The Third Estate
What Is The Third Estate?
What Has It Been Until Now In The Political Order?
What Does It Want To Be?

What's So Bad About Caucuses?

Tuesday, February 12, 2008
In part to avoid doing any real work, and in part out of masochism, I've been reading some of the comments regarding the presidential election on prominent liberal political blogs. Like a lot of folks, I've been a little disgusted with the vituperation coming from both sides. With some exceptions, the candidates have run pretty clean campaigns, but some of their supporters can get a bit....enthusiastic. It's frustrating to me that such small differences get magnified out of all proportion during a primary campaign. But I suppose stuff like this is inevitable.

In any case, one of the persistent memes floating around is that there's something wrong with caucuses - that somehow only primary elections are legitimate expressions of voter preference. The argument goes something like this: primary elections are a lot like general elections, where voters can make an anonymous decision that takes up relatively little time, whereas a caucus is a time-consuming public event, which could discriminate against working people or those who don't want to spend 3-4 hours arguing in public about politics.

The argument that caucuses are unrepresentative demographically isn't very persuasive, since caucuses take place on the weekends or at night. Where they are truly unrepresentative is in terms of interest - they advantage candidates who have a strong base of committed supporters. Which frankly is one of the reasons I like them. Primaries are very good at measuring the preferences of voters, but not so good at taking into account intensity of support. I contend that a candidate who has a hard core of enthusiastic supporters might be preferable in a general election than a candidate who has the lukewarm backing of a larger number of people - particularly if the latter group is willing to vote for the former's candidate (if they weren't, their intensity level would go up, wouldn't it?).

Caucuses are also a form of democracy that has nearly been lost - the democracy of face to face communication. Primaries are isolated events reflective of an isolated society. Caucuses give us an opportunity to meet our neighbors and hear what they have to say, face to face.

Finally, caucuses are much more effective in building up a party infrastructure than primaries. Caucuses can be the training ground of a new group of activists, while primaries tend to be one-off affairs in which television advertising in paramount.

I can understand why a lot of Clinton supporters are unhappy with the results of the caucus elections - I would be too. But Clinton's struggles have less to do with the structure of caucuses than her campaign's own strategic decision-making. Clinton has her own strong supporters, and there's no reason that her campaign can't get them to attend a caucus if tries. The reason Clinton has been losing most of the caucuses isn't that they're inherently unfair - it's that she didn't think they would matter. That was a strategic error, no different that Obama's failure to reach out earlier to Latinos. It has nothing whatsoever to do with the fairness of the process.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 8:12 AM
  • I don't disagree that a candidate with hard-core supporters would be preferable in a general election. But I don't think that means that hardship should be built into the system to weed out the non-fanatical supporters. After all, you wouldn't (I presume) argue for putting primary polling stations at the top of 20 flights of stairs so only the truly committed would get to cast their votes.

    I know many couples with children who took turns watching the kids while the other partner went to vote. That only works in a primary system, not a caucus. And then there are single parents, the handicapped, people who work on weekends and evenings, and those who simply don't have 3 hours to spare, for whom caucusing would create logistical problems.

    As for having an opportunity to hear what our neighbors have to say face-to-face, I think that sounds like a nice ideal. But I've seen the signs my neighbors have put up on their lawns over the past few elections, and I can honestly say I have absolutely zero interest in hearing it face-to-face.

    By Blogger Mad Hatter, at 9:01 AM  
  • Thanks for commenting!

    I don't think caucuses should (or do) screen out all but the most fanatic supporters - hence this year's higher turnout. Caucus turnout has generally been low in the past because 1) candidates didn't bother with them because they're harder than primaries, and 2) the voters didn't think they mattered.

    No I wouldn't argue for putting the primary boxes on a flight of stairs! The problems with child care, work, or disabilities is a real one - which is why a lot of states have incorporated a "drop off" ballot kind of like an absentee ballot. It undermines the idea of a caucus a bit, but I'm okay with that. I'm pretty sure you can bring your kids to a caucus. I also think that greater efforts need to be made to make sure that people can have time off for political participation - but that's another story.

    As for your neighbors, I can only assume that people with those sorts of yard signs wouldn't be attending a caucus you'd be at. I don't mean your literal neighbors - just people in your general area who have the same basic political perspective.

    By Blogger Arbitrista, at 9:23 AM  
  • Ah...that's a good point. This is my first presidential primary/election as a US citizen and I'm still trying to wrap my head around the whole primary process. It would be interesting to see who else in the neighborhood shares my political opinions. But I'm not hopeful--not so many years ago there were Pat Buchanan signs up nearby. And I'm obviously not bitter about that at all!

    Do you think peer pressure affects the outcome of caucuses?

    I totally agree, by the way, that people should be given time off to vote. Why isn't election day a national holiday?

    By Blogger Mad Hatter, at 9:42 AM  
  • A little clarity is needed here, especially for people who are new citizens like mad hatter. The whole idea of a primary is fairly new. Before 1972, the general practice was for each state to send a selection of delegates for favorite sons, and then for party elders to make the final decisions based on general election viability. In any election, the tension is between access and an honest vote. If access is open to everyone, then there is the potential for abuse: voting multile times, having your true preference altered by peer pressure, and outright fraud. if access is open but based on a private decision, the problem of voting multiple times and peer pressure are probably fixed. A primary tends to make a compromise between access and potential for fraud. However, the sole problem with a primary is that you don't get to measure your intensity, or other people's intensity. A democracy, ultimately, is about engaging in a deliberative process. That means being open to your neighbors' ideas even if you strongly disagree with them. A primary reduces that deliberative process to the candidate and the voter, thus breaking up everyone into distinct demographic and interest groups who merely engage in rent-seeking behavior - voting for the candidate to extract favorable policies. However, a caucus expands the deliberative process to all participants, and this allows for a greater expression of civic virtue and community. The problem is that civic virtue and community have weakened, or even vanished, in the past 40 years because people don't have the time to take part in the process if they work or have children. The whole principle of "community" is having a stake in the lives of other people, and that stake includes your job.

