Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton has swept to victory in Washington’s 2016 Democratic presidential primary, which the party won’t be using to allocate any delegates to the 2016 DNC in Philadelphia, early results show.
With 661,403 ballots cast and counted so far, Clinton has a healthy 47,973 vote lead over Bernie Sanders, and is ahead in the state’s most populous counties, including the Big Three (King, Pierce, and Snohomish).
However, Jefferson, San Juan, and Whitman counties — which tend to vote against Tim Eyman’s destructive initiatives more reliably than any county except for King — were backing Sanders. So were voters in Whatcom and Thurston counties.
Sanders also had leads in a number of eastern Washington counties that don’t usually support Democratic candidates at any level.
Because the Washington State Democratic Party’s Delegate Selection and Affirmative Action Plan provides for national convention delegates to be allocated to candidates through caucuses, tonight’s primary results are essentially a straw poll with a massive number of participants. In other words, they’re symbolic.
Sanders completely routed Clinton in the March 26th Democratic presidential precinct caucuses and subsequent April 17th legislative district caucuses, where the delegates to the congressional district level were chosen.
The just-held congressional district caucuses on Saturday, May 21st produced a statewide allocation of seventy-four national delegates for Sanders, and twenty-seven for Clinton. This allocation will be used at the State Convention next month when the at-large and PLEO (Party Leader and Elected Official) delegates — which represent about a third of the total of pledged delegates — are chosen.
State law requires elections officials to hold a presidential primary every four years, but in practice, it has been held every eight years (when there is no incumbent President seeking reelection). The Legislature opted to fund the election in its biennial budget last year, and accordingly, it was duly held.
As elections officials stressed in the voter’s pamphlet and elsewhere, what the parties do with the results is up to them. The parties have a First Amendment right to freely assemble, and it’s up to their governing bodies to decide what rules and procedures to use in the nominating of candidates.
The Washington State Democratic Party has a long tradition of allocating its national convention delegates through the caucus and convention cycle. The Party’s State Central Committee (which I am a member of) voted overwhelmingly to stick with that tradition last year when it drew up its DNC-approved 2016 Delegate Selection and Affirmative Action Plan (DSAAP).
However, 2016 may be the last cycle with a caucus-only DSAAP. An increasing number of Democratic activists have come to the conclusion that it would be worthwhile to incorporate a primary into the DSAAP, while retaining the caucuses for the purposes of delegate selection. This is the approach that I myself favor.
With a binding primary, we’d get more participation than with the caucuses.
Utilizing a primary to allocate all the national convention delegates would allow people who want to have a say in the nominating process to participate without having to show up at a caucus. Party leaders would then be free to organize caucuses and conventions for a smaller number of participants who actually want to be there. Those interested in coming together in person to build a platform, run for delegate, pass resolutions, and meet Democratic activists from their area would continue to be able to do all those things in a hybrid primary+caucus system.
There’s no way of knowing how the results would have turned out had today’s primary been a binding election, with delegate allocation on the line.
As NPI’s President Robert Cruickshank has pointed out, neither of the Democratic presidential campaigns ran any GOTV (get-out-the-vote) operations in advance of the primary. Still, it’s worth noting that Washington’s four million plus voters were mailed ballots, and more than a quarter of them sent them back. There are still a lot of votes left to count, too, so the turnout will continue to go up.
How does this compare to caucus turnout? Well, the state party says around 230,000 people participated in this year’s Democratic presidential precinct caucuses. So the universe of voters participating in the nonbinding, symbolic Democratic primary (so far) is about three time bigger.
When making comparisons, it’s important to remember that the universe of Democratic voters in Washington is only a subset of the overall electorate. I keep seeing reporters and commentators measure Democratic caucus turnout against the total number of registered voters. When you do that, it yields a figure of around 6%. But this figure is totally meaningless, because not every Washington voter is a Democratic voter interested in helping choose the party’s nominees.
Let’s suppose, for the sake of argument, that one in every four registered voters identifies with the Democratic Party. There are currently 4,087,920 voters on our state’s rolls at present, so that’s a universe of 1,021,980 Democratic voters. By doing some simple arithmetic, we can see that 230,000 of 1,021,980 is 22.5%. That’s a much more respectable turnout figure than 6%.
Of course, we can’t know for sure exactly how many of the state’s voters consider themselves Democratic, since we don’t have party registration in Washington. We can only guess and use survey data to make our guesses educated. Complicating matters, we know whatever the number is, it’s a fluctuating figure.
In presidential years, the number of voters who tell pollsters they’re Democratic voters is markedly higher than in midterm or local election years.
In 2012, for instance, Public Policy Polling conducted surveys in which 36% of respondents identified themselves as Democrats.
If we go by that four year old figure and assume that 36% of Washington voters are Democratic voters, then our universe is 1,471,651 voters. 230,000 of 1,471,651.2 is approximately 15.6%, which is still a lot higher than 6%.
I’m impressed that although the mass media has been advising voters for weeks that the Washington Democratic presidential primary was only symbolic (and the Republican contest over), more than a quarter of the state’s registered voters sent back their ballots anyway. And a majority of the returned ballots are Democratic, befitting of Washington’s status as a blue state.
The last time Washington held a presidential primary was eight years ago, in 2008, during the marquee matchup between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. Then, as now, the primary was held after the precinct caucuses had been held. (Both events were in February, as opposed to March and May).
Obama easily defeated Clinton in the caucuses, then went on to win the non-binding, “straw poll” primary by a much narrower margin.
Obama received 354,112 votes (51.22% of the total), while Clinton got 315,744 (45.67%). A total of 691,381 votes were cast in that election, compared to 661,403 this year. 111,200 ballots are on hand that have yet to be processed by county elections officials, according to the Secretary of State.
Assuming around half of those are Democratic ballots, we are already on track to surpass the 2008 Democratic turnout. That’s noteworthy, especially considering that 2016 Democratic precinct caucus turnout didn’t quite match the high-water mark set in February 2008 when Obama and Clinton were squaring off.
It should also be noted that the 2008 primary took place much earlier in the nominating season (February 19, 2008 — before many states had voted), while the 2016 primary is taking place rather late in the season (May 24th, 2016 — with most states having already voted).
There may be a correlation between this year’s higher turnout and Washington’s switch to vote-by-mail. For the 2008 elections, voters in urban counties like King and Pierce were not mailed ballots unless they had registered to vote absentee. Since then, however, county elections officials have done away with polling places and everyone gets a ballot in the mail with three weeks to fill it out and return it.
That said, vote-by-mail hasn’t been a guarantor of robust turnout. Last year, Washington experienced its worst-ever general election turnout since voter registration began in the 1930s. Millions of ballots were mailed out, but most were not returned to a drop box or through the Postal Service.
The turnout we’re seeing certainly suggests many voters were enthusiastic about participating in the state’s presidential primary, even if they knew the Democratic Party wasn’t going to utilize the results.
The campaigns may not have done any GOTV, but the disparity between the caucus results and the primary results is still striking.
Though the primary returns won’t influence the delegate allocation, Hillary Clinton supporters can still take solace in knowing that a great many of their friends and neighbors are for Clinton. She’s likely to be the Democratic nominee in July, and she will need Washington in her column to win the presidency this November.