Caucuses still primary

Photo By DENNIS MYERS Voters checked in at a Republican caucus site in Sparks in February.

After some reporters were inconvenienced in the Iowa and Nevada Republican caucuses in January and February, there was considerable agitation—especially by online sites—to do away with caucuses.

“Unable to control how its county parties count and report results, state Republicans were scrambling Sunday to explain why, almost 24 hours after most caucuses ended, the votes still have not been counted,” Politico reported after the Nevada caucuses.

As much as anything, the “problem” appeared to be young reporters who hadn’t understood that caucus vote-counting is slower than primary vote counting. “After back-to-back fiascos in Nevada and Iowa, the term ‘caucus’ may be on its way to becoming a bad word in the GOP lexicon,” reported the Associated Press in a story that quoted Nevada Assembly GOP Leader Pat Hickey: “The average voter does not want to go to an event that is going to take one, two or three hours.”

But there was never any likelihood that the political parties—and least of all the Republicans—would do away with caucuses. And that was something that many of their critics failed to understand—that the caucus process was under the control of the parties, not the government.

Caucuses are only secondarily presidential selection events. They are, first, the way the political parties do business—electing officers and adopting policy positions every two years, not just in presidential years. In other words, they are events held not by the government but by private organizations, and those organizations make use of them for more than selecting presidential candidates. Some states have presidential primaries. All states have caucuses.

But presidential selection—or rather selection of delegates to presidential nominating conventions—is when the caucuses get most of the attention.

The military vote

“Showing up is 80 percent of life,” Woody Allen once said.

Nowhere is that truer than in caucuses, which demand a commitment of time. Participants arrive, register, meet with other people from their own neighborhoods, declare their support for a presidential candidate—and possibly for a second choice if their first choice does not meet a threshold—and elect delegates to a county convention. What happened in Tampa and Charlotte in the last couple of weeks all began at these “local precinct meetings,” which is actually the legally correct term for them in Nevada.

“Caucuses give you a real sense of democracy,” said Ken Bode, former NBC reporter and aide to several presidential candidates. “You have an opportunity to be with your neighbors. You probably get a more involved electorate. There’s diversity and interest in the process. It takes more time to sit in the caucuses, that’s for sure.” He said some people, including journalists, “don’t understand caucuses and haven’t taken the time to understand them.”

Those who want caucuses replaced with primaries are often the people who oppose government spending. Primaries are paid for by the government, caucuses by the political parties. Nevada once had a presidential primary, but it was eliminated as too expensive. State law now allows the parties the option of holding primaries, but when the GOP did it in 1996, it cost more than half a million dollars and the turnout was poor.

Last month, the Republican National Convention in Tampa did make a challenging change that future GOP caucuses will have to deal with. Beginning in the next presidential election—not the midterm conventions of 2014—state Republican Parties will have to make an effort to include absentee military voters and injured servicepeople in caucuses.

“Time, distance, and military regulations preclude … service members from coming home to Iowa to participate in caucus night activities,” retired Navy officer Sam Wright wrote to Iowa GOP leaders. “Is it too much to ask that you make arrangements to give them a reasonable opportunity to participate in the nomination of a presidential candidate in 2016 and beyond?”

It’s not clear how this will work in Iowa or any other caucus state. By their very nature, caucuses demand a physical presence. A succession of decisions by each participant is made on the spot, each dependent on the outcome of the previous one. How does an absentee participant choose who to vote to send to the county convention, since the county delegates are not nominated until the day of the caucus? How do they designate their presidential choices after the first round of voting at the meeting eliminates some candidates?

Bode, who once served as research director for a Democratic Party delegate selection commission, said, “It’s a very impractical thing.” He considered and rejected in his comments ways the overseas voters could be accommodated.

Being there

Showing up is something that some candidates’ supporters do better than others. Ron Paul’s supporters appear to be the current champs. They turned a third-place showing in the Nevada caucuses in February into a Paul delegation from Nevada to the Republican National Convention this year by showing up in force at both county and state conventions while Romney’s supporters were less diligent.

At the Tampa convention, Republican leaders wanted new delegate selection rules to keep that kind of thing from happening. One rule they proposed would have allowed a candidate to overrule state conventions and choose his or her own delegates. That was a bit much, with many delegates—certainly including the Nevadans—believing that would turn the process into even more of an insiders club and give still more advantages to candidates with money, blocking grass roots movements.

The party leaders more or less gave up, agreeing to a rule that merely binds delegates to the candidates they are chosen to represent.

The notion of binding delegates is a relatively recent one. During most of U.S. political history, delegates were free agents, able to move from candidate to candidate as the convention unfolded. In those days, the principal concern was selecting a leader for the party who could win the election, and the delegates were the experts since they ran the campaigns at the grass roots. Today, however, delegates are more issue-oriented, and the most passionate, highly motivated delegates often line up behind candidates that party leaders believe cannot win, as with Democrat Howard Dean in 2008 and Republican Ron Paul this year. Such highly motivated delegates were among those who successfully blocked the rule that would have allowed a candidate to overrule a state convention.

But then a second rule was adopted that would allow the Republican National Committee to change the party’s rules before 2016. In the voice convention vote, it was not clear who won, but John Boehner—who was presiding—declared the rule passed. If that was not enough of a power play, convention officials decided to change the convention rules after the convention was already under way in order to prevent Ron Paul’s name from even being placed in nomination. It was a little like deciding in the second inning to require two strikes for an out by one of the teams. It was an affront to Paul and his supporters at a time when a party’s leaders normally are trying to bring losing candidates into the party fold.

While most of the action on caucus rules this year is on the Republican side, the Democrats are more certain than Republicans to have a stake in how caucuses work next time around. That’s because whether Barack Obama wins or loses, the Democratic race will be open in 2016. But on the Republican side, it will likely be open only if Romney loses. If he wins, the 2016 GOP caucuses will probably be as pro-forma as were this year’s Democratic caucuses.

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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.