Caucuses: That Weird Increasingly Irrelevant Thing We Do

John Hickenlooper, Andrew Romanoff. RIP our mentions.

As the Denver Post’s political team reports, Colorado Democrats and Republicans held their precinct-level caucuses yesterday afternoon, which traditionally mark the start of full-scale organizing for primary candidates well in advance of the parties’ primary elections–formerly in August, more recently moved up to June to give nominees time to make an unfettered case. And yesterday afternoon, as widely expected, not-quite perennial candidate Andrew Romanoff came out on top in the Democratic U.S. Senate race–by a similar margin as his Senate caucus win almost exactly a decade ago in 2010:

Andrew Romanoff claimed to have won a grassroots victory Saturday as he led John Hickenlooper, his better-funded and better-staffed rival for the U.S. Senate, in statewide caucuses of Colorado Democrats.

Romanoff, a progressive favorite, won 55% of the raw vote and Hickenlooper won 31% with 55 of 64 counties, including Denver, reporting late Saturday, according to the Colorado Democratic Party. However, several counties will not report their results or the number of delegates won by candidates until Sunday.

Precinct caucus results will determine the number of delegates that candidates have at upcoming county caucuses. Results there will determine delegate counts at an April 18 state assembly, where candidates will need at least 30% support to have their names placed on June 30 primary ballots.

Precinct caucuses have long been a fixture of party organizing in Colorado, where partisan candidates for office at all levels face their first public test. For those so inclined, the precinct caucuses are the first step toward moving up the volunteer side of the party apparatus. What they are not historically, however, are good predictors of a party’s eventual nominee in the big races. Cary Kennedy defeated now-Gov. Jared Polis handily in the 2018 caucuses, Romanoff himself bested now-Sen. Michael Bennet in 2010 by an almost identical margin as last night’s, and in 2004 the now-forgotten Mike Miles beat out former Interior Secretary Ken Salazar.

With respect to Romanoff’s win yesterday, his language compared to 2010 is more or less interchangeable.

In a news release, Romanoff declared victory, calling the results a “shock wave” and said they reflect voter resentment of Washington politics and the big-money interests that contribute to it. The latter is a not-so-subtle shot at Bennet’s campaign coffers, which dwarf Romanoff’s.

“We’re very encouraged by these results,” Romanoff said. “This is the first chance Main Street has had to weigh in. We’ve already heard from Washington and Wall Street.”

And last night,

“Our grassroots campaign just crushed the D.C. machine and won today’s caucuses!” Romanoff told supporters around 7:30 p.m. “The power brokers and party bosses in Washington didn’t get the memo, but it turns out a lot of people in Colorado want to replace Cory Gardner with a progressive champion.”

Turnout reportedly suffered at yesterday’s caucuses compared to previous years, attributable to the switch to a presidential primary election after Proposition 107 was enacted to prevent a repeat of Bernie vs. Hillary caucus chaos in our state in 2016. The combination of reduced interest in precinct caucuses confusingly held right after a much higher-profile primary election, the ease by which the caucus process can be bypassed by petitioning directly on to the ballot, and the recent irrelevance of the caucus process in determining the eventual winner do present a reasonable argument for a change in the way(s) Colorado political parties nominate their candidates.

On the question of irrelevance, it’s not necessary to take our word for it. Politico had it right on March 17th, 2010:

Recent Colorado history shows that a caucus victory usually doesn’t translate into the party nomination. Over the past four decades, just three statewide candidates who have won the backing of the state assembly, after the caucus process, went on to become their party’s nominee. [Pols emphasis]

Historically, the only tangible benefit from winning the caucuses, the bragging rights and associated perception of campaign momentum, have not materialized for candidates who have put all their eggs into doing so. Events like the 2016 Colorado caucus near-breakdown and the full-scale implosion at the Iowa presidential caucus in January help feed the public perception that caucuses are a dysfunctional, undemocratic anachronism. The fundamentals of the Democratic U.S. Senate primary, pitting a vastly better-known and better-funded frontrunner against a vitriolic but overmatched opponent, have not changed.

Sometime after June 30th, perhaps we can revisit this issue dispassionately.

22 Community Comments, Facebook Comments

  1. Duke Cox says:


    If by some miracle, the results of this contest were reversed, and Gov.Frackenlooper had won a 55% majority, how do we suppose the headline might have been different?


  2. 2Jung2Die says:

    Devil's advocate here, and yes, caucus is the devil. Caucus and the following assemblies give party faithful a chance to meet as actual human beings and talk in person about issues and other actual human beings (whether you consider politicians human beings or not). In the future, sure, we'll all do everything online via whatever replaces Instagram or something, and it will be two-clicks easy, nobody will have to leave their couch, and everyone will be able to hash-tag out their deep political thoughts on social media before they vote. Not sure that's a panacea, but I get that's generally where we're headed.

    And that's a segue into Iowa – that was a system/tech f-word-up, not a problem with simply holding a caucus. Iowa's been doing caucuses for figuratively forever, and they've worked with lower-tech yet pretty dependable systems of the past. 

