Home 2018 Elections More Primaries, Fewer Conventions

More Primaries, Fewer Conventions


By David Jonas

One of the best things about 2017 has been the dozens of candidates who have stepped up to run for office to beat back Trumpism in Virginia. I’ve tried my best to get involved with as many as of these campaigns as I can, and with a few races under my belt and a healthy obsession with Virginia public policy, it’s been a dream come true to play a small part in helping great candidates get elected.

But the number one question I’ve heard from the majority of these candidates hasn’t been about raising money, or how to get a handle on the nuances of policy, or anything like that.

The question I’ve heard most is, “What do I do if the local party calls for a convention?”

For those who don’t know, Virginia law gives broad powers to state parties to set the terms for how they choose their nominees. You can read how the Democratic Party of Virginia decides on these things here in Article 12 of this document. And for the most part, it’s a good system: when a special election for something like a school board seat pops up, there’s not always the time and resources to run a wide-scale primary. And it’s probably not a bad idea to decentralize some of the decision-making by giving local district committees—as the DPVA bylaws do—the ability to call the shots.

And it’s not hard to see why the method of nomination would be the number one strategic concern of any Democrat running to get the party’s nomination. The entire thrust of a campaign rests on the rules of the game. It’s all about whose vote you need to win. If it’s a convention, it’s about laser-targeting the party insiders who will make up the delegate pool. If it’s a caucus, it’s about targeting the most ardent Dems and making sure they can commit to an entire day of “voting”. If it’s a primary, it’s about reaching as many voters as possible and trying to form a winning coalition that will show up on primary day.

That’s why this past weekend I was thrilled to hear that the Virginia 10th Congressional District Democrats (who are trying to unseat Trump ally Barbara Comstock) voted to use a primary as their method of nomination. Yes, primaries have their disadvantages (as discussed below), but knowing the temptation local officials have in controlling as much of the nomination process as possible, this was a welcome affirmation that everyday Democrats should be the main focus of our candidates’ time and attention.

That was until I heard that the Virginia 5th Congressional District Democrats had chosen a convention as their nominating method.

And that they had done so 3 weeks ago.

During GOTV, when every Democrat in Virginia was focused on getting Ralph Northam elected and winning back the House of Delegates.

And without ever really announcing it to the public.


Let’s be clear: primaries should be the gold standard for how we as Democrats choose our nominees. They should be the rule rather than the exception. And thankfully, the races coming up for Congress in 2018 are tailor-made for primaries.

With genuine pickup opportunities like Virginia’s 1st, 2nd, 5th, 7th, and 10th districts, we have more than enough candidates (well, maybe not in the 2nd) raising considerable resources to make their cases to a very mobilized Democratic base. All of the reasons to hold a caucus or convention (too little participation, fears of concerted outside activity by Republicans, needing flexibility for setting deadlines/wanting to nominate earlier than June, not enough rural representation, etc.) don’t hold sway in 2018.

From the outset, it’s easy to see why some local officials would naturally angle for a caucus or a convention. The worst-case scenario is that the local party already has a favored candidate in mind, and they believe that candidate would do better in a convention or caucus where it’s mostly just activists participating. Or, more subtly, they want candidates to have to cater to their individual demands of government rather than less active Democrats. I would hope the vast majority of Democrats would reject these kinds of smoke-filled room shenanigans outright, as I imagine most local officials already do.

But even good-faith support for conventions and caucuses is misplaced for our races in 2018. Yes, primaries can be nasty and expensive, open primaries can allow non-Democrats to participate, and I understand why volunteers and activists who make up our local parities want to reward those who have put in their dues and worked hard in the past. There’s also the issue that rural areas and communities with fewer people get passed over in a primary. I get it.

But it’s also easy to see why conventions and caucuses are mostly a bad thing with major long-term disadvantages, especially when our candidates have plenty of time and money to compete for every vote:

  • Primaries are great test runs for general elections. With primaries, campaigns have to develop real financing and field programs, which they’ll need to grow even more in the general. Doors get knocked, phone-banks get staffed, name recognition goes up, and the energy of the grassroots gets activated. It’s great. With conventions or caucuses, all of that energy gets thrown at people who are already 100% activated and committed to voting Democratic. Oh, and let’s not forget the lost opportunity to build much-needed connections among low-information voters. It’s a poor use of time and resources if you want Democrats to show up in November.


