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April 01, 2008

The Reason State Parties Like Caucuses

posted by Josh Goodman

They're undemocratic, they're complicated, they're confusing. So why would anyone love a caucus?

The chairman of the Texas Democratic Party told the Dallas Morning News why he doesn't think his party should eliminate its presidential caucus:

"People who are not political junkies may come away feeling that this is a real contact blood sport – and I couldn't blame them," said state Democratic Party Chairman Boyd Richie.

"But it's a terrific party-building tool," he said. "We now have hundreds of thousands of new people we had no way of reaching before."

Translation: It's all about building a mailing list.



I get really tired of hearing about how undemocratic caucuses are (I hear it a lot from the Hillary campaign lately, but also lots of other places). First let me point out that a party selecting its leaders & standard bearers is not that same as an election. That most parties tend to do so in election format for most offices is a product of our love of Democracy in America-- but the goal is to a) nominate candidates who represent the best ideals of our party b) nominate candidates who would be good public servants in office, c) nominate candidates who will advocate for ideas in line with our party (as opposed to the other party) and d) nominate candidates who will be able to win the general election.

There is no inherent reason why a large primary is the best way to find and nominate such candidates.

Secondly- there are three groups who make a party function. 1) The party faithful / activists / volunteers / grassroots who do the hard work of keeping things going. 2) The big financial backers who keep the lights on and doors open 3) the public who vote in the general election for a party's candidate.

A primary allows group 3 (the public) to have a double say. They get to have a say in the nomination, and again in the general. This is especially true of open primaries where independents and even members of other parties can vote in your party primary. The old school nominating conventions of the pre 1970's reforms (and especially the 19th century) gave group 2 (the $$ people) a double or even tripple say. That's because in order to be a viable candidate, one must have already woo'ed the finical backers of your party and secured substantial support. Once in office, the financial backers continue to need to be courted, and continue to have a major influence. I don't think anyone would argue that the rich have too little say in public policy.

But the grassroots of a party is continually the group that gets left out and spit upon. Often ignored by the party staffers (who will always side with the financial backers who pay their salary) and the party leadership (who disproportionately are members of the upper class already)-- the people who give their blood and sweat to keep the machine running, are often ignored when it comes time to pick a leader.

Caucuses allow the party faithful to have a bigger say in who gets nominated, and that's not undemocratic at all.

Imagine a 4H club at your local college. How should they elect their next club president? Should they open the vote up to everyone who has ever signed up to be on their mailing list (which would turn into a popularity contest)? No. They should have a vote of those people who show up to the meetings and make the club run.

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