Monday, June 2, 2008

Caucuses and primaries

I've heard a lot of frustration recently over the bizarre local quirks of our presidential nominating system. One of the main sources of frustration is the caucus system. Here's a nice piece by Kathryn Pearson summing up some of the main concerns over caucuses. As she notes, a caucus is essentially for those voters who are
hardy enough to stand in line, lucky enough to have employment that doesn't require them to work between 6:30 and 8 p.m., and with enough resources -- civic and personal -- to get themselves to a caucus and know what to do there. Hardly a representative sample.
I've found, unsurprisingly, that, at least among Democrats, opposition to caucuses is highly correlated with one's support for Hillary Clinton. Following this model, I registered strong support for the caucus system after participating in it, and, shockingly, my preferred candidate did very well there. I rather liked the deliberative nature of it and the community feeling it engendered. As I wrote at the time:
I would say that the rewards outweigh the risks. It's the good sort of social capital that Putnam and Etzioni are always talking about and Normal Rockwell loved to paint, without the bad stuff, like Italian fascism.
Democrats should probably get a little distance from the current race before they start deciding whether caucuses are good or bad.

That said, it's not intuitively obvious ahead of time which candidates will do well in caucuses and which won't. Knowing that the caucus turnout is smaller, more educated, wealthier, and whiter that the primary electorate doesn't necessarily help you predict candidate success. Two years ago, if you knew that the Democratic contest was going to come down to a little known black politician from Chicago and Hillary Clinton, whom would you have guessed would be the caucus favorite? Was there any way to predict that Hillary would somehow be perceived as the gun-totin', beer-drinkin' Scranton girl who doesn't trust them fancy economists, and that her rival, the black Chicago community organizer, would be seen as the East Coast elitist? Also, keep in mind that Hillary Clinton could have done quite a bit better in the caucus states if she'd, you know, campaigned there. One other point: did you notice that the Republican caucuses were largely won by Mitt Romney? Is he really the GOP's Obama?

I get that a lot Democratic presidential nominations come down to an insider favorite vs. an egghead (JFK vs. Stephenson in '60, Humphrey vs. RFK/McCarthy in '68, Mondale vs. Hart in '84, Clinton vs. Brown in '92, Gore vs. Bradley in '00, everyone vs. Dean in '04), and that the egghead usually does somewhat better in the caucuses, even if the insider almost always wins the nomination. But is that a reason for disbanding caucuses?

The real test of any nominating system is not whether it's "fairer" or allows greater participation or is more representative or promotes community or protects the secret ballot or anything else. It's whether it produces better nominees than other nominating systems. Keep in mind that of the six Democratic contests I mentioned above, the insider got nominated every time but only won the general election twice.

So, would getting rid of caucuses produce higher quality nominees?

I have no idea. Your thoughts?


APP said...

I'm constantly amazed that the supposed party of the people thinks it is better to have caucuses, which limit the general public's participation.

More accurate is the party of the activists.

Caucuses should be banned for selecting delegates. Too insider.

Seth said...

As Schattschneider said, democracy is to be found between the parties, not within them.

Besides, while the turnout in primaries is far broader than the turnout in caucuses, it's far from universal, and it's not representative of the party's mass membership. Primary participants still tend to be wealthier and more ideologically extreme than the electorate as a whole. We could make participation in primaries mandatory, of course, or we could revisit this notion that parties must be internally democratic.

Anonymous said...

The Obama fans were perfectly happy to talk small-d democratic when it came to discrediting the Superdelegates at a time when it looked like they would bolster Hillary. Now when it comes to defending caucuses which have skewed turnout that is a small fraction of primaries, Obama people are going all Schattschneider. Also, Florida shouldn't vote. Michigan shouldn't vote or re-vote. Primaries not better than caucuses. Is it about small d democracy? No. Is it about following the letter of the rules? No. I think the operative principle underlying these judgments is, what is good for Team Obama is the Platonic ideal of goodness. Glad we got that cleared up!

And really, WHAT caucus "deliberation?" Were there speeches at your caucus that swayed a considerable number of people? In Iowa/Nevada there was an argument that "deliberation" was occurring when the Biden/Richardson/Dodd/Kucinich/Edwards people had to figure out who their second choice was where their guy was not viable, if they hadn't already thought about that. But after the Nevada Caucus that wasn't an issue.

It's just a system that excludes people for no good reason. The caucus-goers are not the organization. They are not officeholders with a stake in the party. They are LESS representative of the party-in-the-electorate than the primary voters. In the case of the Democratic Party, they reflect the values of the donors and the editorialists -who already have disproportionate voice- more than the ordinary voters.

Josh Putnam said...

Distance from 2008 or not, Democrats (and Republicans for that matter) are going to be reliant upon state governments in states that hold caucuses instead of primaries. And as Kansas has already demonstrated in its preparations for 2012, it isn't always that easy to make the switch.

Then again, the national parties could opt to reform the system, but that poses its own problems.

Good post. Thanks for the Pearson link.