Democrats’ rule changes mean caucus voters could hold more sway this year

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Paul Sancya / AP File (2016)

Rep. Dina Titus, center, announces the Nevada delegation vote on the second day of the 2016 Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia. Rules changes put in place by the Democratic National Committee for this year’s convention will reduce the role of so-called superdelegates, like Titus, in selecting the party’s nominee at least on the first ballot.

Fri, Feb 21, 2020 (2 a.m.)

Critics of caucuses might call them burdensome, inaccessible or prone to human error. But this year’s presidential caucuses in Nevada will be less susceptible to one major criticism they received in 2016, especially from members of the Democratic Party’s progressive wing.

Delegate allocation in Nevada is likely to more closely mirror the raw results of the caucus this year than it did in 2016. That’s because the Democratic National Committee made two key changes to the delegate count process, reducing the role of superdelegates and “locking” pledged delegates to the candidate to whom they have promised to support.

The changes were an attempt to heal divisions from 2016, when some supporters of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, including in Nevada, felt cheated by the nomination process.

“My understanding is that all the reforms the Democratic Party did was to avoid an issue like in 2016,” said Dan Lee, a UNLV political science professor.

But the system remains complex, and the possibility that no candidate attains the required delegate majority could lead to similar party in-fighting this year.

Rather than rely on vote totals, the Democratic Party uses delegates representing the will of voters to determine primary or caucus “winners” at the county and state levels as well as the eventual presidential nominee. Candidates must attain at least 15% of the vote in a state to be awarded any of that state’s delegates to the Democratic National Convention, where the nominee is officially selected.

Of Nevada’s 48 delegates to the 2020 Democratic National Convention, 36 will be “pledged,” or required to represent the preferences of caucusgoers on the convention’s first ballot to elect the party’s presidential nominee. The remaining 12 are superdelegates — typically elected officials and party leaders.

“(They’re) the Democrats that are elected to Congress in our state, and our governor,” Lee said. “Then to round out the superdelegates, there are people within the state party organization.”

Because Nevada now has five Democratic representatives in Congress and a Democratic governor, the state has four more superdelegates this year than it did in 2016 when Sen. Harry Reid and Rep. Dina Titus were the lone Democrats in the state’s congressional delegation, said Molly Forgey, communications director of the Nevada Democratic Party.

But unlike in 2016, the superdelegates won’t be able to cast decisive votes in the first round of balloting at this summer’s Democratic National Convention, theoretically reducing their influence on the final result and on Nevada’s total delegate count compared with 2016.

That year, 52.6% of Democratic caucusgoers in Nevada supported Hillary Clinton and 47.3% supported Sanders. Clinton and Sanders were assigned 13 and 10 pledged delegates, respectively.

But by the time the national convention took place five months after the caucuses, 27 of Nevada’s total delegates went to Clinton, while 16 went to Sanders.

One factor that tipped the scale in Clinton’s favor was that seven of Nevada’s eight superdelegates voted for Clinton, while just one voted for Sanders, the Associated Press reported. Negotiations at the county and state conventions, which Forgey said have since been banned by the DNC, helped Clinton pick up additional delegates as well. After the state convention, the former first lady ultimately received 20 of the state’s pledged delegates and Sanders got 15.

“Before, whatever (happened) at the caucus, that influenced what happened at the county conventions, which then moved up to the state convention,” Lee said. “So, it was this multitiered process where things could get a little out of whack.”

Despite the DNC’s reforms to the process, there is still a possibility that superdelegates could sway the selection of the nominee, leading to similar intra-party conflicts nationally, said Paul Sracic, a politics professor at Youngstown State University in Ohio.

That’s because in this year’s historically crowded Democratic field, there is a higher chance than usual that no candidate emerges from the primary elections and caucuses with more than 50% of all delegates. That could lead to multiple rounds of balloting at the Democratic National Convention, or a “brokered convention” to select the party’s nominee. In the event of a brokered convention, delegates are unbound from their pledged candidates in subsequent rounds of voting.

“The problem is getting to 50% in Round 1,” Sracic said.

So, what would superdelegate influence mean for Nevada’s total delegate count?

Four of Nevada’s superdelegates have endorsed candidates so far: Titus and Rep. Steven Horsford have endorsed former Vice President Joe Biden, and party members Alex Goff and Allison Stephens have endorsed Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren. Superdelegates who have not endorsed include Gov. Steve Sisolak, Reid, the remaining members of Nevada’s congressional delegation, and state party officials William McCurdy II, Marty McGarry and Artie Blanco.

It is unclear how all of the state’s superdelegates would vote in the case of a contested convention, but these types of delegates generally support candidates they view as electable and not too far from the mainstream of the party, Lee said.

Superdelegates, he said, “tend to favor the party establishment candidates.”

Whether the Democratic nominating contest leads to a brokered convention, the state party has consistently stressed its commitment to making the caucuses as fair as possible.

“From the beginning, NV Dems’ priority has been to execute the most accessible, expansive and transparent caucus yet,” state party executive director Alana Mounce said in a recent memo.

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