    Of course, the records leave no doubt that caucus results don't often result in a primary winner. Caucuses are confusing for first-timers, momentum seems to be moving away from them, and they take much time and effort. Caucuses are probably dead-men-walking, but I don't think they're without merit.

    • The realist says:

      The pro side to caucuses is that it gives people a good opportunity to discuss candidates, issues, platform ideas, etc, with their neighbors. The con side is that you spend most of the time in your precinct caucus trying to figure out the complex caucus process and rules, plus the dreaded delegate math! I would estimate that about 80 percent of my precinct's meeting time was spent on the latter.

      • Duke Cox says:

        Thanks for putting in a word for the caucus process. 

        Those who decry the increasing number of uninformed or misinformed voters is, in my estimation, somehow related to the phasing out of caucuses.

        For what its worth. caucus goers are generally pretty well informed.

        • 2Jung2Die says:

          Duke, in specific, I agree there's some correlation between misinfos and phasing out caucus. In general, IMO it's also about so many of us getting stuck in one algorithm bubble or the next. No cross-pollination of ideas, plus demonization of the folks in the other bubble.

  3. MichaelBowman says:

    Let me fix this for you, Alva: 

    Recent Colorado history shows that a caucus victory usually doesn’t translate into the party nomination. Over the past four decades, just three statewide candidates who have won the backing of the state assembly, after the caucus process, went on to become their party’s nominee. [Pols emphasis]

    Recent Colorado history shows that a caucus victory usually doesn’t translate into the party nomination. Over the past four decades, just three statewide candidates who have won the backing of the state assembly, after the caucus process, went on to become their party’s nominee. [my emphasis]

    Give Andrew credit where credit is due. There is precedent for a victory of this nature becoming a statewide win in November. He’s worked his tail off for this early victory.  No, I don’t hate John by any stretch of the imagination and yes I will support our nominee. Yesterday was a great example of retail politics.

  4. Pseudonymous says:

    That guy we don't like did a thing we don't care about.  Our essay.

  5. doremi says:

    There you go again, dissing Andrew Romanoff.  Caucus goers favored him because he is the REAL DEAL.

    Every time Hickenlooper states he "Stood up to the NRA and won," I cringe.

    1) Yes, he did sign the bills in 2013 (Super!  But it ends there.)

    2) He never helped get the bills to his desk.  That's not being a champion.

    3) He never helped in the anti-recall efforts.  We lost three senators to those recalls (Sen. Hudak resigned rather than face recalls.  She is the hero here, not Hick).

    4) A year after signing the bills, he went before the sheriffs and stated he had made a mistake signing the magazine ban.  Stated that it was due to a staff promise, claiming they thought the bill wouldn't pass.

    SO HICK, act with integrity and run on other parts of your record!  Quit misleading voters on guns.  Continuing in this same vein is disrespectful to the people of Colorado, to the victims of gun violence and to the three senators who sacrificed everything.


  6. Diogenesdemar says:

    I’m certain that Andrew accepts your kind congratulations here, Alva.

  7. MADCO says:

    I have been thinking on the caucus math….
    It feels ike it cannot possibly be this obvious – but overthinking it is always possible.


    They're both on the ballot.
    So June ballot, please.

    • Voyageur says:

      What the mad cow said.  Why is it so hard to accept that we have two great candidates running for Senator?  Andrew’s record as speaker was great, bipartisan and reasonably open to business.  As mayor and gov., hick was popular and balanced.  I don’t plan to give either money in the primary but will happily vote for the winner and send him a check.  

      Two fine candidates.  Flip a coin and win back the Senate.  We can’t afford any more gorsuches on the supreme court!

  8. OpenSpace says:

    We waste way too much time and energy in a pointless and discriminatory caucus system. Let’s just ask candidates to either submit 2500 signatures ( and it doesn’t matter if someone signs all candidate petitions or who files first ) or a pay a fee and then let the voters decide in a ranked choice primary. Let’s put more time into canvassing for votes than sitting around arguing about rules and math just to get a totally unrepresentative result. 

  9. kwtree says:

    My precinct caucus proposed an amendment to  the “no more caucuses only primaries” resolution. The amendment was to only caucus for state and local election candidates, on the theory that people would actually know the candidates and their competence, or lack thereof. All Federal candidates would just go on the primary ballot automatically. 

    Those with high name recognition or big advertising budgets would have an advantage, just the way they do now. But “minor”candidates would at least have the opportunity to get their message out and drum up support, rather than wasting their time and resources just trying to get onto the ballot, which is what the remaining female candidates in the Senate race are doing now.

    The main advantage to the caucus system, in my opinion, is the chance to meet one’s neighbors, and to debate the merits of candidates in a civil, public forum. This could also be accomplished by having the large town hall meetings with all of the various candidates or their spokespeople invited, with a ballot box on site for people to vote then and there, if they wish. 

    Those wanting to vote at a different time and place could still do so. 

    • MADCO says:

      What in heck is the caucus good for?

      Left leaning voters – and people in general – hate the party 

      plenty of voters cannot attend caucus: 

      – child care
      – work
      – employer restrictions 
      – etc
      – etc
      – etc

      So we end up with stupid time wasting events that "build the party?"
      There are hundreds of other stupid time wasting events we could use to build the party.

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