I was actually going to write up a FAQ on caucuses next, but I got hung up on not knowing the answer to something for the GOP caucuses. I sent out e-mails, had to wait for a response, and decided that in the meantime, I might as well write my post on political conventions.
When you go to your caucus, if you stay for the meeting, one of the questions you will hear is whether you’d like to be a delegate to the next-level convention. Most of the time, there are enough slots that anyone who wants to can sign up to be a delegate.
Sometimes there are a few more people who want to be delegates than there are slots, and they’ll ask if anyone’s willing to be an alternate. If you’re an alternate, the theory is that you’ll fill in if any of the delegates from your precinct don’t show up. (Most of the time, all the alternates who show up get promoted to delegates.)
When you vote in the fall, your ballot will have the Presidential race at the top. In Minnesota, we are not voting on the Governor (or other statewide offices like Attorney General) this year, nor are either of our Senators currently up for re-election. However, all our U.S. House Representatives are running for re-election and that race will be on the ballot. (If you are in the 2nd district, this is a particularly interesting year. If you’re represented by Betty McCollum or Keith Ellison, not so much.)
Continuing down the ballot, you will also see your state legislators. You have a State Senator and a State Representative, and both races will be on the ballot. Finally, depending on how your city structures things, you may have city races this year. (Not in St. Paul or Minneapolis, though.)
The DFL endorses people for most of the non-judicial races. The statewide people are endorsed at the State Convention, but the legislative races are endorsed at the smaller, local-unit conventions and you, if you go, can get to be one of the ones to decide.
(I’m pretty much just making this post about the DFL, because I have never been to a Republican convention. I expect that they are very similar in most ways, but I don’t know in which key ways they differ.)
How much the DFL’s endorsement matters varies tremendously by race. Historically, in the very big statewide races — U.S. Senate and Governor — it doesn’t actually matter much. In the smaller races, though, especially legislative races, it often basically decides the race. My district would be a good exapmle of this. I live in a solidly DFL district in St. Paul (and previously, I lived in a solidly DFL district in Minneapolis). In this sort of district, legislators who are DFL incumbents almost always win, and when they retire, the DFL-endorsed candidate for the office nearly always wins. So any time there’s an opening, the big race is for the endorsement.
The endorsement for State Senator and State Rep is done at the Senate District (/House District) convention. That is the thing to which you can probably become a delegate, if you want.
(The other major thing that happens at the local-unit conventions is that they elect delegates who get to go to the State Convention. I’ll explain that in more detail further down.)
State Legislature Endorsements for Beginners
So first off, your district may not have an upcoming vacancy. There’s still a convention when there aren’t any vacancies, but endorsing a bunch of unopposed incumbents is pretty dull.
But, sometimes you have an open seat; sometimes the incumbent has done something infuriating and generated a bunch of opposition challenging him or her for endorsement; or maybe you live in a swing district, and there’s currently someone from the other party in that seat and your party has a shot at retaking it. (If you live in a district that is a safe seat for the other side, these endorsements tend to be more “let’s volunteer Fred, since he’s not here.” Okay, I exaggerate slightly.)
Let’s say you have an open seat because your State Senator is retiring, and let’s say you signed up to be a delegate when you were at your precinct caucus. There are several hundred delegates who will be meeting at your Senate District Convention to decide on an endorsement, and one of them is you. That means that each candidate who is running, and there will probably be quite a few, really needs your support. Instead of convincing 50% of the thousands of voters in your district, they need to win over 60% of the delegates — a much, much smaller group.
So if you’re a delegate, you can expect to be contacted, personally, either by phone or by door-knocking, by each of the people who are running. They may not be experts on your particular set of concerns, but you will never have a more attentive ear from a (future) legislator than when they’re running and you’re a delegate. Since they need strong enthusiasm from a small number of people, you can expect that they will have the time to answer your questions and respond to your very specific concerns, whatever they are.
In addition to chatting with candidates, you might also want to chat with politically-connected friends in your district who can dish any interesting back-room gossip. I recommend having a favorite, a list of people who would be fine with you, and a list of people you really don’t want to see get the nod.
At the Convention
So for your imaginary open Senate Seat, let’s say you’ve got five candidates who’ve filed. After talking to all of them, your favorite is Andrea Jackson. Your least favorite is Bill Smith. You think that Carmela Garcia or Dan Feinman would also be fine. You think that Esmeralda Moonbeam sounds like a weirdo.
