Confused about the Colorado caucuses? Here’s the deal.
Your neighborhood Democrats will help pick a president on March 1. You should know how to get involved.
Don’t expect to walk into a voting machine and pull a lever to participate in Colorado’s early voting process. Let The Colorado Independent walk you through what you need to do to help choose the next president.
Unless you’re a diehard political party member in Colorado, chances are low you’ve participated in the state’s early voting process. Frankly, to many, it’s baffling. And if you’re an unaffiliated voter who didn’t choose a political party by the Jan. 4 deadline, well, you’re out of luck to participate at this stage in the game, but you can still observe.
So, with Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina voters already giving us our first snapshots of where each White House hopeful stands, when will we get our chance? March 1, aka, Super Tuesday. And what you think might be a quick trip to a polling place is nothing of the sort here in Colorado. Instead, be prepared for a night of discussion among your neighborhood party members where you’ll find yourself pitching for your favorite candidate, hearing from others about theirs, and maybe even having to fend off the aroma of home baked cookies luring you over to another candidate’s side.
This year, since the Colorado GOP canceled its traditional presidential preference poll, Super Tuesday will be a little less super for Republicans here when it comes to the presidential race. But Democrats who are feeling the Bern, or are #WithHer, have a long road ahead before their candidates win or lose— and this article is geared more toward them. For a Republican caucus primer, go here.
If you’re ready to get involved, here’s what you need to know.
Will the 2016 presidential race in Colorado be a primary like New Hampshire, or a caucus like Iowa?
Well, it’s kind of a hybrid, and in Colorado it has four steps.
The first happens this year on March 1, Super Tuesday, when nearly a dozen other states hold early nominating contests. Colorado has a round of precinct-level caucuses in neighborhoods around the state. This is the first chance for a candidate to get knocked out of the running. Presidential contenders need to meet a minimum of 15 percent to send enough delegates to represent him or her at the next level. And it could happen right in the living room of one of your neighbors.
The second step is for the locally designated delegates who you’ll help select at your caucus meeting to travel to conventions in all 64 counties where another poll for president takes place.
Then at seven congressional district conventions, parties will take a poll to send delegates for each presidential candidate on to the state and national convention. Then, finally, at the state convention on April 16th in Loveland, the same thing happens: more polling.
Bottom line: March 1 is your chance to get in early and will be the first place to make your voice heard. Good news: you won’t have to travel far. Unless you yourself are selected to attend the next steps, your delegates will carry the banner for your candidate from here, all the way to the national convention, which takes place in Philadelphia.
So can someone actually win on March 1?
In a way. A straw poll for president will be taken that will show where each candidate stands. The precincts report to the counties and the counties report to the state. All along the four-step process Democratic Party officials will live-Tweet and release on social media the number of delegates each candidate has.
“We won’t declare a winner or a loser,” says Colorado Democratic Party Chairman Rick Palacio about the March 1 caucuses. They’ll just say Candidate X has this amount of delegates and candidate Y has that many.
Palacio likens the process to a high-school track meet: The first lap is the precinct caucus — where you know who’s ahead, the second lap is the county conventions, the third lap is the congressional district convention, and the fourth lap is the state convention, which somebody actually wins.
Then why are these March 1 precinct-level caucuses so important for presidential candidates?
The numbers each candidate garners on March 1 in these neighborhood gatherings will help show the level of support and enthusiasm each candidate has in Colorado. Also, candidates that fail to crack 15 percent of support in the precinct caucuses will have lost the state.
OK, so I’m an unaffiliated voter right now who likes Bernie Sanders or Hillary Clinton, and I want to participate at the precinct caucuses on the Democratic side. What do I need to do?
Unfortunately, you’ve missed your opportunity to participate in the precinct-level caucuses if you didn’t register with a party by Jan. 4. But that doesn’t mean you can’t still go to a caucus location and observe. They’ll likely let you in, but you won’t be able to involve yourself in the discussions.
In the Colorado Springs area, one woman who runs a caucus location is known for making observers keep their shoulders on a chalkboard, says El Paso County Democratic Party director Annie Schmitt. If you move your shoulders off the board you’re asked to leave. Other locations might not be that strict.
I’ve been a registered Colorado Democrat, but I’ve never participated in this process. What are these ‘presidential precinct caucuses’ happening on March 1?
These are neighborhood events that are the first step for Colorado’s Democratic voters to make their voices heard about the candidate they like in the 2016 race for the White House. They’re also the first chance for a candidate who doesn’t get enough support to get the boot.
