What a difference four years makes.
In 2016, Maine’s Democratic caucuses saw around 48,000 party faithful — as well as die-hard supporters of a certain democratic socialist — turn out on a Sunday. Sen. Bernie Sanders trounced Hillary Clinton by nearly 30 points.
However, in our largest city, the Portland Democrats’ caucus efforts were described as a “debacle.” Not unlike this year’s Iowa caucus.
Maine’s 2016 experience led the Legislature to reestablish a presidential primary. We have now held our first-ever “Super Tuesday” nominating event.
At this point, we should give credit to the men and women working for Secretary of State Matt Dunlap, as well as town clerks throughout the state. They always do an outstanding job reinforcing confidence in the results; this time is no different. Whether you are pleased with the outcome or not, the process is certainly well run.
But Joe Biden’s victory in Maine highlights the distinction between caucuses and primaries. Let’s do the math.
Bernie Sanders turned out around 31,000 of his supporters four years ago; he doubled that number (plus some) this year. Yet what four years ago was a landslide victory became a narrow loss in 2020.
Sanders’ supporters are upset with this result. Indeed, former candidate Marianne Williamson — now a Sanders surrogate — went so far as to call Biden’s resurgence a “coup.”
This internecine, left-wing warfare reveals the difference between broad support and deep support. Sanders inspires great emotion, led by the so-called “Bernie bros.” There is no real analogue in the Biden camp; his support seems to be, like Hillary Clinton’s, a bit more diffuse and milquetoast.
In a caucus system, the passion engendered by Sanders can carry the day. That is what happened in 2016.
Yet, when we moved to a primary, it became easier for people to express their opinion. So more people did, even if they did not feel as strongly about Biden — or Elizabeth Warren, or Michael Bloomberg — as Sanders’ supporters. In all, more than 180,000 Maine Democrats went to the polls on Tuesday or mailed in a ballot.
And Biden won.
It is not hard to imagine that Sanders may have held onto Maine if Democrats had stuck with a caucus system. He was pretty close to a victory in Iowa (neck-and-neck with Pete Buttigieg), while decisively winning Nevada. Both were caucus states.
The nominating process is inherently exclusive. After all, political parties are private organizations who can adopt their own rules. They can also determine — in whatever manner they choose — who will carry their banner into the general election.
The caucus system supports this exclusivity. The more active members of the organization — those willing to waste hours on a Sunday — can have a larger impact on the outcome. The downside is that they occasionally become debacles, like Iowa this year or Portland in 2016.
Meanwhile, primaries feel better. They are less dependent on party systems because they are run by nonpartisan professionals under the aegis of an existing electoral process. You show up, grab a ballot, fill a bubble, turn it in, and go on with your life. It doesn’t matter whether you are there at 8 a.m. or 6:30 p.m., your vote counts the same.
The problem with primaries? First, they cost taxpayer money to provide private organizations — political parties — with free data (vote tallies). Caucuses are generally run at the parties’ cost without government funding.
Second, they have the same drawbacks as any widespread electoral franchise. You could be the quintessential Democrat, with a great depth of knowledge on the intricacies of various benefit programs. You could have deep passion for a particular candidate and are willing to spend an untold number of hours knocking on doors and canvassing for your party up and down the ticket.
And your vote counts the same as someone who won’t buy Corona beer because of the coronavirus. Should one of you have a bigger say in who carries your banner into the battle that is the general election?
In 2016, Maine said yes. This year, we said no. There isn’t a right answer. But, for the fortunes of Bernie Sanders, four years has made quite the difference.