Presidential Primary Primer
August 27, 2008 · Updated 4:30 PM
Dems, GOP use caucuses, election to select delegates to national conventions
MARYSVILLE Washington Secretary of State Sam Reed noted the upcoming Feb. 19 primaries as well as the November general presidential election are historic in that, for the first time since 1952, neither an incumbent president nor an incumbent vice-president will be in the running.
And with the state hosting its first presidential primaries since 2000, Reed and other observers also are convinced Washington voters can have a direct effect on who gains the major party nominations later this year.
I think we could have quite an impact on who is left standing, Reed said, adding the state legislature moved up the date of the states primary with exactly the goal of increasing Washingtons influence.
We should attract some of the candidates to come to Washington, predicted Mark Hintz, chair of the Snohomish County Democratic Party.
According to Reed, just how important a role the state ultimately plays could depend on the results of the Super Tuesday primaries held Feb. 5. The date for Washingtons primaries is Feb. 19, though, just as importantly, both parties will hold caucuses Feb. 9.
The Super Tuesday vote had Democrats with announced primaries and caucuses in 22 states, Republicans in 21. With hugely populous states such as New York and California up for grabs, individual candidates moved hundreds of delegates into their columns.
In comments made prior to Super Tuesday, Reed and other local observers followed conventional thinking in predicting only a few candidates will be left standing following that mega-vote. To Reed, even more significantly, in the first few weeks after Super Tuesday, the only large-sized primaries or caucuses scheduled are in Washington and Wisconsin. Reed predicted Washington voters wont necessarily fall in lock step with Super Tuesday results.
The people in the state of Washington seem to be pretty independent, but momentum can obviously have an effect, Reed said.
In any case, if the race for the nomination of either party is close, Reed believes state voters could have a measurable say in who ultimately winds up on top. Washington is the only state in the country that holds both primaries and caucuses while choosing its delegates to the party national conventions. Still, for both parties, and especially in the case of the Democrats, the whole process starts with grassroots, precinct level caucuses scheduled for 1 p.m., Feb. 9.
Both parties have caucuses planned for libraries, schools and other community meeting places. For the uninitiated, caucus visitors can debate over the presidential candidates in their party and whatever other issues are on their minds.
There is an open discussion of local, national or even international issues that are of interest to the attendees, said Evelyn Spencer, political director for the Snohomish County Republicans.
For both Republicans and Democrats, issues important to caucus-goers are passed along and eventually can become part of the respective partys statewide platform.
Precinct caucuses in both parties select delegates to move on to higher level caucus meetings and ultimately, state and national conventions. The precinct level caucuses elect thousands of delegates, with those numbers whittled down considerably as the process moves forward.
For instance, on the Democratic side, delegates go from precinct level caucuses to legislative level caucuses then congressional level caucuses and finally the state convention, where the final 97 delegates and 13 alternates are selected.
If you are a voter hoping to attend a local caucus, the first step is determining your voter precinct. You can call the county headquarters of either party or visit their respective Web sites.
Hintz noted there are more than 700 voter precincts in Snohomish County. There are 33 in Marysville alone. On the Democratic side, meeting places are split among three spots: Totem Middle School, the Marysville School District Service Center and the Everett Civic Auditorium.
Arlington includes 14 precincts, with meetings spread between the Marysville School Service Center and Lakewood Middle School.
On the Republican side, Marysville caucuses are set for a number of locations such as Jennings Park, Wagner Insurance and the county GOP headquarters on State Avenue. Snohomish Republicans moved their headquarters from Everett to Marysville late last year.
In Arlington, Republicans have planned caucuses for Haller Middle School and Lakewood High School.
If both parties launch the delegate selection process with precinct caucuses, there are significant differences from that point forward.
For the Democrats, the caucuses really are what count. Except for those delegates who receive automatic invitations, the caucus process produces all of Washingtons representatives to the Democratic National Convention. Further, the Democrats have several different kinds of delegates, which can help determine what presidential candidate each delegate supports.
District level delegates number 51 and theoretically are tied into supporting whatever candidate was chosen by the local caucuses that first elected those delegates. A representative for the state Democratic Party said there is no formal mechanism ensuring delegates keep supporting the same candidate. But the party expects delegates to act on good faith.
Starting with the precinct caucuses, both Washington Democrats and Republicans assign delegates on a proportional or percentage basis depending on the votes cast during the caucuses. In other words, Candidate A may receive 40 percent of the available delegates, Candidate B, 30 percent and so on. Alternatively, some state parties use a winner-take-all approach.
Hintz said besides the district delegates, 19 Democratic state-level party leaders and elected officials receive automatic invitations to the partys national convention. Democrats will send 19 unpledged delegates to the convention as well.
As for the Democratic primary, though party voters are encouraged to return their mail-in ballots, Hintz said the vote doesnt necessarily mean much. At most, he added, party leaders may use the primary as a guide in determining what their rank-and-file membership thinks. So why even have a primary?
According to Hintz, Reed wanted both parties to host a primary this year. However, the national Democratic Party didnt want Washington (and one presumes, any other state) to hold both a primary and caucuses. By the time that verdict came down from the national party, Hintz said state party leaders already had settled on following the caucus format and simply moved forward with the decision while still following Reeds wish they call a primary as well.
On the Republican side, the caucuses and the primary vote carry nearly equal weight in determining what delegates back what candidates at the state and national conventions. The caucuses carry slightly more weight, determining 19 delegates, while the primary points the way toward 18.
Weve always allotted delegates based on both, Spencer said.
Unlike their Democratic counterparts, Republican delegates are not obliged to remain loyal to the candidate they supported during any lower level caucuses. Spencer said delegates only become formally attached to candidates when they reach the state convention.
As with the Democrats, state Republican Party leaders receive automatic invitations to the national convention. But on the Republican side, the number of automatic bids is much smaller.
In answer to what Spencer said was a common question even among party loyalists, Republicans can and even are encouraged to participate in both the party primary and the party caucuses. Spencer did not mention Reeds edict concerning 2008 primaries. Instead, she said the party holds both a primary and a caucus largely because, with a ballot initiative passed in the late 1980s, Washington voters called on both parties to regularly hold presidential primaries.