From the day of its creation, Washington’s presidential primary was hailed as an exciting new opportunity — replacing musty caucuses controlled by relatively few partisan activists with a truly participatory election.

“This will help bring the political parties back into the mainstream. It will bring a million people into the process,” Washington’s secretary of state predicted upon the Legislature’s vote adopting the primary.

That was 1989, and that secretary of state, Ralph Munro, has been retired for 20 years. Next month, his proclamation may finally prove fully accurate.

Ending decades of “beauty contest” primaries, which mostly have not counted, Washington is on track to hold a meaningful presidential primary election on March 10. For the first time, both the Republican and Democratic parties will award all their pledged presidential delegates based on the primary instead of ignoring it and tallying caucus results instead.

And with the four early-voting states — Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina — seemingly up for grabs and unlikely to decide the Democratic nominee, Washington could find itself in the middle of the national conversation during a frenzied two-week stretch that may determine who will take on President Donald Trump in the fall.

Voters here will receive primary ballots earlier than ever — military and overseas ballots were mailed yesterday and the rest will go out Feb. 21 — with Washington’s primary bumped up to March 10 from its previous mid-May slot.

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In a sign of the state’s potential significance, campaigns for several Democratic candidates have been organizing here for months, with Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders flashing the largest organizations in terms of volunteers and paid staff, and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg saturating local airwaves with TV ads.

Campaign staffer Tina Bergman holds a cutout of Bailey, Elizabeth Warren’s golden retriever, as she poses next to a fellow Warren supporter. (Alan Berner / The Seattle Times)
Campaign staffer Tina Bergman holds a cutout of Bailey, Elizabeth Warren’s golden retriever, as she poses next to a fellow Warren supporter. (Alan Berner / The Seattle Times)

Thirteen Democratic candidates will appear on the primary ballot, including some who have already ended their campaigns. Delegates to the Democratic National Convention this summer will be awarded proportionally to candidates who receive at least 15% of the primary vote statewide or in any congressional district. On the Republican side, the outcome is foreordained: Only Trump qualified for the ballot.

While Washington won’t be the only state voting on March 10, we’ll also not be lost in the noise of super Tuesday (March 3), when 16 states and territories are voting, including the two biggest delegate prizes — California and Texas.

“Washington is very well-placed to get a lot of attention and to make a difference,” said Elaine Kamarck, the director of the Center for Effective Public Management at the Brookings Institution and the author of a book on presidential primaries. “Being on a day with fewer primaries is always helpful, especially if you’re a medium- to large-size state.”

During three successive Tuesdays in March, the 3rd, the 10th and the 17th, about 60% of the delegates needed to win the Democratic primary will be awarded.

“Washington is right in the thick of it,” said Kyle Kondik, managing editor for Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. “The question is, with so many big prizes voting in this small time frame, how much attention will Washington actually get?”

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Moving up the primary date in a bid for more attention is a bit of a gamble, Kondik said. If the race turns into a blowout, it’s better to vote early in the calendar, before the result is preordained. But if the race stays tight through the spring, states that vote in isolation later in the calendar can get showered with attention from candidates fighting for every last delegate.

While Washington is the second-biggest state voting on March 10, and should theoretically draw candidates’ attention, we’re likely to be outshined by the largest state voting that day. Michigan, which was razor-close in the both 2016 Democratic primary and the general election, also votes on March 10. It’s also one of the three “rust belt” states that have long voted Democratic but flipped to Trump last time around.

“It holds symbolic importance no matter how close it projects to be,” said Josh Putnam, an expert on election law who runs the site FrontloadingHQ on presidential primaries. “Because of what a win there, rightly or wrongly, may say about how candidates may perform there in November. All of that may draw away from Washington.”

The move away from caucuses is a national trend, with Democrats holding them in just four states this year, compared with 18 held in states and territories four years ago.

The Robertson surprise

Washington’s presidential primary was born out of a political trauma — the 1988 win by televangelist Pat Robertson in the Republican caucuses over Vice President George H.W. Bush — a result that was a victory for evangelical Christian activists but which proved upsetting for many in the state’s political mainstream.

“It was horrifying to a lot of people in both parties,” said David Ammons, a former longtime Associated Press political reporter who covered the 1988 election.

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He recalled the pro-Robertson delegation to the Republican National Convention that year stood out as the largest in the country, and caused consternation for moderate GOP elected leaders who were left at home.

The Robertson scare led to a bipartisan push for a presidential primary, which was approved by the Legislature in 1989, leading to the first such primaries to take place in 1992.

