All About the Base: Why Open Primaries and Caucuses Are a Terrible Idea
We hear the phrase often in politics. The base is the core, the integral members of a political party who will vote for that party no matter what. They are dependable and reliable. They are the kind of people whom campaigns don't call or canvass because they're already out volunteering for the campaign. They have yard signs and bumper stickers and attend all the local Democratic town and city committee meetings. Local politicians know them by name and provide them with both cell phone and email contact information for their staff. They are involved and engaged in local, statewide, and national elections and are the kind of people who campaign to become delegates at the national convention.
And, most importantly, they vote. Every. Single. Time.
In order to have a reliable base, you need to know they are dependable. The Democratic Party is the party of historically underrepresented populations and because of that, they have to work harder to earn the vote of those populations through vigorous voter outreach that includes phone calls, voter registration, and canvassing efforts. These populations have been historically disenfranchised and it takes effort and hard work to convince them they do have a voice in their community. For those struggling their entire lives, they often have a sense that neither political party truly cares about them. It is not until these populations are actively engaged that they begin to learn that they could, in fact, benefit from policies set forth by the Democratic Party.
Since Democrats are often out chasing these kinds of voters, the base becomes that much more important. They will be ignored by campaigns and their vote will be taken for granted. When broken down via campaign strategy, the base is often referred to as the "gimme" because their vote is seen as already being in the bank. The entire campaign strategy takes into account that they will show up and vote for the Democratic Party up and down the ticket. As long as the base shows up, the rest of the campaign strategy can fall neatly into place.
And yet, the newly established Democratic Unity Commission is currently floating a proposal that would alienate this stable and reliable voting bloc.
This past weekend, the commission was scheduled to meet in Chicago and discuss the idea of creating a system that would move away from closed primaries and towards more open primaries and caucuses. This idea seems to have emanated from supporters of Bernie Sanders in the wake of his failed 2016 bid to become the 2016 Democratic nominee for president. Sanders personally benefitted from the open primary and caucus system while he struggled with the closed primary system. Despite the constant perception that the system was "rigged" against Sanders, basic math shows that Hillary Clinton would have won regardless of which system each and every state had in place. Despite this irrefutable, numbers-backed proof, Sanders supporters are still clamoring for a nationwide caucus and open primary system because they believe it to be the most fair.
But that's just it. It's a belief, centered on feeling rather than fact. For Bernie Sanders supporters, caucuses feel more democratic despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. And they feel more democratic because Sanders supporters can manipulate the outcome through boisterous and vociferous participation. Bernie Sanders supporters see caucuses as a way to bully and tarnish the reputation of their political opponents and to do so in a safe environment, surrounded by other supporters who share their views. This creates an atmosphere of intimidation where people are afraid to speak out against Bernie Sanders, despite the fact that their political beliefs might not align with his. Many people end up siding with the Sanders supporters simply to avoid conflict that their non-support would end up causing.
And beyond the intimidation factor, caucuses also benefit those who are more affluent, especially White, middle-class families. After all, not everyone can spare four hours on a weekend afternoon, find transportation, find childcare, find their local polling station, and find the energy and effort to sit in a contentious room with your neighbors where you make your politics public for your whole community to see. In addition, many caucuses are one-shot deals. If you happen to be out of town, sick, or without reliable transportation that one single day, then you are unable to participate in your state's primary election. Low-income workers often cannot take time off. Workers who work in tourist areas often cannot take time off. Ahead of Nevada's February caucus, Harry Reid had to fight to allow unionized workers at 6 casinos time off to vote during their shift. Had he not intervened, those workers who have been denied their constitutionally-protected right to vote simply because they were at work.
As bad as caucuses are, open primaries may be even less democratic. Because open primaries allow for ratfucking to the nth degree. By having someone show up on primary day and choose a party, there's no guarantee that this person has noble intentions in mind. He or she can be voting for their chosen candidate or can be voting against a candidate for a party that they are not even a member of. Take Michigan for example. During the state's March Democratic primary, Hillary Clinton had a 99% chance of winning according to all polling projections. Yet due to 7% of Democrats crossing over to vote on the Republican side and 4% of Republicans voting on the Democratic side, she ended up losing a close race that nobody saw coming. It's hard to claim open primaries can lead to a transparent voting process when that system allows for an 11-point swing by people who voted solely with nefarious intentions.
Yet since both of these systems helped Bernie Sanders, his supporters seemingly approve of the idea of replicating them nationwide. And they want to do this because these systems would help them and nobody else. The typical Bernie Sanders supporter has time to give up on a Saturday afternoon. He can afford childcare. He doesn't have to work weekends. He can be loud and proud of his candidate and not worry about what his neighbors might think of his pervasive political beliefs. He can also decide, late in the game, that he wants to show up on primary day and register for a political party that he's never been a part of. In either of these cases, this Bernie Sanders supporter will feel right at home, being among his fellow supporters in a safe and secure environment.
But while both of these systems help Bernie Sanders supporters, they do not help the Democratic base. You know, the ones who actually voted for Hillary Clinton. The 94% of African-American women who voted for Hillary. The 82% of African-American men who voted for Hillary. The 75% of Asian-Americans. The 66% of Latinos. The reliable voting bloc of the Democratic Party that has now overwhelmingly become people of color and not White men and women, who failed to support Hillary Clinton at the levels needed. In fact, 53% of White women voted for Donald Trump and 63% of White men did the same. The base, the all-important and necessary supporters of the Democratic Party no matter what, has officially become people of color and these are the people who represent the present and future of the Democratic Party.
Which is why it is absolutely asinine to even consider making it more difficult for these people to vote, which is exactly what moving toward an open primary and caucus system would do. The nominating process should be simple and should be open to as many people as possible. But at the same thing, there need to be rules. You cannot simply roll out of bed one morning and decide to cast a vote in a Democratic Party primary. It is not a particular inconvenience to find a candidate you like and to register to become a member of his or her political party 30 days before the primary. It is; however, an inconvenience to force every single registered voter to give up multiple hours on a weekend to participate in an antiquated and awkward nominating process where bullying and intimidation can impact your sacred right to vote. As both Washington and Nebraska showed us, closed primaries greatly increase both participation and faith in the democratic process and are more representative of a state's true political leanings.
And that should be the ultimate goal of the Democratic Unity Commission. The name implies the desire to bring the party together. To do that, the commission needs to listen to its supporters, and specifically, its base. Bernie Sanders and his supporters are not the base. When 10% of them chose to vote for a Nazi rather than support the Democratic nominee, they officially forfeited their ability to influence Democratic Party policy. They are not the base and 1 in 10 of them aren't even Democrats, as demonstrated by their vote. They are a minority of voters who want to shape the Democratic Party in the image of a man who lost the nomination by 3.5 million votes and 900 delegates. Their desire to move toward an open primary and caucus system would benefit only their supporters and would disadvantage the vast majority of the Democratic Party base.
A base that doesn't want or need any of their help.
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