By Asa Kowals-Rose
On March 26 Democrats in Washington will have a chance to weigh in on the race between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders for the Democratic nomination for president. On that day, the Washington Democratic Party will hold precinct caucuses across the state; these contests will ultimately determine how many of the state’s delegates support each candidate at the 2016 Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia.
The state Republican Party won’t allocate its delegates until the May 24 Washington Primary.
The Democratic caucuses will be open to all registered voters, and attendees who are not currently registered to vote will be able to do so at their precinct locations. Caucus-goers do not need to have previously identified as Democrats, but must declare their support for the party before they participate in the caucuses.
Caucuses differ greatly from primaries and other elections. Washington Democrats will not simply be casting ballots for whichever candidate they prefer; before they vote, they will engage in a community discussion about the election. Once they arrive at their caucus locations, attendees will be grouped by precinct and be asked to assemble according to which candidate they currently support. They also have the option of declaring themselves undecided. Once everyone has assembled, candidates’ supporters may make speeches in an attempt to sway others to their position. This may persuade undecided voters to back a candidate, or even lead some to switch their support from one candidate to another. At the end of the process, precincts will elect delegates in accordance with candidates’ support; these delegates will then vote for national delegates to support either Sanders or Clinton at the Democratic National Convention. The end result should give each of them a number of delegates roughly proportional to their popular support at the caucuses.
Washington looks to be an important state in this year’s Democratic Primary: the March 26 caucus will distribute 118 delegates between Senator Sanders and Secretary Clinton, more that twice the number that were awarded in Iowa. This could make a difference in the race for the nomination, which remains fairly competitive due in part to the fact that each candidate has been successful in appealing to key Democratic constituencies. While Sanders has drawn huge support from Millennials, Clinton has won black voters by wide margins throughout the campaign. This has given the former Secretary of State an advantage in southern states, where black voters make up a significant portion—sometimes even a majority—of the Democratic electorate. Clinton’s popularity among black voters helped her in the “Super Tuesday” contests at the beginning of the month: she won seven of that day’s 11 contests, including Georgia, Alabama, and Tennessee. This advantage will not have as great an impact in Washington, which has a substantially smaller black electorate.
Clinton’s victories thus far have given her a significant—but not irreversible—delegate lead over Senator Sanders. As of Monday, March 7, she had won 671 pledged delegates compared to Sanders’ 476. Clinton also has the support of 458 superdelegates, while Sanders has 22. Superdelegates are unique to the Democratic Primary, and differ from pledged delegates in several regards. Whereas pledged delegates are awarded based on primary and caucus results in each state, superdelegates are elected and appointed Democratic officials who may choose to support either candidate, and may switch their support anytime before the Democratic National Convention.
Sanders supporters view Clinton’s superdelegate advantage as a proof of her ties to the Democratic establishment, and worry that it could help her win the nomination even if she wasn’t supported by a majority of Democratic voters. According to statistician Nate Silver, superdelegates could allow either candidate to win the nomination with as little as 41.2 percent of pledged delegates, but would most likely only make a difference in a much closer race. For this reason, Washington could be more influential in the Democratic Primary than in the general election. The distribution determined on March 26 has the potential to provide Senator Sanders or Secretary Clinton with a few critical delegates, whereas the state’s electoral votes will likely have little impact in November.