  • Conventions dissuade young people from participating. And we need them more than ever. Even if you believe local officials and activists are better equipped to choose a candidate, these party insiders tend to be older and less representative of Democratic voters as a whole. We just saw Ralph Northam win by 39 points with voters under 30, and if we want more of that, we need to get young people involved early and often. It bears repeating: we cannot win Congress back in 2018 without young people. And if my Democratic friends under 30 are any indication, they’re not going to turn out for a caucus or convention with a bunch of barriers to participation. They will come and vote if it’s a primary.

  • Open primaries may or may not be a good thing, but let’s change the law if we’re really worried about them. I support open primaries because I think they draw in more voters to the Democratic Party over the long-term than closed ones, but there are certainly valid concerns about Republicans switching over to vote in our elections to mess with us. But if local officials and activists are so worried about this, then the answer is to change the law, not build in more barriers to participation. Let’s not punish would-be voters (especially younger ones) who don’t eat-and-breathe politics (and who naturally assume there will be a primary) for the actions of Republicans.


  • Virginia’s legacy of disenfranchisement and Jim Crow warrants extreme caution in using conventions or caucuses. Virginia in particular has a horrific history of exclusion and disenfranchisement when it comes to political participation. I’ve heard the argument that conventions can actually ensure greater minority representation, but I haven’t found much evidence to back that up claim. If anything, it just goes to show why we need a very public and open process in deciding nominating methods. I hope I’m not the only one who sees free and open primaries as learning from the sins of our collective past.

I know how hard our local parties work at this stuff and how many procedural hoops they have to jump through just to weigh these options. I have no doubt it’s more complicated than I’m describing it here. And yes, it’s extremely easy for folks like me who jump around all over Virginia in support of Democrats to criticize when I’m not there in the room.

But if the standard for me as a voter to have my say in who will lead my party is higher than a primary (especially if it’s a convention), you are effectively saying you don’t trust my judgment and are hedging your bets. You are asking me to jump through a set of very inconvenient hoops in the hopes that I’m the “right kind” of voter. You are filtering my voice rather conveniently through a mechanism of your choosing.

And call me crazy, but that’s not a recipe for better candidates, landing more votes in the general election, or bringing more people into the Democratic Party.

It sounds like Democrats in Virginia’s 1st and 7th districts are still deciding whether to do a primary or not. I hope they and every Virginia Democrat will stand up and demand primaries for our method of choosing our Congressional nominees in 2018. It’s how we’ll win this year, and it’s how we’ll keep the party growing well into the future.

  • John Farrell

    I agree that a primary is the preferential means to choose a nominee most of the time but let’s add some detail here.

    Since we don’t register by party in Virginia, holding a closed primary is cumbersome as the Republicans discovered in the March 2016 Presidential when they initially were going to require voters in their primary to sign a pledge to support the nominee and dropped it when all of the implications of that pledge process at the polls became clearer.

    The Commonwealth only holds primaries in June for contests to be voted on at the November election. It also holds Presidential primaries in March, once every 4 years. The taxpayers pay for the expense of these primaries.

    If there’s a special election as happened for Sheriff in Fairfax a few years ago, a primary is not an option because the state law does not allow for one.

    If there’s a special election, the local party has to choose among a convention, assembled caucus or unassembled caucus (aka “firehouse primary”). The local party pays for these events. It can get very expensive very fast. We estimated that a county-wide firehouse for a county-wide office in Fairfax would cost the local party $35,000-50,000 based on the cost to rent the electronic pollbooks and optical scan machines from the local government and to pay for printing of the ballots to be read by the optical scanners. The costs to rent the room for the polling place would increase those costs. It could also require dozens of volunteers to staff the various voting locations. Logistically, a challenge.

    If a local party chooses not to use a primary for an office on the November ballot, they can hold the caucus, assembled caucus or fire house. These methods offer two advantages. One, state law allows these nomination events to be held up to 6 weeks before the June primary, giving the winning candidate a head-start over the other party’s nominee, if the other party uses a primary. Secondly, these events can be held very close to the June primary date, giving the party time to find a candidate, if none have come forward as the filing deadline for the June primary approaches.