The 2008 battle between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton broke records for attendance at these typically low-turnout local events. “It was a real zoo,” one current precinct captain recalls of 2008. Some voters showed up thinking they were going to vote on a voting machine not even knowing how the caucus system actually worked.
And how does the presidential precinct caucus system actually work?
These March 1 presidential precinct caucuses in Colorado are typically meetings where loyal local party poobahs gather to oil the Democratic machine. The meetings are sometimes held in the homes of loyal party worker bees, but they can also take place in public spaces — schools, churches, community buildings, whatever. If you go to one of these precinct caucus meetings, you’ll help illuminate the support for your favorite candidate by selecting delegates to attend the party’s state convention.
Listen to me talk more about this on KGNU independent community radio.
All this sounds quaint and community oriented, like a big neighborhood discussion where hearts and minds are changed through debate and discussion. Right?
Pretty much. The point is persuasion: You’re going to hear a lot from people trying to get you to pull for their candidate, and you’re going to want to be able to convince others why they should send a delegate on behalf of the candidate you support. You might be there for a few hours.
Some folks mark off a corner of the room for a candidate and try to lure neighbors over. “There’s definitely movement … it’s on the margins,” says Jim Matson, a former Democratic precinct captain in Colorado Springs who has participated in the process. “People can advocate, and if they can sell it, they can bring others to them.”
It’s familiar friends-and-neighbors politics and some might not be above saying “we have cookies,” to bring others over to their corner, Matson says. “It’s very retail, very personable, and kind of quirky.”
So will we just be talking about presidential politics this year?
Oh, no. While the White House contenders will certainly take up the bulk of the focus come caucus day for Colorado Democrats, you’ll also hash out local issues. Precinct caucuses are where resolutions get passed, and where you pick delegates to support candidates for local, state, and national office. Caucuses can also be a place where state legislation begins.
“Somebody came to caucus a number of years ago and said ‘I want to be able to have medical marijuana in Colorado,’ and then it got pushed up to the state level,” says Annie Schmitt, director of the El Paso County Democratic Party.
You can also bring your own resolution for your neighbors to vote on. A resolution can be about anything, but must be in writing. If passed, resolutions go on to the county assembly and those that pass there go to the Democratic state convention.
Got it. I’m going to my caucus. How do I know when and where to show up?
On March 1, the caucuses will begin at 7 p.m. at locations determined by your local county Democratic Party and will happen somewhere near where you live. The Colorado Democratic Party will publish locations on its website when they’re available. And the party has a summary of exactly what to expect, and the mathematical formulas involved in delegate selection, on their website here.
This whole precinct process in Colorado … is it good or bad?
That depends on who you ask.
“Some critics say the party precinct caucus is a poor way to begin the party nominating process in Colorado,” write Colorado College political science professors Tom Cronin and Bob Loevy in their 2012 book Politics and & Policy in Colorado: Governing a Purple State. “Every registered member of a political party can attend his or her party precinct caucus, yet relatively few bother. In some cases, there can be lively discussion and competition between candidates for delegate to the county convention at precinct caucuses, but that is a rare occurrence.”
More from the book:
In many of the precincts, probably a majority, the same party stalwarts dutifully attend the precinct caucus, vote themselves and their friends a trip to the county convention, and adjourn, often without ever discussing which of the various candidates might make the better nominee for office.
“Those who like the current precinct caucus system point out that it places power right where it belongs, and that is in the hands of faithful party members who are sufficiently committed to the party to take the time to attend precinct caucuses, county conventions, and periodically, state conventions,” the authors write.
In 2008 the Obama-Clinton caucus crush was a record breaker. What are expectations for Democrats this year?
Yes, 2008 was a big year for the precinct caucuses in Colorado because officials moved the date up to coincide with 21 other states that were holding primaries or caucuses that day. They called it “Tsunami Tuesday.” Lynn Bartels, the current Secretary of State spokeswoman who at the time was a reporter for The Rocky Mountain News, recalls a cover photo of her newspaper showing raised hands all over the place when someone asked who the first-time caucus-goers were.
So, what about this year’s head-to-head matchup between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton?
“If I knew that I’d be living in Las Vegas,” quipped Antonio Esquibel, an official with the Adams County Democratic Party. He said so far there hasn’t been much excitement, but he expects it to pick up closer to the middle of January. Most of those who’ve gotten in touch with him about the caucuses, he said, are local party people who would probably show up anyway.