When you first arrive, you will have to check in with the organizers to get your credentials. There will probably be a line. Once you sign in, they will hand you a printed form on colored paper (it’s about the size, shape, and weight of an ancient computer punch card, if that means anything to you) with your precinct and ward printed on it along with the word DELEGATE. It will be on a ribbon or piece of yarn so you can wear it around your neck. You are expected to do so.
Next, you should check in with your candidate’s campaign. (They’ll have a table.) Tell them you’re a supporter, and they will give you a t-shirt or button or both. Put those on, too. The t-shirt serves a couple of purposes, but the most important is that it communicates to your candidate’s campaign that they need to let you know if there’s something they need you to do. Often, candidates want all their supporters to come up on the stage and stand behind them when it’s time for them to make a speech. More crucially, sometimes there’s some interesting parliamentary maneuver that someone is trying to pull, or trying to thwart, in which case your candidate’s volunteers need to know that you need to get the message on what’s happening. You might not realize that it’s critically important that you vote NO on some very routine-sounding procedural thing until your candidate’s campaign tells you.
These are always held at schools, so far as I can tell. Typically the convention itself is in the school auditorium, lunch room, or gym. Each campaign gets a classroom that’s like their campaign clubhouse. They will have snacks for their supporters (another reason for your t-shirt!) and when it gets to be dinner time, they’ll order pizza. Usually, when I go to a convention, I check in with my candidate first thing, then go track down their room so I know where to go when I get hungry.
There will be a section of the auditorium that’s reserved for your precinct, and that’s where you’ll be spending most of the day.
This is a Really Long Meeting
Typically the convention gets called to order at 10 a.m., although a lot of delegates arrive late. There is a ton of time at these that is spent on stuff that makes you wonder why you gave up a lovely spring Saturday to go sit in a high school auditorium. Like ten-minute-long debates on whether some person should be allowed to speak for two minutes.
There are people who are much better at running efficient conventions than others, you will discover if you go to a bunch of these. I am a big fan of the efficient people.
Bring an extra battery for your smartphone, bring your knitting, bring a book.
There will be lots of speeches.
Typically there’s some time allocated for candidate Q&A, so that people who have not made up their minds will have information to go on.
Lots of elected officials come to speak, either about their own upcoming race or to get you revved up about the DFL generally. At various conventions I’ve heard Al Franken, Amy Klobuchar, Keith Ellison, Betty McCollum, R.T. Rybak, Chris Coleman, various and sundry City Council reps, Park Board people, County Attorneys… never all of the headliners at one convention, mind you. (They try to spread themselves out.)
If there’s a state-wide race coming up, you’ll also hear either from candidates or from people who are there to speak on their behalf.
When it comes time to really deal with the people running for State Senate, there are official speeches from each candidate (that’s when you might get herded up to stand behind them. If you don’t want to do that, you don’t have to.)
It is entirely up to you how much attention you pay to any of this. At the last convention I went to, there were large portions of it that I couldn’t hear at all due to bad acoustics and a lot of ambient noise, so I just ignored it.
You may also find yourself talking to candidates and campaigns through all of this. Especially if you look around the crowd and notice that your t-shirt color is super outnumbered — that’s a good sign that you should start thinking about your fallback choice. People from the other campaigns will find you and say, “hi, can I talk to you about Carmela?” or “can I talk to you about Bill?” They’re not necessarily trying to sway you from Andrea; they’re trying to get you to consider their candidate as your fallback.
When I get this question, I usually say, “sure!” and let them give me their pitch. One of the questions I often ask volunteers is, “why did you decide to support Carmela?” because their answers are often very enlightening. (Unless it’s, “oh! well, she’s my mom.”) At an actual convention, they’ll sometimes ask you, “would you like to speak to Carmela directly?”
You may get asked this same question by the people you’re sitting near. Feel free to talk about what you find appealing about the person you’re supporting! Remember that you’re not trying to convince them to drop their candidate for yours; you’re presenting reasons why your candidate would be a terrific second choice, if their candidate gets dropped from the ballot early.
I am always shocked at how late in the day it is when we finally start balloting.
This is the bit where you really need to be wearing your credentials. If you were an alternate, a lot of the time everyone present just gets automatically upgraded, but if that didn’t happen, definitely check in before balloting and see if you can get an upgrade. If not, you won’t even be allowed in the room when the balloting happens.