But despite the scare, the major political parties, especially the Democrats, for decades continued to resist honoring the primary results out of a belief that dedicated party activists should control the nominating process.

“They were thinking nominating our standard-bearer is party work. It’s not for everybody,” said Ammons, who later worked for the Secretary of State’s Office, where he advocated for an inclusive and binding primary.

Since then, every Washington Democratic presidential primary has been essentially meaningless — sometimes garnering attention but holding no bearing on which candidate got the state’s nominating delegates.

That has led to the absurdity of hundreds of thousands of voters casting ballots in the primary, only to see a much smaller group of caucus participants determine the actual winners.

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In 2016, for example, Sanders dominated the state’s Democratic caucuses in late March, which were attended by an estimated 230,000 people — a tiny slice of the state’s 4 million registered voters. Two months later, Hillary Clinton won the Democratic presidential primary, in which more than 800,000 participated, but that symbolic victory netted her zero delegates.

Washington Republicans have held more meaningful primaries, often splitting their delegates between winners of their primary and winners of their caucuses. Only twice have they placed all the power in the primary. But even in those years, the state primary still wasn’t worth much — in 1992 the incumbent president was running for reelection so his nomination wasn’t much in doubt, and in 2016, Trump was the presumptive nominee by the time Washington voted in May.

In 2004 and 2012 the state canceled its presidential primaries entirely, citing its cost. Democrats also complained about the $11.5 million cost of the primary in 2016, and unsuccessfully called for its cancellation.

A race for delegates

This year, after surveying party activists, Democrats have done an about-face, and some top-tier presidential campaigns have set their eyes on capturing all or parts of the state’s 89 pledged delegates. One exception is former Vice President Joe Biden, who leads in many national polls, but has yet to announce any hires or organization in the state.

Warren, who drew 15,000 to a Seattle Center rally last summer, has set down the biggest footprint so far in terms of paid staff, with more than 30 across the state, as well as two campaign offices in Seattle.

At an opening celebration of a Sodo loft-style office this month, about 150 supporters gathered to hear a pep talk from Warren endorsers, including newly Seattle City Councilmembers Tammy Morales and Andrew Lewis, before being trained on how to bring family, friends and neighbors on board.

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Volunteers snapped pictures holding placards with pictures of Warren, her golden retriever, Bailey, or Baby Yoda holding a mug of “billionaire tears.”

Rebecca Delacruz-Gunderson, a recent college graduate, said she was inspired to volunteer after seeing Warren’s Seattle speech decrying the power of corporate interests. “Her message that we really need to end corruption in Washington, D.C., and the government before we can deal with a lot of other issues just spoke to me so much,” she said, citing climate change as a prime example.

A Bernie Sanders supporter clutches campaign materials before heading out to canvas Saturday. (Alan Berner / The Seattle Times)
A Bernie Sanders supporter clutches campaign materials before heading out to canvas Saturday. (Alan Berner / The Seattle Times)

Sanders, too, has a vocal contingent of support, dating back to his 2016 organization in the state, which powered his caucus win.

“Those folks never went away … we are reactivating,” said Carin Chase, Washington campaign director for the Sanders campaign, and one of two paid staff in the state.

Sanders volunteers already have held 900 events in Washington, including phone banks and canvassing, said Chase, an Edmonds School Board member. Sanders also has been endorsed by U.S. Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Seattle, and Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant.

“I agree with Bernie we need a society where billionaires don’t exist,” Sawant told a fired-up crowd of 400 at a packed volunteer kickoff event this month in Seattle.

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The former Mayor of South Bend, Indiana, Pete Buttigieg, has yet to place campaign offices or paid staff in Washington, but has a network of volunteers who have been holding hundreds of “Pete-ups” and other gatherings.

Jeanne Acutanza, who became Washington’s volunteer lead for the Buttigieg campaign after meeting him at a book signing, said his supporters may be less vocal than those of some of the other candidates. “We’re looking neighbor by neighbor and person by person … a lot of the more private people who just want to vote,” she said.

Bloomberg, meanwhile, is employing his vast wealth, estimated at $60 billion by Forbes, to hire eight senior staff in the state, including seasoned Washington campaign operatives. While he has not campaigned here yet, Bloomberg is planning to open campaign offices in each of the state’s 10 congressional districts, said campaign spokeswoman Katie Rodihan.

He also is continually running TV ads, with more than $3.7 million spent in the Seattle market as of last week — a small portion of the $250 million he reportedly has spent nationally.

While competing for the primary delegates, the various Democratic campaigns so far are signaling unity for the 2020 election cycle, regardless of the party’s nominee.

“We all agree on one thing. We need to take back the presidency,” said Chase.