How the Iowa caucuses work, part 6: Pros and cons of the caucus system

Wrapping up this year’s Iowa caucus series. Part 1 covered basic elements of the caucus system, part 2 explained why so many Iowans can’t or won’t attend their precinct caucus, part 3 discussed how Democratic caucus math can affect delegate counts, part 4 described how precinct captains help campaigns, and part 5 explained why the caucuses have been called a “pollster’s nightmare.”

When I have criticized some aspects of the Iowa caucus system or called for reforms to allow more Iowans to participate, I have often heard from activists defending the status quo.

This posts lists some leading arguments in favor of the current caucus system, along with my rebuttals.

Caucuses rightly limit participation to a small segment of the electorate that is highly engaged.

From time to time someone tells me it’s good to weed out voters who are only casually interested in politics. Many caucus-goers thoroughly research the candidates and see more than one of them in person. Shouldn’t we want an electorate of highly informed people willing to invest time in making such an important decision?

A person making this argument has not spent much time trying to turn out caucus-goers. Volunteers canvassing or calling active voters encounter lots of people who are highly engaged but, through no fault of their own, are unable to attend the caucuses. Shortly before the 2008 caucuses, Jodi Kantor of the New York Times spoke with many shift workers who were following the presidential race closely and strongly wanted to participate but were unable to get the night off. Asked about an emergency room worker facing exclusion from the presidential nominating process, then Iowa Democratic Party chairman Scott Brennan told Kantor, “there’s always the next cycle.” So much for our party giving everyone a voice.

The Iowa Democratic Party took a few baby steps last year toward including Iowans “who can’t participate in their regular precinct caucus due to a hardship, such as limitations of mobility, distance or time.” (The Republican Party hasn’t made any such accommodations.) Democrats adopted strict criteria for using the new options, though, and the programs weren’t widely publicized. Only about 90 people have signed up for the “tele-caucus,” designed for Iowans living overseas or performing military service out of state. Some 200 people will take advantage of the satellite caucuses, and I’m happy for them. Still, many thousands will be left out of this year’s most exciting political event.

As for a narrow electorate leading to higher quality decision-making, I reject the premise. Lots of people who can’t come to their precinct caucus are well-informed. Even if they were not, we don’t require prospective voters to pass public affairs quizzes or prove their commitment by spending many hours researching the candidates’ policy offerings. The Voting Rights Act prohibited literacy tests for good reasons, and while the caucuses are not subject to federal election requirements, I support the principles that underlie the Voting Rights Act.

Some people defend the caucuses because

The system requires a certain amount of deliberation before people make their final choice.

Here’s one version of this argument:

I love the Iowa system, more states should use it. The Iowa system forces you to stand up and be counted and actually listen to people trying to persuade you to change your mind. How refreshing in a nation where people enter echo chambers and refuse to even consider alternate points of view anymore. True democracy requires exercising your brain, not just your rights.

Truth be told, I haven’t seen much deliberation happening in the caucus room. Most caucus-goers have made up their minds beforehand. Perhaps some people walk in undecided and listen to speeches by their neighbors, but in my experience, a voter with no strong preference doesn’t bother to come to the caucuses.

Anyway, some of the “persuasion” that takes place in Democratic caucuses is just gaming the math to deprive a rival of a delegate, or horsetrading such as promising someone a delegate slot in exchange for joining your group.

In the worst-case scenario, people may feel pressure to stand for a candidate they do not support. I have not seen that happen, but over the years a few people have told me they don’t caucus anymore because of heavy-handed tactics they experienced in their precinct. This problem is more salient for Democrats, who must take a public stance at a caucus, than it is for Republicans, who can try to keep others from seeing how they have marked the ballot.

Even if you agree that not much deliberating goes on during the caucus, you might still like the system because

The second-choice option (in Democratic caucuses) allows Iowans to stand up for a long-shot candidate without fear of “wasting” their votes.

