How changes to the Democratic presidential primaries may affect 2020 voting

One common phrase I’ve heard at conferences discussing proposed reforms to presidential primaries is something along the lines of, “Reformers are always targeting last cycle’s election.” That is, sometimes reformers are too myopic in trying to fix last cycle’s changes and fail to recognize the unintended consequences it could have on the next cycle—or that changes in events may alter how we view the next cycle.

I want to focus on two items for consideration well ahead of the 2020 Democratic presidential primaries. The first are changes to the Iowa caucuses. The second are changes to the primary calendar. Some speculation follows the observations of each change, with an assumption that a significant number of Democratic candidates (say, at least 10 and probably more than 15 viable candidates) will run, similar to the number in the 2016 Republican presidential nominating contest.

Iowa Caucuses

The Democratic caucuses in Iowa have long had distinctive features. Democratic voters show up at precinct caucus sites and publicly express support for one candidate or another. They group together in wings of the precinct site. Then there’s a period of “realignment,” where supporters of non-viable candidates (those with few supporters) throw their support behind another, more viable candidate. The caucus site names a winner; no popular vote is taken. Those caucus site winners are compiled into an overall distribution of delegates.

Multiple reforms appear to be shaping up for 2020. The caucus will resemble more of a traditional primary, if all the changes are approved. There will be absentee voting, which should dramatically increase popular participation. Raw vote totals will be released.

But it also means that this “realignment” may disappear. This was a potentially crucial opportunity for insurgent candidate Barack Obama in 2008. Reports widely circulated before the Iowa caucuses in 2008 that Bill Richardson, a second-tier candidate, had urged his supporters to throw their support behind Mr. Obama in the event of realignment (the same was true for marginal candidate Dennis Kucinich). The realignment period offered a kind of ranked choice voting. It also prevent too much fragmentation: three candidates—Mr. Obama, John Edwards, and Hillary Clinton—secured about 97% of precincts.

The Iowa caucus changes haven’t been finalized yet, but if the Iowa caucuses look more like a traditional primary, or the Republican caucuses in Iowa in 2016, we would expect to see more fracturing (no candidate broke 30% of the popular vote), more delegates awarded to more candidates, and, potentially, less opportunities for the kind of second-choice realignment that Mr. Obama benefited from in 2008.

2020 Calendar

Many states jockey for an early position in the primaries to exert their influence in the process. Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina have received privileged status in recent years. But by the first Tuesday in March, other states may follow suit with primaries.

In 2016, Alabama, Arkansas, Colorado, Georgia, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, and Vermont held Democratic primaries or caucuses on the first Tuesday. In 2020, Arkansas has likely moved its primary back to May; California and North Carolina have moved their primaries up to the first Tuesday in March.

For candidates who survive the early stages, viability may come through home-state advantages, particularly among delegate-rich pools of states. Prospective candidates Elizabeth Warren (Massachusetts), Beto O’Rourke (Texas), and Julian Castro (Texas) all may find strength on this dates; so too would Kamala Harris (California), after California moves up its primary.

It’s worth noting that among the most viable challenger to Donald Trump for the Republican nomination after Super Tuesday appeared to be Ted Cruz—in part because he secured over 200 delegates that day, but largely because Texas’s primary (and 104 delegates of its 155 possible delegates he won) came on that day.

The fortune of the calendar, then, might provide added strength for certain candidates.

Speculation from procedural changes

Yes, much of this is speculative. But it’s worth considering that we often look back at a presidential primary and note certain things that occurred because of the procedures in place. The changes in this cycle will undoubtedly have some impact on the Democratic presidential primaries. We won’t really know what those look like until after the fact, but I hope thinking structurally and drawing some recent comparisons offers some useful perspective ahead of the 2020 presidential primaries.