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Could New York’s Closed Primary Cost Bernie Sanders?

New Yorkers will be heading to the polls next week, and with 291 Democratic delegates at stake, there’s a lot on the line: New York could become a breaking point in the Clinton-Sanders headlock, and it’s not looking good for Sanders. FiveThirtyEight projects that Clinton has a 98 percent chance of winning, while Real Clear Politics also has her in position to take the state with a substantial — possibly even two digit — lead. For Clinton, a loss would be devastating, as it’s not just the delegates at stake but the prestige of taking her (adoptive) home state. Bernie, however, desperately needs to inch up his delegate count if he wants to stick it out until the Democratic National Convention.

But he’s going to run into problems in New York, and they can be attributed not just to voter sentiment and Clinton’s historic performance in the Northeast (Sanders has also done well in the region, though he lost out big in Massachusetts), but to New York’s closed primary system.

The rest of the world has been watching the primary elections with understandable confusion, because they are a completely backwards and bizarre way of nominating a candidate, based on outdated traditions from when the United States was a vast sprawl of land that took weeks to cross. In that setting, staggered primary elections and the nomination of delegates to represent individual states, rather than allowing the popular vote to determine the nominee, was the only functional way to hold a nominating convention. Now, it would be just as easy to let the voters speak for themselves…but that would require a fundamental rethinking of the system — and reforming the electoral college should come first.

The primary system, in a nutshell

Each party runs its own primaries, with some states preferring caucuses — an even more bizarre and outdated proceeding in which people are forced to argue back and forth in public over which candidate to support before a precinct can settle on a vote. Aside from being a fundamental betrayal of the principle of being able to cast a secret ballot, caucuses pose tremendous access problems: Many are in locations inaccessible to disabled voters, they require attendance at a certain time (or submitting absentee paperwork with first, second, and additional choices demarcated), and they’re chaotic, crowded, and confusing, especially for voters who have never endured the caucus process before.

Primaries are run on an open, closed, or semi-closed process. In an open primary, anyone can request to vote on any ballot — this allows independent voters to decide which ballot they want to cast. When a party holds a closed primary, however, it only provides ballots to voters who are registered with it — for example, someone planning to vote for Trump would need to be registered Republican in order to vote on the Republican ballot. Likewise, a prospective Clinton voter would need to be a registered Democrat. Some states run semi-closed primaries, where one party runs an open primary and the other runs a closed one, as in California.

Independent or nonpartisan voters cannot cast votes for presidential candidates in a closed primary. In states with other measures and offices on the ballot, they can vote on these matters, but when it comes to casting a nominating vote for the presidential conventions taking place this summer, they have no say. Many independents in New York aren’t aware of this, or if they were, they didn’t know how to change their registration — or found out too late (hilariously, two of Donald Trump’s own children can’t vote for him).

Why closed primaries are Sanders’ Achilles heel

This is really bad news for Sanders. Clinton has a strong core of loyalists in the Democratic base who will flock to vote for her on Tuesday, and they’ll be phonebanking, knocking on doors, and engaging in other get out the vote efforts, all targeted at fellow registered Democrats. While Sanders also has fans in the party, his following is particularly huge among independents — and their voices won’t be counting in this election. Had the Sanders campaign strategised ahead, a strong outreach campaign to get independents registering Democratic and educating their cohort would have been a smart move.

Unfortunately, his campaign staff, continually startled by how well the campaign is doing, didn’t do that as aggressively as they should have, though pro-Bernie groups certainly tried. However, the 25 March deadline for new voters has passed, and the 9 October 2015 change in party affiliation is long gone. From now on, whoever is in is in — and whoever is out is out.

When it comes to independent voters, Sanders dominates in face-offs with Clinton. In Wisconsin, for example, he took 72 percent of the independent vote on the Democratic ticket. In a recent CNN poll, Sanders led by a strong margin among independent voters (though not as dramatic as the results in Wisconsin), and pollsters noted that he also had a consistently net positive rating, which is quite unusual in this election year. In fact, he is the only candidate with such a rating.

Sanders routinely loses in closed primaries. A number of factors are at work here, but one of them is clearly his huge support among independent voters. In fact, this support is exactly what led the Washington Post to refer to his electoral strategy as ‘hijacking the Democratic Party.’ Sanders, who has consistently maintained independent status while caucusing with the Democrats, took advantage of the substantial base of the party and attempted to straddle the fence, bringing his independent supporters with him while also capturing the more leftist members of the Democratic Party. In states with open primaries, he’s been able to do just that, but when he lacks the support of his base, he falters.

Did Sanders make the wrong bet?

The Post’s analysis notes that in open primaries, roughly 40 percent of his support, and up to 50 in some cases, comes from independent voters. It’s one reason Clinton trounces him in closed primaries, and it’s why Sanders is almost guaranteed to lose next Tuesday. Analysis also illustrates that these votes handed him the victory in several states, illustrating how important they were. Sanders took advantage of an existing political system to vault himself onto the national stage — which is a smart strategic move — with the clear intent of starting important conversations during the election. Now he’s finding himself facing a strange impasse, as the delegate count is not in his favour, more big states are in play, his ardent supporters are pushing him to keep going, Clinton fans are suggesting it’s time to step down and unite the party, and everyone is waking up to the value of independent voters.

The rising number of independent voters would seem to suggest that there’s room for a legitimate independent candidate, but the fact that Sanders chose not to run as one is telling, and his obstacle wasn’t just the tremendous amount of money involved — Donald Trump similarly refused to run as an independent, and he certainly had the financial resources. The Post argues that while the numbers of registered independents are increasing, most aren’t ‘pure,’ in the sense that they tend to lean right or left rather than being truly nonpartisan. This may be an outgrowth of frustration with politics and the party system — many independents are, in essence, ‘caucusing’ in an informal sense with the two major parties in the US. No legitimately independent candidate (Nader represented the Green Party) has really had a hold since Ross Perot’s efforts in the early 1990s, and while he managed to garner nearly 20 percent of the popular vote in one year, he never had a legitimate shot at the presidency.

Sanders needed the strength of the Democratic party to have a fighting chance, but at the same time, it’s the strength of the Democratic party that’s going to bring him down.

Photo: Phil Roeder/Creative Commons

One thought on “Could New York’s Closed Primary Cost Bernie Sanders?

  1. Sanders did not lose out “big” in Massachusetts. He lost by one percentage point. It was one of the closest contests yet.

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