    Thus, I see a caucus as better than a primary precisely because it forces people to listen to each other, not just the candidates. This practice builds civic skills, such as persuasion and organization, that we have lost but sorely need now.

    By Blogger Marriah, at 10:37 AM  
  • Ugh. Pat Buchanan. What a nightmare.

    There's not much evidence that peer pressure effects caucuses, since there are groups of people there rather than just a few. If you were the only supporter of a particular candidate, I can see how that would be intimidating, but if there are a bunch of you, then a "we-group" dynamic probably forms. But that's just a guess. There's probably research on it somewhere....

    I have no idea why elections are not national holidays. It's disgraceful.

    By Blogger Arbitrista, at 10:57 AM  
  • Arbitrista--My apologies in advance for hijacking your comment thread to respond to Marriah's comments.

    "A little clarity is needed here, especially for people who are new citizens like mad hatter.... A democracy, ultimately, is about engaging in a deliberative process. That means being open to your neighbors' ideas even if you strongly disagree with them."

    What would we new citizens do without such instruction in the meaning of democracy?!

    First, caucusing would not lead to discourse between me and those with whom I strongly disagree because, as Arbitrista points out, we are unlikely to participate in the same caucus.

    Second, I don't agree that primaries preclude or impede the deliberative process because I don't think that process is limited to the day of voting, but rather takes place over time at the dinner table, in restaurants and bars, and whenever and wherever people gather to discuss the issues. Primaries simply dissociate the deliberative process from the dog and pony show. For example, the election is a common topic of conversation among my colleagues. Being academics, most of us are, predictably, some shade of liberal. But the presence of many immigrants who grew up with different political systems, foreigners who are keenly interested despite not being eligible to vote, and the somewhat outnumbered conservatives who participate anyway, enables a breadth of discourse that simply would not exist in a caucus representing my residential neighborhood. In this community, the deliberative process is alive and well despite our being deprived of caucuses.

    The advantage of primaries is that it allows people to choose when, where, and with whom to engage in the deliberative process instead of dictating those parameters and holding people's votes hostage for the duration of the mandatory discourse. Frankly, anyone who needs a caucus in order to participate in a deliberative process probably isn't a model of "civic virtue," whatever that means. And the insinuation that people will always vote based on pure self-interest unless they are first corralled in a room for three hours with a bunch of other people is patently absurd.

    Third, one reason, aside from lack of time, for the decline in a sense of community is increased mobility, which results in greater numbers of people residing in neighborhoods to which they have no particular ties. Neither my husband nor I are from the state in which we live, and we are outliers in our neighborhood by every demographic measure I can think of. For us, caucusing with a "community" based on geography is as compelling as caucusing with people who share our brand of shampoo. If you assume people are intelligent and committed enough to derive true benefit from a caucus, why not assume they are also intelligent and committed enough to participate in a deliberative process in their own way without the coercion?

    Finally, I don't get the argument about intensity of support. Should 5 fanatical skinheads outweigh 5 people who believe in racial equality but don't necessarily commit their entire lives to activism?

    By Blogger Mad Hatter, at 11:48 PM  
  • I appreciate the comments by Mad Hatter. I think they can be placed under three categories:
    1) The proper conditions for a “true” deliberative process
    2) The division between urban and rural political norms
    3) The utility of persuasion

    I agree that deliberation can and does take place outside of the formal structure of a caucus. Talking about an election at the dinner table, in a restaurant, or at a party is evidence of the deliberative process at work. However, a deliberative process ideally operates under the dialectical process. When you talk about issues in your local community, there are no constraints on the discussion. That’s what discussion is for: to explore possibilities. A caucus imposes necessary constraints that are not present elsewhere. By forcing people to achieve a viability requirement (15% or so), a caucus forces critical assessments of one’s judgments so that one makes a compromise. In a conversation with colleagues at work, or with friends at a dinner party, Candidate A and Issue 1 may be the main topic of discussion, but the caucus forces the attendants to verify that the issues and the candidates actually match. In this way, it’s far more substantive than a mere conversation at work or at home. A caucus presents stakes that would otherwise not be considered. Primaries don’t do that. The “dog and pony show matters a great deal because you get to see, visually, which candidates attract support from which people, and you find out why instantly. A low-stakes conversation, I think, is much less meaningful than a high-stakes discussion where the words matter for the choice of delegates because people physically leave or join groups.

    A caucus is mainly intended for people living close together in a rural setting. A primary is designed for mass numbers in an urban setting. Since cities are mainly associated with factory work and labor, a caucus in an urban setting does disenfranchise people by providing access only to those who can physically appear. Thus, large states like New York and California hold primaries while small states hold caucuses. A caucus in a large state would be logistically problematic. But in a small state with a largely rural population, a caucus is ideal.

    Finally, Mad Hatter asks: “Should 5 fanatical skinheads outweigh 5 people who believe in racial equality but don't necessarily commit their entire lives to activism?” The answer is yes. Radicals tend to shape opinions, even if the opinion is to oppose the radicals. You could reverse the question: should 5 non-violent protesters for racial equality who engage in civil disobedience by blocking traffic in the middle of a busy street outweigh the 5 people who are silent racists? The answer is, again, yes. The act of civil disobedience may persuade the silent racists to change their minds because of the extreme display. Intensity is best measured by physical actions, and intensity may persuade people more than moderate opinions.

    By Blogger Marriah, at 3:40 AM  
Post a Comment
<< Home

:: permalink