Caucuses vs. primaries

Illustrations By Gorgeous George

Four years ago, when Nevada’s early presidential nominating caucuses were held for the first time, there was a substantial undercurrent of unhappiness with them—so much so that Nevada Senate Democratic leader Dina Titus said she intended to introduce legislation to end the caucuses and replace them with a presidential primary election. The caucuses, she said, were complicated and caused hostility.

A presidential primary turned out to be a non-starter—the state did not have the money to pay for it—but the unhappiness remained. So does the question of whether what comes out at the end of the caucuses is a fair reflection of public sentiment.

A caucus is essentially a neighborhood meeting in which residents—Republicans, in this case—from the same precinct sit around and discuss the presidential candidates. They talk about the candidates’ stands on issues, their strengths and weaknesses and their chances of beating the Democrats. Then, with the benefit of those discussions, which will be on Feb. 4, they vote for delegates to represent their precinct at the county GOP convention. That, at least, is the way things are supposed to work.

With the second round of caucuses scheduled in six weeks, the issue is being raised again whether caucuses are suited to Nevada, and last week there was even a published threat to sue if the state’s 2012 Republican caucuses do not fulfill some critics’ expectations.

Source of some of the criticism of caucuses—and of primaries, for that matter—is a widespread misunderstanding of their purpose. They are not intended to select presidential candidates. Rather, they are one step in the process of selecting national party convention delegates who will select presidential nominees.

Some participants in the 2008 caucuses felt the events were too controlled.

Nevada political scientist Fred Lokken said criticism of this feature is sort of beside the point because one purpose of caucuses, particularly on the GOP side, is to make sure party leaders “have much more control” over the delegate selection process. In Iowa, he said, there are even more rigorous rules—participants must also join the Republican Party organization and pay stiff membership fees.

The leadership control can mean that caucusing “never really reflects the party sentiment,” Lokken said. That is, the caucuses may tend to reflect the choices of party insiders more than of grass roots party members.

Another misunderstanding is the nature of political parties. In the end, they are basically private organizations, and caucuses make it easier for party leaders to make sure that only members of the organization choose their leaders. Democrats, they believe, have no right to choose the Republican nominee for president or vice versa. There have been instances in states like New Hampshire and Wisconsin of Democrats voting in Republican primaries and vice versa.

The parties are more or less rigorous about curbing this kind of thing depending on the politics of the moment. In 2008, Democrats, demonstrating openness in the party, allowed anyone who was registered Democratic to participate, and there were deputy registrars on hand to register people as they arrived. Republicans, on the other hand, required participants to be registered a month before the caucuses. “We wanted to know that Republicans were voting in the Republican caucus,” said Washoe GOP chair Heidi Smith. That one-month threshold has been shortened to 14 days this year.

Because the parties are basically private groups like the Red Cross or the American Civil Liberties Union, their presidential nominating events—caucuses and primaries—are not subject to the level of judicial oversight that the public election agencies are. In 2008, the Hillary Clinton campaign sued to try to stop some caucuses held for casino workers in their workplaces, but a judge threw the suit out of court.

In addition, the caucuses are part of these party organizations’ way of doing business. They are held in all election years, not just presidential years, because they are the way of beginning the delegate selection process for county and state party conventions held every two years.

Illustration By Gorgeous George

Caucuses are also something like debating societies, and it can be argued that selection of delegates favoring presidential candidates is a more thoughtful process than primaries. The assets and liabilities of candidates are discussed and argued, with some candidates eliminated as the caucus goes on.

Party officials of states that try to get early dates for their presidential caucuses or primaries often say that they want their states’ issues addressed. Whether that happens is far from certain. In 2008, other than Yucca Mountain, candidates—particularly Republicans—tended to avoid taking positions on Nevada issues (“The Sound of Silence,” RN&R, Dec. 20, 2007). An example is Barack Obama on what in 2008 was already a horrendous foreclosure rate in Nevada. Obama described the problem—“People have been losing homes here in Nevada because of the home foreclosure crisis. Especially in the Latino community and the African-American community … people [are] getting low-interest loans that suddenly turn into high-interest loans” But he didn’t say what he would do about it.

Lokken said there is some substantive evidence for the notion that early states have more influence. He cited a study that came out last summer. “It found that primary and caucus voters in early states have five times the influence of later primary and caucus voters,” he said. “March has become almost irrelevant.” But he was referring to influence on the outcome of the nominating campaign. Influence on issue discussions is another matter.

