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Will Oregon's Presidential Primary Matter? Here's What You Need To Know

<p>Democratic presidential candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden speaks at Tougaloo College in Tougaloo, Miss., Sunday, March 8, 2020.&nbsp; </p>

Democratic presidential candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden speaks at Tougaloo College in Tougaloo, Miss., Sunday, March 8, 2020. 

When the presidential primary season starts in earnest every four years, Oregonians start to wonder if their vote will count.

The impulse is understandable. It’s not unusual for all-but-certain nominees in each major party to emerge long before Oregon’s May primary. This can be particularly galling to your septuagenarian relatives. They may remember the glory days when the Oregon primary routinely received the national attention now reserved for states like Iowa and New Hampshire.

Those golden political times are gone for good, but Oregon might still matter this year. Here’s a quick look at the road to the Oregon primary on May 19.

The Democrats are now down to a two-man race. Will they still be battling for the nomination when Oregon rolls around?

Vice President Joe Biden and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders are both still far away from having the 1,991 delegates needed to win the nomination before Oregon’s primary, where 61 delegates are at stake. But the momentum – and the delegate lead – is now with Biden. He could gain further momentum if he does well Tuesday night when Washington and five other states hold Democratic primaries. And it’s conceivable he could become the all-but-certain nominee by the end of April. By that time, more than 85% of the delegates will have been awarded.

Of course, Biden’s momentum could ebb for any number of reasons. And Sanders has a strong base of supporters that gives him the financial wherewithal to stay in the primary race for as long as he wants.

Recent history is on the side of Oregon Democrats having a meaningful vote May 19. The last two times there was no Democrat running for re-election, in 2008 and 2016, the race continued all the way through the primary season. But this year, there’s no gigantic delegate prize at the end of the primary season. That’s because California moved its primary from early June to March 3.

What about the superdelegates?  You didn’t mention them.

Those are the delegates who are automatically chosen to participate in the Democratic National Convention. These 771 superdelegates – 13 of whom are from Oregon -- include the party’s congressional members, governors and state party leaders.

Sanders and many of his supporters didn’t think it was fair for the superdelegates – who tended to be skeptical of his candidacy – to vote and thus play a role in swinging the 2016 nomination to Hillary Clinton.  While she won more pledged delegates than Sanders, she needed the superdelegates to win a majority.

In a concession to Sanders, the party changed its rule in 2018. The superdelegates no longer get to vote in the first round of balloting. They only vote if there’s a second round because no candidate has a majority.

That’s less likely to happen since Sanders and Biden are essentially the only ones left (Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii, is also in the race but currently has just two delegates).

What do I need to do to vote in Oregon’s presidential primary?

The state Democratic and Republican parties both hold closed primaries, meaning you must be registered as either a Democrat or Republican to cast a presidential primary vote. 

The deadline to register to vote is April 28, three weeks in advance of the election. It’s also the deadline for registering with a party – or for switching from one party to the other.  If you want to register to vote, you can do it right here. 

If you want to check your registration status – or change your party registration – you can do that here.

At this point, a lot of Oregon voters can’t vote in a presidential primary. In part, that’s because the number of non-affiliated voters has risen dramatically since the state started its first-in-the-nation system of automatic registration in 2016. Using DMV data, the state automatically signs up eligible Oregon residents to vote. People are sent a letter explaining how they can register in a party – or opt out of registering to vote altogether.

But many people ignore those letters. By default, they get registered as non-affiliated. If Sanders and Biden are still fighting it out as the Oregon election nears, their campaigns will undoubtedly try to convert non-affiliated voters into registered Democrats.  But they still may miss many voters.

Could the new coronavirus epidemic affect Oregon’s primary?

It could certainly affect the ability of candidates to hold campaign events and for activists seeking to do door-to-door canvassing.

But Oregon’s vote-by-mail system has one big advantage when it comes to contagion worries: Voters don’t need to stand in line at the polls. And they don’t have to squeeze into small voting booths that may have already been visited by dozens of other people.

In Washington, which also has mail voting, election officials have been encouraging people not to lick the flaps on their ballot return envelopes to help curb the spread of the disease.  It wouldn’t be surprising if Oregonians get the same advice when ballots go out at the end of April.

Why does my grandpa think Oregon’s primary was once a big deal?

Oregon held one of the first presidential primaries in 2012 and was for years one of only about a dozen states that held one.  Presidential nominees were still chosen by party insiders. But candidates would use the primaries to demonstrate their popularity, all of which were lavishly covered by the media.  That led to many memorable Oregon primaries. For example:

— In 1948, former Minnesota Gov. Harold Stassen and New York Gov. Thomas Dewey met in Portland to participate in the first broadcast presidential debate. They debated, “Shall the Communist Party be outlawed.” Dewey won the primary and the GOP nomination, but lost the election to President Harry Truman.

— In 1964, New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller barnstormed Oregon to a surprise victory with the theme “He cared enough to come.” His victory helped turned him into a major rival to Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater – the eventual nominee — at the Republican National Convention.

— In 1968, Minnesota Sen. Eugene McCarthy beat New York Sen. Robert F. Kennedy in Oregon’s Democratic primary. It was Kennedy’s first election loss. The next month, Kennedy was assassinated in Los Angeles after winning the California primary. Vice President Hubert Humphrey, who had not run in any of the primaries, won the nomination.

Largely as a result, the Democratic Party changed its rules for the 1972 election requiring primaries or open caucuses in every state.

The Oregon primary is no longer a major event on the nation’s political calendar, even if the race hasn’t been settled by the third Tuesday in May.

Copyright 2020 Oregon Public Broadcasting

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Jeff Mapes is a senior political reporter at Oregon Public Broadcasting. Previously, Jeff covered state and national politics for The Oregonian for nearly 32 years. He has covered numerous presidential, congressional, gubernatorial and ballot measure campaigns, as well as many sessions of the Legislature, stretching back to 1985. Jeff graduated from San Jose State University with a B.A. in journalism.