    These non-primary nomination methods also allow the use of ARV voting in a multi-candidate nomination contest which tends to result in a nominee most acceptable to the nomination voters.

    Thus, there are good practical and tactical circumstances to choose a candidate by means other than a primary.

    • David TSJ

      This is great context that fills in some details I missed. Thank you for adding!

  • dave schutz

    I’m strongly in favor of primaries. Here in Arlington, over the years, we’ve had a lot of gaming of the system by inner circle members looking to ensure that their favored candidates get nominated. Sometimes this has been by timing the election, sometimes by the choice of primary versus caucus, sometimes caucus over primary. Usually, this works as planned, though sometimes an insurgent wins even in a caucus. The kind of contest in which things can go really off the rails, though, are those in which you have several contestants whose positions and style are favored by the majority of primary participants and one highly contrastive candidate who has a good amount of support but by no means a majority. We saw this in the Trump nomination, in which a large number of highly qualified and attractive candidates knocked each other off while Mr. Trump scooped up the nomination, similarly Mr. Stewart came within a few thousand votes of the Reep nomination for Governor even though Mr. Wagner and Mr. Gillespie between them had a lot more backing.
    Dems are by no means immune! The contest in the 10th has the potential for the same problem, if most primary voters prefer similar candidates and they split their vote between them, another contrastive candidate could pull out a victory.
    The best solution is not to retreat from a precinct based primary, which recruits a huge number more voters into the process, but rather to enable precinct based primaries to be run with ranked choice voting (as Arlington Dems have done in their caucuses several times). This requires a statutory change, for which 8th CD Dems asked in their most recent district convention. It’s my understanding that Delegate Hope, from Arlington, is preparing a bill to allow just that, and which he intends to introduce in the upcoming session. I’d like to invite readers of this blog to support it!

  • Kenneth Ferland

    As someone who WAS in the room as an observer at the 5th committee meeting I can tell you that our result was 15-2 for convention (each county and or city having 1 representative) and the reason was primaries cost money which is then billed to the counties. This is BIG cost for our counties and most of our delegates hold positions in county level government such as school boards, supervisors etc. These people know how little money the counties have to do anything with and don’t see how they can justify that cost being put on the county.

    Note we are SUPER rural out here in the 5th and their are far more polling locations per capita then in an urban area so our costs are disproportionately higher per voter. In my polling place we had about 20 votes TOTAL for the Governor Primary, yet we had 4 poll workers their for 13 hours, even at minimum wage we spend $377 in wages alone in one precinct, and our county has 11 precincts for a population of just 11K. Note all primary costs the same no matter how low the attendance. Virginia law dictates that only the presidential and gubernatorial primaries are paid out of the state treasury, everything else falls on counties.

    Note that convention is the ONLY method the 5th has ever used for past nominations, our ability to bring voters out to the polls for a June primary they are not habituated to participate in is quite minimal.

    Conventions are also not dominated by officials, anyone can show up and participate and past conventions have had several hundred attendees with each county generally filling one or more buses to take it’s delegation to the convention location. Yes this dose mean your demographics are going to skew older, but they are also more activist too.

    Much of the caucus/primary debate centers around which is better for the hated ‘establishment’ and many argue that caucus = fewer voters = establishment, but this erroneous, it is the makeup of the voters not their number which determines who wins, a caucus is an inherently higher activity level, higher information voters set then a Primary. Establishment = money = advertisement = name recognition = votes.

    That’s why ANY underdog grassroots candidate will prefer a convention, and the ‘leading’ candidate with the most money will prefer a primary. We have 4 candidates currently running for the nomination in the 5th and one (Sneathern) was in attendance at the meeting as well and expressed their opinion that a primary would have handed the nomination to the most well funded candidate who has as much as the other 3 combined.

    Note also that Primaries require a simple first-past-the-post outcome and are quite poor when you have more then 3 candidates. How the 10th is going to manage with its (of my last count) 8 candidates is beyond me, I hope then can get a decisive result that will can be rallied behind. A ranked choice system is preferable and a convention is inherently ranked, it’s even better then ranking folks on a ballot because you get to see the results of each round, get to hear from each dropping out candidate, hear their endorsements if any, talk to remaining candidates and their supporters etc. This was another factor making the committee lean towards convention over Primary.