Ken Bode, who was research director of the delegate selection commission that reformed Democratic Party rules in 1970 and once managed a Nevada U.S. Senate campaign, wrote in a recent email exchange with us that there is another change as the primary and caucus contests unroll after the first historic two.

“The best part of the extended campaign season for the Iowa caucuses is one that is often overlooked,” Bode said. “It is not what the candidates tell the voters, but what the presidential hopefuls learn from direct contact with real people. After Iowa and New Hampshire opportunities are rare for those who would be president to spend time listening [to] the people who have faced foreclosed mortgages, lost jobs or simply can’t find one, small business people or small factory owners who want sensible immigration policies because they can’t find workers.”

He went on, “These complexities in the electorate are submerged in campaign schedules devoted to tarmac rallies and fundraisers in corporate boardrooms. After the first couple of contests, it’s all campaigning by airplane and paid TV ads. But if you schedule a caucus in the middle of the hyper-primary schedule, don’t expect to get the kind of candidate-voter contact that makes Iowa so unique.”

Syndicated columnist Jules Witcover, when asked whether caucuses are useful for a state like Nevada, described what caucuses demand.

“As a rule, caucuses better serve a highly motivated and politically aware electorate that engages in issue discussion and debate prior to and during the actual caucus night process, whereas in a primary, little more is involved than showing up and voting, usually by predetermined disposition,” he said. “The caucus, if properly conducted, is a final opportunity to persuade one’s neighbors or to be persuaded, and to weigh in for another candidate if you change your mind. In a primary, you vote your choice and get no second chance.”

Nevada is usually in the bottom five in the nation in voter turnout, which does not suggest a “highly motivated and politically aware electorate.” Some of the Nevada complaints about caucusing have been that instead of being vote-and-go like primaries, it is time-consuming to caucus.

This year, many Republican candidates have passed up competing in Nevada. “[T]hey’re currently shaking hands at coffee shops and pizza joints in towns as small as Clarinda—population 5,301—in the Hawkeye State of Iowa, while Nevada media invitations go unanswered,” the Las Vegas Review-Journal complained last week. Newt Gingrich, a major candidate, is not a factor in the state. On the other hand, in 2008 more candidates participated.

Another frustration for some participants in caucuses is that victories won do not necessarily stick. After a candidate wins, that candidate must then make sure that all the delegates he or she won in the caucuses then attend later county and state party conventions. That requires further commitments of time and energy.

In 2008, neither Nevada winner was able to hold on to victory, though for different reasons.

On the Republican side, Mitt Romney won the Jan. 19 Nevada caucuses with 51.1 percent. Ron Paul came in second with 13.7 percent. But Romney’s campaign did a poor job of getting his delegates to the April state GOP convention while Paul’s campaign did an excellent job. Paul’s forces, using text messaging to stay in communication on the convention floor, dominated the proceedings and were poised to win the delegate count when party officials reserved Romney. They adjourned the convention, later selecting national delegates in a party committee—thus rendering the whole delegate selection process, including the caucuses and conventions, unnecessary.

Illustration By Gorgeous George

On the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton beat Barack Obama 50.73 to 45.17 percent. At the time of the caucuses Obama claimed that party caucus rules actually assured him of more delegates to the national convention. That claim was never tested because by the time the Democratic state convention was held in May, it was apparent that Obama was going to win the presidential nomination and that inevitability assured that he would receive a majority of national delegates that he did not actually win in the caucuses.

But the disparity between caucus and state convention results cannot be blamed on caucuses. It’s also present in states that use presidential primary elections.

The Republicans are dominating this year’s caucuses, because the Democratic selection of a candidate is pro forma. The leaders of the Nevada Republican Party have always had their enthusiasm for early Nevada caucuses firmly in hand. They were not crazy about the idea in 2008, because it came under the sponsorship of Democratic U.S. Sen. Harry Reid.

In July, when state GOP chair Amy Tarkanian took over the state party, she brushed off questions about the caucuses, saying that higher priorities were raising money, recruiting candidates, and getting voters to register Republican. At least one county Republican chair who must administer the caucuses has called for replacing them with a presidential primary. Until recently, the state Republican website had no information on the caucuses. Las Vegas reporter Laura Myers reports the Nevada GOP did not even keep a list of all its 2008 caucus participants, which would be an invaluable resource this year for both the party and candidates.

Some critics of this year’s relatively confused process—different county Republican parties are following different procedures—believe the basic GOP disdain for the early Nevada caucuses is responsible.

