Teaching Profession

NEA Primary Endorsement: Clinton, Sanders, or None at All?

By Stephen Sawchuk — July 23, 2015 2 min read
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Here’s an election conundrum: Just who is National Education Association going to plump for in the 2016 presidential primaries?

After all, the American Federation of Teachers has gone in early for Hillary Clinton (and gotten some flack from members for doing so).

Hillary Clinton, obviously, is the odds-on favorite for NEA pick. On the other hand, at the NEA meeting this summer, by far the loudest delegate cheer went to Bernie Sanders, when the names of the three Democratic candidates interviewed by NEA President Lily Eskelsen-Garcia were announced.

Officially, the NEA has been utterly silent about its endorsement plans.

In a way, the “who” question is the wrong one to ask. The right question is whether the union can get a primary endorsement together at all while it still matters.

Ready for the wonk-a-licious explanation?

The NEA’s endorsement decision is made by its PAC council, made up of state presidents and internal interest-group members, usually after a recommendation from the NEA president. PAC council votes (there are thousands of them) are distributed in part by the amount of money raised by each state’s members for the PAC, relative to population. States can also get extra votes by donating PAC giveaway prizes. (The union’s Delaware affiliate has a strong culture of PAC contributions, and therefore carries a lot of votes on the council relative to its little size!)

Despite their complexity, those rules usually don’t tend to matter much. There is rarely disagreement on the PAC council, and the reps usually make their decisions through a simple “aye” or “no” vote. (An NEA staffer told me she could recall just one actual weighted vote in eight years.)

Where they do matter is when there are legitimate differences of opinion among the states. Even the threat of a messy, divisive, politicky weighted vote can be enough to put the kibosh on a decision.

During the 2008 primary season, for instance, NEA state affiliates were split between Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama. There was a lot of behind-the-scenes discussion about whether to put an Obama nod to a PAC council vote or not. Apparently, though, the weighted votes on the council weren’t there for Obama, so union essentially put off making a decision and did not endorse until after Obama had clinched the nomination.

Compare and contrast this to the AFT, whose political-caucus structure is dominated by its New York affiliate, allowing it to throw its weight behind Hillary Clinton at a crucial point in 2008.

Are you still with me?

Now, here are the implications for 2016. The thing to watch is whether there will be a split within NEA state affiliates over Clinton or Sanders. While Sanders is still probably a long shot, he has surged in popularity in some corners, including within the NEA. For example, the Vermont-NEA has already announced in favor of Sanders, its hometown hero.

“He’s been a champion for us, for workers, for unions, for education,” Vermont-NEA President Martha Allen said. “It was a no-brainer for us, and I don’t think the NEA was surprised by that at all.”

In terms of logistics, probably the earliest the NEA could make an endorsement is in October, when its board of directors and PAC council next meet. We’ll have to see if the primary landscape looks different by then.

Stay tuned!

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Teacher Beat blog.