In a primary, there’s an incentive not to vote for a candidate who trails in the polls if you have a preference among the front-runners. In contrast, at a precinct caucus, someone can stand up for Martin O’Malley or Chris Dodd, secure in the knowledge that there will be a chance to support a different candidate if the first choice is not viable.

I’m all for a primary with instant-runoff voting. I like the idea of being able to vote for my favorite candidate while also expressing a preference among candidates likely to pull more support.

The second-choice option is nice, but in reality, the Democratic system “wastes” many people’s votes because of the viability threshold. Shortly before the 2008 caucuses, longtime Iowa journalists Gilbert Cranberry, Herb Strentz, and Glenn Roberts wrote in an op-ed for the New York Times on “Iowa’s Undemocratic Caucuses”:

it is possible that a second or third-tier candidate could garner a surprising 10 percent or 12 percent of the popular vote statewide and get zero delegates. (That’s because to be in the running for a delegate a candidate must have support from at least 15 percent of the people at a precinct caucus.) He or she may have done two or three times as well as expected among Iowa’s Democratic voters and get no recognition for it.

About 10 percent of Democrats in my precinct came to our 2008 caucus intending to support Bill Richardson. Another 8 percent were committed to Joe Biden. By reporting only the number of delegates awarded to viable candidates, the Democratic Party in effect erased their views.

In defense of the 15 percent threshold, some people have argued,

The caucus system eliminates “fringe” candidates.

Traditionally, the Iowa caucuses have not been expected to select presidential nominees. They have instead “winnowed the field” for the later contests. In theory, the parties will be less likely to get stuck with a candidate lacking broad appeal.

Plenty of Republicans who were considered outside the mainstream have finished first or second in the Iowa caucuses. But for now, let’s focus on the Democratic side of things.

Who’s a fringe candidate? Dick Gephardt was not viable in my precinct even in 1988, the year he won the caucuses. There were precincts in 2004 where Dennis Kucinich was viable and one or more of the front-runners were not viable.

Moreover, the viability threshold rewards conformity. Why should my ability to cast a vote in favor of my candidate depend on whether 15 percent of my politically-active neighbors agree with me? Why should support for a second-tier candidate get wiped out in one precinct while the same candidate may win delegates a few miles away?

Finally, the low turnout associated with the caucuses arguably makes it more likely that a candidate with narrow appeal could win. A primary election involving many more Democrats would be more likely to eliminate a fringe candidate.

I agree with the authors of that New York Times op-ed, who argue that the media should press for the Iowa Democratic Party to release the raw numbers of supporters for each candidate, rather than only the delegate counts from the precincts. Whenever I bring this up, I’m told it’s impossible, because New Hampshire would consider that method of caucusing too much like a primary, so Iowa would lose our first-in-the-nation status. In that case, let’s switch to the Republican approach to caucusing, holding a presidential straw poll disconnected from delegate selection.

Some people tell me that despite all its problems, the caucus system is worth saving because

Caucuses are great for party-building.

An acquaintance who is old enough to remember the days before the caucuses were a big deal has impressed upon me how pathetic the Iowa Democratic Party’s organization was at the time. Republicans dominated this state. Over many cycles, Democratic presidential campaigns and their volunteers worked hard to identify supporters in every precinct, which gave the party something to build on. This acquaintance believes Democrats would be in a stronger position nationwide if every state held caucuses instead of primaries.

Conventional wisdom among Iowa political hacks holds that Tom Harkin would never have won his first Senate race if not for the work the presidential campaigns did before the 1984 caucuses. Harkin was running against an incumbent Republican in the huge Reagan landslide year. Though it can’t be proven, I suspect it’s true that the organizational work preceding the caucuses gave Harkin the network that made his victory possible.

To my mind, this argument for the caucus system is the strongest by far.