Over in Arapahoe County, precinct captain Jean Greenberg says she’s been telling folks at House District meetings to gear up for the caucuses, but the same people just keep showing up. “It’s the die hards,” she says. “But I haven’t been able to get a lot of precinct people who really need to know what’s happening to come.” She says she’s losing sleep over it.
What does she expect on March 1 at her precinct?
“I’ve heard everything from nobody to everybody,” she says. “As far as I know, we have absolutely no idea.”
There have been years in the past when just one person might show up to a particular precinct caucus. 2014 was pathetic in some parts. But some precinct captains, county party and House District chairs, have already been getting calls from Clinton and Sanders people about the caucuses.
Mary Beth Corsentino, chair of the Pueblo County Democrats, says a contingent for Sanders formed seemingly out of nowhere and filled a room in a pubic library one day over the summer. “Not party regulars by any means,” she said of the group. “They said they were unaffiliated.” But when she told some of them they had to register as Democrats if they wanted to participate in the caucuses, “that was a kind of shock to them,” she says.
Bernie was an independent for a long time, but now he’s running for president as a Democrat. What’s an unaffiliated Sanders supporter to do?
There are more voters in Colorado who choose to be unaffiliated than to register as Democrats or Republicans. People opt not to declare themselves as members of a major political party for a variety of reasons. Being unaffiliated does keep you from participating in the precinct-caucuses, though. With so many Coloradans registered as unaffiliated, there’s no telling which candidate — Democrat or Republican — might be the most attractive.
Some Sanders supporters in Colorado were hoping they could reach out to unaffiliated voters and sway them over to the Democratic side with the lure of a Democratic socialist from Vermont.
“A lot of the Bernie Sanders fans are independents who have registered with the Democratic Party for the first time,” said Michael Gibson, a volunteer organizer for Sanders on the Western Slope. “He’s got a huge following among independents.”
Gibson says there was a big push in Colorado to persuade those feeling the Bern to become Democrats so they could be part of the early process, or at least make these voters aware of that Jan. 4 deadline to do so.
“A lot of people — if they don’t know about that — are going to feel like they are disenfranchised,” he said back in December.
One grassroots organizer for Sanders in Glenwood Springs, Barb Coddington, says she had some success in urging unaffiliated voters to switch by the Jan. 4 deadline. At least they told her they were going to, anyway. How many? Not many. She could probably count them on both hands.
“I certainly don’t know if they followed through,” she says.
We pulled the numbers from the Secretary of State’s office to see how many people switched in the three months before the deadline. You can click the link above to see more about party switching, but it was around 4,000 who changed from unaffiliated voters to Democrats. The Sanders campaign says they were able to convince 3,000 non-Democratic voters to become Dems before the deadline.
But supporters for some Democratic candidates have been organizing for the caucuses for a while now, right?
Yes. In late October, for instance, supporters for Hillary Clinton gathered at the home of former U.S. Sen. Ken Salazar for a get-together where attendees were asked to fill out cards pledging their support for Clinton. Current Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper was there, as was former Dem Gov. Roy Romer and other party big wigs. Hickenlooper said he’d be caucusing for Clinton, has been strategizing with Democratic U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet about how they could help her, and he urged those there to fill out their pledge cards.
“We have to make sure that she gets a catapult out of our caucuses,” Hickenlooper told the crowd.
“That’s March 1. So make sure you’re going to be at your caucus— I will be at my caucus. Make sure you drag at least two neighbors to your caucus, maybe volunteer and make some phone calls in the week or two before. Especially with the caucuses, that seven days right before is when you can really begin to move people. If we can get the turnout there in the caucus and just really give her that springboard … March 1 is going to be one of the most important days of the campaign, certainly in Colorado but really across the country.”
It is meetings like those at Salazar’s house, Clinton’s Colorado campaign manager Brad Komar told The Independent at the time, that are “what wins a caucus.”
But what about the Republican caucuses this year?
Oh, they’re still having them on March 1 where they’ll decide a whole bunch of important party and candidate-related stuff. But the state Republican Party executive committee decided to cancel the presidential preference poll. So Republicans around Colorado will still be going to caucuses on March 1 to pick delegates and vote on other party-building matters, and basically form the Republican organization for the next two years. They just decided not to hold a presidential straw poll on March 1 because of rules that would bind delegates to specific candidates going into the national convention.
You can read a similar story we we wrote about how the Republican caucuses in Colorado work here.
Soooo … who should I support on caucus day?
Sorry, voter, but that’s one you’ll have to figure out.
Photo credit: Lara604, Creative Commons, Flickr.
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