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Democratic Party Caucuses of 1984

On March 17, 1984, the state Democratic Party initiated the formal process of delegate selection to the upcoming Democratic National Convention. Participatory caucuses convened in the state’s 767 precincts with the expectation that thirty-five of the forty-two delegates chosen would reflect, proportionally, the participants’ candidate preferences. Seven slots were reserved for super-delegates, elected officials, and party organization leaders.

The state party organization had traditionally taken responsibility for convention delegate selection, but national party reforms had substantially altered delegate selection processes in the states by making them more open to participation by the party rank-and-file. In this spirit, the Arkansas Democratic Party conducted presidential preferential primaries in 1976 and 1980. Those contests attracted some 500,000 and 440,000 voters, respectively.

In 1983, with the 1984 presidential nominating campaign looming, the state party organization exercised its abiding authority over delegate selection by opting for a process similar to one developed in Iowa. This process featured precinct-level participatory caucuses, followed by county conventions, congressional district caucuses, and, finally, the state convention. Proponents of the process identified several perceived benefits. First, it promoted popular participation in delegate selection. Second, it engaged and empowered loyal partisans while effectively discouraging participation by independents and Republicans, whose participation in preferential primaries had recently been allowed by state law. Finally, the March date for the precinct caucuses promised to give Arkansas a larger role in the determination of the national party presidential nominee.

Six presidential candidates filed for ballot access, but only three ultimately contended: former vice president Walter Mondale, U.S. senator Gary Hart of Colorado, and the Reverend Jesse Jackson. Mondale generally attracted party establishment support. The insurgent Hart appealed to less conventional so-called New Democrats, while Jackson’s base was generally made up of his fellow African Americans.

The March 17 morning caucuses attracted more than 20,000 participants. Each caucus began with sign-in sessions affirming voter registration and party loyalty. Next, the elected chair instructed participants supporting various candidates or considering themselves uncommitted to assemble together in specified sections of the meeting room. Representatives from each group could lobby other participants to join them, and members of groups falling short of a twenty-percent level had to join a group meeting that standard. Finally, a count was taken that established the proportional delegate support per candidate to be maintained in the eventual designation of convention delegates.

Although not all precincts reported participant totals, Mondale was the clear plurality winner statewide. Jackson came in a strong second in terms of total supporters, but Hart decisively eclipsed him in county convention delegates. The rank order discrepancies for supporters and delegates were attributable to the overwhelming concentration of Jackson supporters in a relatively smaller number of precincts and the twenty-percent threshold that left them without standing elsewhere.

The national convention delegation consisted of nineteen (fifty-four percent) pledged to Mondale, nine (twenty-six percent) to Hart, seven (twenty percent) to Jackson, and seven (twenty-percent) super-delegates, all of whom voted for nominee Mondale. The caucus experiment did not attract strong elite or mass support; on the contrary, it was criticized by both. In 1988, the state party returned to a presidential primary as the foundation of its delegate selection process.

For additional information:
Brummett, John. “Democrats to Congregate March 17 for Arkansas’s First-Ever Caucuses.” Arkansas Gazette, February 26, 1984, pp. 1A, 5A.

———. “In Spite of Criticisms, Caucuses Successful, Party Official Believes.” Arkansas Gazette, March 19, 1984, pp. 1A, 5A.

———. “Mondale Wins 19 in Arkansas: Delegate Selection Goes as Predicted.” Arkansas Gazette, May 6, 1984, pp. 1A, 22A.

Griffee, Carol. “Getting Used to Change Called Key for Democrats in Switching to Caucuses.” Arkansas Gazette, March 11, 1984, pp. 1A, 9A.

Willems, Spencer. “Arkansas’ Caucus in ’84 Wasn’t Pretty.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, February 1, 2016, pp. 1A–2A.

Harold F. Bass and Rachel J. Babb
Ouachita Baptist University

Last Updated 1/25/2017

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