In 1969, state legislator Norman Hilbrecht got a bill through the Nevada Legislature to give the state the first presidential primary in the nation. But a New Hampshire official promised that his state would move its primary back to preserve its first in the nation status. Rather than trigger a competition that would keep pushing back the start of delegate selection, Gov. Paul Laxalt vetoed the bill.

Thirty years later, Hilbrecht said, “I have the feeling that we are going into regional primaries, and it would be more important for Nevada, probably, to team up with another state like, maybe, California or Arizona, Utah, Wyoming, Montana. If you got this group, everybody would get a fair showing. If you team up with California, they are a country unto themselves. That wouldn’t be appropriate.”

The problem was that by the time Hilbrecht made that statement, Nevada had already tried it, and it failed. In 1984, Nevada joined its caucuses with nine other states—five with primaries, four with caucuses—in holding their events on the same day, that year’s March 13 “Super Tuesday.” Nevada got little attention from the candidates and on Election Day, the press focused nearly all coverage on two large-population Southern states.

The state tried something similar in 1976 and had more luck. It held its first contemporary presidential primary election on May 25 along with six other states. Three of the six were small Western states. Candidates paid a good deal of attention to Nevada, but except for a trip by candidate Jerry Brown to Ely, they gave Western issues little attention. The state voted for two California governors—Democrat Brown and Republican Ronald Reagan—with the result that some commentators wrote off the Nevada results because the winners were from a state that shared overlapping media markets with Nevada.

The 1976 primary, the first contemporary presidential primary in the state—there had been a 1912 Democratic primary won by Champ Clark of Missouri—was supposed to cost less than $100,000 but cost about twice that. Those figures would certainly be much higher today. The state gave a primary another try in 1980, but then discontinued it because of the cost. The state pays for presidential primaries. The state’s political parties must bear the cost of caucuses, and they are held whether a primary is conducted or not. Legislators later empowered the state’s political parties to have the option of conducting primaries, and in 1996 the Nevada Republican Party opted for a primary. It was conducted by mail, the first statewide mail election in Nevada history. Robert Dole won in a field of 11 Republican candidates, but even given the ease of voting, turnout was only 49.4 percent of registered, not eligible, voters. The primary cost $555,483.01. (There was some dispute over what expenses were allowable to county governments.)

Caucuses are probably less likely to bring big money into states than primaries. There is less polling, for instance. Opinion surveys are of limited utility in caucuses because the number of participants is small and difficult to identify in polling. In 2008 just before the caucuses, a Reno Gazette-Journal survey showed Obama leading Clinton by two points and a Las Vegas survey showed his lead at five points. Clinton won.

For similar reasons, television advertising—which represents big money—is of less value in caucus states than in primary states, and is used less by candidates. As a result, less money for advertising is poured into the economies of caucus states. “They’re doing advertising in Iowa, but it’s not common,” Lokken said at the end of December. “Certainly if you look at the financial impact of New Hampshire versus Iowa, it shows the difference.” Iowa is a caucus state, New Hampshire a primary state, and more advertising is done in New Hampshire.

In 2008, the excitement of the Obama/Clinton race, the get-out-the-vote effort of U.S. Sen. Harry Reid’s operation, and the novelty of the new early Nevada Democratic caucuses pushed participation t0 what the party said was a third of all registered Democrats in the state. No one expects that kind of performance to repeat itself at the Republican caucuses on Feb. 4 or at the Democratic caucuses on Jan. 21.

It should be noted that few complained about the caucus system until they became aware of it with the advent of early Nevada caucuses in 2008. For election after election for more than a century, the state used caucuses for its participation in presidential elections without anyone complaining. They weren’t called that, as they were generally known as mass meetings or precinct meetings—their name in state law—but generically they were caucuses. It was presidential primaries that were the exception, and primaries were allowed to die out with few complaints.

There’s no question that a primary provides ease of participation—in and out, cast a vote, and that’s it. Caucuses are more time-consuming and require sustained effort through county and state conventions. It’s a personal judgment, and a subjective one, whether citizenship demands that kind of commitment.

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Dennis Myers
About Dennis Myers 1397 Articles
Dennis Myers was the news editor of the Reno News & Review. He was a journalist for more than four decades. In 1987-88 he was chief deputy secretary of state of Nevada. He was coauthor of Uniquely Nevada, a children’s history textbook, and a contributor to the books The Mythical West and Covering the Courts in Nevada. In September, 2020, he was inducted into the Nevada Newspaper Hall of Fame.