How the New Primary Calendar Changes the Contest for Democrats

How the New Primary Calendar Changes the Contest for Democrats


When the Democratic primaries start in less than two months, they will lead off as usual with four familiar early states. What follows next is different. It’s not so different as to be unrecognizable, but enough to upend conventional wisdom about the path to the nomination.

The changes make the 2020 Democratic calendar more like a national primary. There are fewer caucuses and fewer election nights, and the primary season ends earlier. Increasingly, the calendar features a handful of big primary nights, each relatively representative of the country, at least compared with previous years.

There are few stretches when one kind of demographic or contest type reigns, meaning candidates won’t be able to pull off big wins — and won’t suffer long droughts — simply because of a relatively favorable set of states.

As a result, candidates can’t count on the calendar to bail them out.

Joe Biden, for instance, won’t be able to rely on a big win March 3 on Super Tuesday, which has long been a bulwark for relatively moderate Democrats who often count on the support of black, Southern or conservative voters. Now it is fairly representative of the country; if he has faltered in national polls, he will probably falter here as well.

Activist-backed candidates won’t benefit from lower-turnout caucuses, which have long offered much-needed oxygen to ideologically consistent candidates like Bernie Sanders or Mike Huckabee. Candidates like these will claim victory on far fewer nights than they have in the past.

Over all, the increasingly balanced, fast and representative post-early-state calendar could point toward a somewhat less dramatic primary season. The calendar could reduce the number of apparent twists and turns, as there are fewer opportunities for candidates to pull off long streaks of big wins with a favorable group of states.

The calendar still has one clearly unrepresentative feature: Iowa (Feb. 3) and New Hampshire (Feb. 11), the two overwhelmingly white states that still reign at the top. With the rest of the calendar more balanced, these two states stand out as the most distinctive feature of the primary season. If the calendar will offer an advantage to any kind of candidate, it will be one who fares well in those two places.

Here are some of the big changes, and what they mean.

Over all, 60 percent of delegates will be awarded by March 15. This is mainly because of California’s move to Super Tuesday, which comes just three days after the South Carolina primary.

The fast calendar and big field of candidates tend to increase the possibility that there will still be three or more viable candidates by the time a large number of delegates have been awarded. This is by no means inevitable, but it could raise the odds that no candidate amasses a majority of delegates before the convention, since delegates are awarded on a fairly proportional basis in the Democratic primary.

California’s move to Super Tuesday has another important effect: It makes Super Tuesday more representative.

For decades, Super Tuesday has generally been dominated by Southern primaries, where black voters represent a disproportionately large share of the Democratic electorate. No more. California will be the biggest prize, and the black share of the Democratic electorate there is well below the national average. Georgia, the largest state where black voters represent a majority of the Democratic electorate, has moved down the calendar.

In the end, the black share of the Democratic electorate on Super Tuesday should now be around 20 percent, or about the same as that of the nation as a whole.

Perhaps the best thing Mr. Biden has going for him now on Super Tuesday is that California takes a long time to count its votes, and many of the earliest ballots will be from older voters, who back Mr. Biden by a relatively wide margin. It gives him a shot to avoid the perception of a California loss on the night of Super Tuesday, even if he is ultimately defeated there because of the younger voters who cast ballots on Election Day.

In 2016, caucuses awarded 14 percent of delegates. This time, true caucuses will award just 3 percent of delegates — and only 1 percent of delegates after the four early states. The change was spurred in part by new Democratic National Committee rules that encouraged caucuses to become more accessible, though many states were already moving to do so.

After Iowa and Nevada (Feb. 22), only five of the states will hold anything other than a state-run primary: Wyoming will hold typical county caucuses; Kansas and Alaska will hold party-run primaries; Hawaii and North Dakota will run firehouse caucuses, a kind of party-run primary. Leaving aside the distinctions between these various formats, anything other than a typical caucus will tend to have a higher turnout that resembles a primary. (There are several nonstate contests, like those in U.S. territories, that will hold caucuses, but they award few delegates.)

This is good news for establishment-backed candidates and bad news for the left. In recent cycles, low-turnout caucuses have overwhelmingly backed outsider, activist-backed candidates — whether it’s Mr. Sanders on the left or Ted Cruz on the right.

The reduced number of caucuses has an odd side effect: It reduces the total number of election nights, down to 14 after the early states, from 19 in 2016.

Why? Before, many caucuses were held on weekends or other irregular days; now that they’re primaries, they’ll be on Tuesdays along with the other primary states, reducing the total number of election days.

This tends to increase the demographic representativeness of many big election nights. Super Tuesday, for instance, adds Utah and Maine, two relatively white, former caucus states that lessen the day’s nonwhite tilt from 2016.

Washington, Idaho and North Dakota, three relatively white caucus states, will join Michigan and Mississippi on the second Tuesday of March. Before, it was another primary night when black voters represented a well-above-average share of the vote, and Hillary Clinton won 58 percent of the delegates at stake. Now, the black share of the electorate will be right in line with the national average.

As a result, the long streak of fairly late caucuses is gone as well. In the past, these caucuses have provided sustenance to otherwise struggling activist-backed candidates. Mr. Sanders, for instance, went on a seven-of-eight streak after the March 15 primaries and before the big Northeastern states in late April. He often won by landslide margins. How would he have done in 2016 if this year’s calendar had been used? He would have gone four for seven, and would have badly lost Georgia, the largest state of the bunch. These contests would have pushed him further behind in the delegate count, rather than offered hope of a comeback.

For a while now, the end of the calendar has featured relatively rural and white voters, and that’s even more true now that California has moved up to Super Tuesday. At the same time, Kansas and Nebraska, which flipped to primaries from caucuses this cycle, have moved to May.

These small states are fairly unlikely to play a meaningful role in anything but the closest contest: By May, 90 percent of delegates will already have been awarded. And the biggest remaining state at this point, New Jersey, could certainly have very different preferences than the other small states at the end of the calendar.

But in a tight race, the closing stretch could give a veneer of momentum to a candidate with relative strength among white voters. And it is not hard to imagine a trailing candidate holding out for a late show of strength, like Mrs. Clinton in 2008 or Mr. Sanders in 2016.



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