They will seat everyone in their precinct, and they will give carefully counted ballots to the precinct captain, who will bring them, distribute them, and collect them.
Right before the balloting happens, they “freeze the floor,” which means that they shut the doors and no one else is allowed in. If you go to the bathroom at the wrong time, you can literally use your chance to vote in that round. Once the countdown starts to voting, get into the room and stay there. It won’t actually take long, and you’ll have plenty of time to pee or get a snack while they’re counting all the ballots.
Then they count the first ballot, which also takes forever. (It speeds up a lot as they eliminate candidates.)
Somewhere in this whole process you’ll get handed a packet of resolutions and a scan-tron sheet to fill in. This is a compilation of all the resolutions that got passed by precinct caucuses, compiled together by people who did their best to roll stuff together so that “MN should have a primary!” and “caucuses are the worst, holy cow, THE ABSOLUTE WORST, and we should have presidential primaries like every other civilized state” get combined into something concise.
During the various periods of downtime you can go through this packet and mark the scan-tron ballot to indicate the ones you find particularly important or unimportant. There’s no limit to how many you can mark. This data gets compiled after the convention and forwarded on to the platform committee.
Dropping Candidates and More Balloting
Once the results come back, they report the results and then immediately start the countdown to freeze the floor for the next round.
They will drop any candidates that got below a certain threshhold of votes. The required percentage goes up with each round, so each time it gets harder to stay on the ballot — or maybe they’ve switched to just dropping the lowest vote-getter until we’re down to two? I can’t remember if that’s officially how they do it, or if it’s just how functionally it tends to work out.
In this make-believe Senate race, we’re going to say that in the very first round of balloting, they drop Esmeralda Moonbeam and Dan Feinman.
Esmeralda and Dan’s people now have to vote for someone else. (Or leave. Sometimes they just leave.) At this imaginary convention, you’re seated next to an Esmeralda supporter, who is very disappointed that her candidate dropped out, but decides to vote for Andrea because you’re wearing an Andrea t-shirt and she has bonded with you over knitting so thinks your favorite candidate would be a good choice.
(At the last convention I went to, the woman across the table from me told me that I seemed like a delightful person and did I know any single women who might be interested in her son? I said, “well, I do have some single friends. But, um, I kind of don’t have their permission to randomly matchmake for them at political conventions?” and she said, “oh, here, let me give you my card.” I AM NOT MAKING THIS UP.)
You usually have a couple more rounds of balloting. Sometimes this is expedited by people seeing that they have no realistic chance and pre-emptively dropping out so as not to waste everyone’s time. Eventually you get down to two people.
The Final Face-Off and All the Fun Ways This Can Go Awry
In order to get the endorsement, a candidate needs 60% of the ballots. So you get down to those last two, and there’s a split.
At that point, a couple of things can happen.
The most frequent outcome I’ve seen is that some people shift. If I came in planning to support Andrea, and she’s made it into the final two but she’s got 45% of the vote and Carmela has 55%, and I’m fine with Carmela, I’ll usually go ahead and shift. Enough people do that, and voila, on the next ballot Carmela has the 60%.
If things are very close, or if this is an acrimonious campaign where the two sides feel very strongly that the opposing candidate is unacceptable, there’s more likely to be a deadlock. The very first Senate District Convention I went to ran until after 10 p.m. It can turn in a test of endurance.
Frequently, when it’s clear no one will shift, there’s an adjournment without an endorsement. There are a number of ways in which this can happen. That very late-night SD Convention, we weren’t allowed to vote for adjournment until after a certain number of ballots, but once we’d racked up the required number of rounds, we could adjourn with a simple majority and didn’t need 60%. And that’s what happened.
At a Minneapolis City Convention some years back, both campaigns sent representatives up to propose an adjournment (making it clear that this was desired on both sides). It was very clear even after the first ballot that things were sufficiently split that there wasn’t going to be an endorsement, and so we had a (surprisingly amicable) agreement to adjourn.
In order for a convention to conduct business, you need a quorum: there has to be a certain number of people there. So sometimes a campaign will herd all its people out of the room, then call the quorum, usually right before a floor freeze. If a quorum is not present the convention is required to adjourn immediately. (If you get grabbed by someone wearing your candidate’s t-shirt saying “out, get out, get out!” … that’s the tactic they’re attempting.) This can massively backfire if not enough people leave the room — since at that point, you’ve just yanked a bunch of your supporters out of the room and they won’t be able to vote on that ballot and the other candidate will happily coast to endorsement.
