can look to the DFL, however, who saw their primary turnout increase by over 30% when they had a competitive primary in 2010.

There are those who argue that the caucus going population is reflective of the primary electorate, which is a specious claim made on pure assumption. Because we have not given the primary electorate any meaningful choices to make, we have no idea how they would vote.

What we do know is that the general population of caucus-goers aren’t even reflective of the delegates who will eventually endorse a candidate, as evidenced by the straw poll being such a poor predictor of the endorsed candidate.  In the last two competitive gubernatorial races, the straw poll winners (Brian Sullivan and Marty Seifert) were not endorsed at convention.

There is a lot of talk amongst the activist ranks about “respecting the will of the delegates.”  I would argue that any candidate who agrees to abide by a party endorsement in a contested race actually disrespects the broader population of voters. Delegates are free to participate in a primary election along with everyone else. The inverse is not true.

Why should Republican voters who do not have the time or inclination to attend caucus and several conventions be deprived of the opportunity to select a candidate?

In addition to the fact that endorsements are unrepresentative, they are also easily manipulated. Because endorsements happen at conventions, they are subject to convention rules. Those rules can (and are) tweaked by campaigns, their representatives, and political parties to achieve the outcomes that they want.

The DFL gave us a great example of this in the 2013 Minneapolis Mayor’s race when delegates from a campaign left the convention hall to have pizza on the sidewalk, denying the convention a quorum.

If you think these types of things don’t happen at GOP conventions, then you obviously haven’t been to a GOP convention. Michael Brodkorb has a fascinating write up of convention rules over at Politics.MN that you should check out, if you’re into that kind of thing.

I lived in Arizona for a few years, and was very involved in the political process there. Like Minnesota, Arizona is a primary state. Their “grassroots” system is a bit different than ours, but they have equivalents to our conventions.

The bylaws in AZ also allow for endorsements, however their delegates reject that option, and see it as an imposition of the will of the few on the many primary voters. Endorsements are rarely granted, and when they are, they are met with deep resistance. A party endorsement can actually hurt a candidate there.

The Minnesota Republican Party’s endorsement process exemplifies the old “smoke filled back room” days of a few powerful people making decisions for the rest of us.  It’s time to end it.

Next time I’ll tackle the Presidential side of the equation, which is even more silly.