The coronavirus pandemic has in effect put an early end to the 2020 race for the Democratic nomination for president. Vermont U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders is “assessing” his political future after being “routed” in state primaries in Texas, Michigan, Florida and Illinois. Former Vice President Joe Biden appears to hold an “almost insurmountable” lead in winning the delegate votes needed for the nomination.
That makes this a good time to review the presidential nominating system and see what was new and different in 2020. The nominating system is always changing as states and political parties tinker with its many aspects.
A big change was the creation by the Democratic National Committee of monthly candidate TV debates that were presented live on major cable and over-the-air television stations last summer and fall.
There had been candidate TV debates in previous presidential primaries and caucuses, but they usually were on lesser known cable channels and rarely included all the candidates. An important new feature in 2020 was requiring candidates to do well in public opinion polls and fundraising to be allowed to move on to the subsequent month’s debate.
We think the debates made a difference. They had the effect of making it a national race rather than one narrowly focused on early voting states like Iowa and New Hampshire. Month by month, the debates plus the polls established Biden as a leading, though fragile, candidate. At the same time, the debates, plus the polls, enabled a relatively unknown newcomer, South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, to establish himself as a national contender.
Sanders is an effective, yet repetitive debater. Elizabeth Warren, Buttigieg and, to some extent, Andrew Yang were effective on the debate stage. Others, like Michael Bloomberg and John Hickenlooper, failed to help their campaigns. Biden survived yet didn’t thrive at these monthly debates. He is lucky that New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo chose not to run.
All of this hurt Sanders in the Iowa caucuses, which he expected to win easily. Sanders narrowly lost Iowa to Buttigieg. Buttigieg could not have won Iowa without the Democratic Party’s national TV debates plus the polls.
Another difference in 2020 from past nominating struggles was the failure of the Iowa caucuses to produce election results on caucus night. Turning the reporting of results over to an inadequately tested computer program resulted in firm results not being available for several days. Since the early 1970s, the American public had been accustomed to getting the first report of votes in a nomination struggle from Iowa. This lack of timely results harmed Buttigieg and Sanders by downplaying the “bounce” each would normally have received from their near tie for first place in Iowa.
We found one benefit from the big mess-up in Iowa. In discussing the fiasco, a number of commentators wrote about how unfair it is for Iowa, with its lack of minorities and “big city” voters, to get the extra influence of voting first. Some writers even presented reforms for the primaries that pointedly took Iowa out of getting to vote first.
And speaking of Iowa-style caucuses, they now have mainly been replaced by primaries. That happened in Colorado for 2020, as our state Legislature replaced caucuses with a presidential primary held on Super Tuesday, which was won by Sanders. Only three states are staging caucuses this year — Iowa, Nevada, and Wyoming.
Iowa invented the Iowa caucuses to get to vote before New Hampshire, which insists on being the first primary. Nevada, which votes third, was assigned caucuses when the Democratic Party made it the state that would show Hispanic preferences in the presidential selection process. That means Wyoming is the only state holding caucuses that does not have a special reason or advantage to holding caucuses.
This is a major change. There were enough caucuses in 2008 that Barack Obama was winning caucuses while his opponent for the Democratic nomination, Hillary Clinton, was winning primaries. Most of the caucuses that helped Obama beat Clinton in 2008, and eventually win the presidency, are now primaries.
That is a change we support. Caucuses, with their low turnouts and lengthy evening meetings, tend to over-represent the extremes of the two political parties — more liberal for the Democrats and more conservative for the Republicans.
Primaries, with their higher voter turnouts and shorter periods required for voting, tend to produce more moderate results. The greater emphasis on primaries over caucuses this year helped a moderate, Biden, snatch the Democratic nomination from the far more liberal Sanders.
Another change we noticed for 2020 was the reemergence of Southern Super Tuesday and its dynamic effect on the Democratic race. Originally created by Al Gore and Bill Clinton to make Southern states a real force in the Democratic presidential primaries, Super Tuesday lost some of its Southern flavor when a large number of non-Southern states also chose to vote on that date.
Enough of those states dropped off of Super Tuesday (New York is a good example) that it now has regained much of its original Southern character. It is well known that black voters in those Southern states on Super Tuesday in 2020 voted strongly for Biden and helped him overwhelm Sanders on that key day of voting.
Of course, the biggest difference in 2020 will be the total interruption of the presidential primary process by the coronavirus. We will have to wait for all those postponed primaries, probably held this summer, to determine if Biden definitely wins the 2020 Democratic Party nomination for president.
Tom Cronin and Bob Loevy are political scientists at Colorado College, who write on Colorado and national politics.