The other risk with using the “break the quorum” approach is that when a convention just adjourns without finishing its business, the local central committee has the option of doing an endorsement. (I think in theory this is an option with a planned adjournment as well, but much less likely. Or maybe you usually pass a “no going behind our back and endorsing someone” motion as your adjourn? Usually by that point in the process I’m so desperate to get the hell out I’m not paying close attention.)
Picking Delegates for the State Convention
One of the other agenda items at the Senate District convention is picking delegates to go on to the State Convention. There are always more people who want to go than slots available, so to send delegates, we do Walking Subcaucuses.
People “nominate subcaucuses,” which means they go up to the microphone and suggest groups. Sometimes the groups are to support a specific candidate for whatever major statewide office is currently up for grabs; sometimes they are uncommitted, but with a specific focus on a certain issue. The idea is that those delegates will go to the State Convention with the goal of endorsing whichever candidate is the best on whatever their particular issue is.
So if you’re sitting there, you’ll hear people go up to the microphone and say things like, “Uncommitted for Environmental Issues,” or “Uncommitted for Stop Global Warming Now,” or “Uncommitted for Education.” As well as “People for Mike Cerisi” or “Minnesotans for Al Franken,” and there was a trend for a while where a dozen different people would all nominate the same candidate but with a different phrasing, like “Al Franken for CHOICE” or “Al Franken for VETERANS” or “Al Franken for KITTENS AND PUPPIES AND RAINBOWS AND UNICORNS.”
The organizers will then announce where everyone should go. Groups that are obviously related (like Environmental Issues and Stop Global Warming) will always go next to each other so that they can easily combine (…because they totally will).
Now it’s time for everyone to move around! (This is why it’s called a walking subcaucus.) You pick your favorite subcaucus and physically go over and hang out with them. If you have a favorite candidate for the contested statewide office, you go stand with that group. If you want to send uncommitted delegates for some issue, pick an issue.
Someone will run around and physically count everyone and then they will announce a number that gives a subcaucus “viability.” That means that your subcaucus needs to have that many people in it in order to qualify for one delegate and one alternate. If the number is 12, and you have 11 people, you look around for a person at loose ends or a smaller subcaucus you can absorb. If the number is 12, and you have 5 people, you might look for a larger subcaucus you can join as a group, or you might just go your separate ways. In any case, they give you a few minutes to shuffle around and redivide, and then they freeze the floor, count everyone again, then tell each subcaucus how many delegates they get.
So let’s say you’re in a subcaucus of 14 people and will have one delegate and one alternate. Now you have to pick your delegate and alternate. Let’s say you have four people who would love to go to the State Convention: typically each person gets a minute or two to make a speech to the rest of the subcaucus about why they’d be a good person to send, and then you vote, probably just by raising hands and counting. The top vote-getter is the delegate, the runner up is usually the alternate, and I am trying to remember if the DFL still mandates gender-balance because if it does, then it’s the nearest runner-up of the opposite gender.
If you actually go to the State Convention
It lasts for multiple days and I’ve never been elected as a delegate, so I can’t tell you much about what it’s like.
So there’s a Congressional District Convention (for your U.S. House seat) that will be critical this year in the 2nd District, since Kline is stepping down. I don’t remember if they send a subset of the State Convention delegates or if that one gets its own Walking Subcaucus process.
In Minneapolis, in years with city races, there may be a Ward Convention if you need to endorse a candidate for City Council, and there’s a City Convention to endorse candidates for Mayor, School Board, and Park Board. There’s also a County Convention where candidates for County Board, Sheriff, County Attorney, etc. get endorsed. St. Paul does a similar set of conventions — Ward, City, County — but has no Park Board. City offices vary some by city.
Last year in St. Paul, the school board race was particularly contentious. Sufficiently so that we had to do walking subcaucuses at my precinct caucus to select delegates to go to the City Convention. Usually you can just sign up to go to Ward or City Conventions.
So in summary
If you go to your next-level convention, you will have to spend a weekend day, often at the point when the weather is finally turning nice, sitting in a high school auditorium listening to people give speeches.
However, some years and in some districts, this can give you a truly outsized piece of political influence.
Worth it or not? Very much up to you. If imagining sitting through all this makes you want to gnaw off a limb to escape, don’t put yourself through it. If you think you’d like to give it a try, sign up! (And you’re definitely allowed to sign up and not go.)