As much as I would like to see Democrats in every state building networks at the precinct level, I don’t think this benefit outweighs all the downsides. Try telling someone who is disappointed about missing the caucus because of disability or work or family obligations, “Hey, look on the bright side–Democrats are building a strong party organization.”

Another argument in favor of the caucuses is related to this one:

Giving extra weight to rural and small-town voters will benefit Democrats in the general election.

This point isn’t relevant for Republicans, because every person’s ballot across the state counts the same. On the other hand, Democratic caucus-goers in smaller counties often get more “bang for their buck” because of lower turnout, relative to urban strongholds and college towns.

A candidate can win a primary with a commanding majority of votes in population centers, but a Democratic caucus rewards candidates with support spread evenly across the state.

In theory, this helps Democrats select candidates who will play well statewide. To win a majority of seats in the legislature, it helps to have someone at the top of the ticket who can connect with voters outside major metropolitan areas.

The point has merit. Democrats need to improve their performance with rural and small-town voters, not just in Iowa.

As with the previous argument, I don’t think that benefit outweighs all the unfair aspects of the caucus system.

Occasionally I am reminded that

The caucuses build community and social capital.

I love the atmosphere at the precinct caucus. I’ve made friends in the neighborhood and connections that helped us find playmates for our son and dog-sitters for when we travel. My volunteer work before the 2004 and 2008 caucuses introduced me to elderly residents of my neighborhood, whom I was later able to help with general-election absentee ballots.

I used to have a friend in Pella, among Iowa’s most conservative communities. She described the feeling of sitting in a room full of committed Democrats in 2004. She and her husband had previously felt like endangered species in that town. The caucus helped them find and connect with other liberals.

Many politically active Iowans look forward to the caucuses. I’ve often heard people joke that caucus day feels like “Christmas morning.” Ultimately, though, I think the barriers to participation for too many outweigh the community benefits.

In addition, not everyone enjoys the caucus experience. Some people dislike crowds or prefer not to state their political views in public. I believe in the principle of a secret ballot, even where not required by law.

When I have discussed the strange outcomes sometimes produced by caucus math, a few readers have objected that

Caucus math is not “screwy.”

You don’t have to spend long with a caucus calculator (such as this one created by Drew Miller) to create scenarios in which shifting one or two percent of the raw votes leads to big changes in the delegate count. A handful of people at my 2008 caucus made the difference between 2 of the 6 county delegates (33.3 percent) or 3 of the 6 county delegates (50 percent) going to my candidate. The Iowa Democratic Party reported only the delegate numbers.

Any system that reduces the preferences of dozens or hundreds of caucus-goers to a small number of county delegates will occasionally distort the results by magnifying the importance of a small shift in support from one candidate to another.

One other defense of the caucus system is worth mentioning:

The caucuses give rank-and-file Democrats access to the party machinery and a chance to influence the party’s platform.

Writing at Iowa Independent in 2007, John Deeth vigorously defended the caucuses as representative democracy in action:

labeling the process itself “undemocratic” is unfair. The caucuses are as democratic as it gets. But they aren’t a direct democracy — they’re a representative democracy. A complicated, multi-level representative democracy, but still a democracy.

Those delegates that the national press views as mere number complicators are living, breathing people, neighborhood-level leaders elected to represent the Democrats of their precinct at a county convention. This convention chooses the district and state convention delegates that choose the national convention delegates. And it’s the national convention delegates, not the raw vote count, that determines the nomination.

The county convention also has some statutory authority. If there’s a vacancy in a courthouse office and a special election is needed, there’s no primary. The county convention chooses the nominee, and in a county dominated by one party, that can be decisive. In my county, conventions have nominated three county candidates in the last dozen years. Conventions can also choose nominees if a primary is indecisive and no candidate wins more than 35 percent. After a four-way split in the 2002 primary, the 5th District Republican convention essentially elected Steve King to Congress.

Deeth has a point. I have no idea how it works in primary states, but in Iowa an assertive person who wants to be a delegate to a county convention has a good chance of getting elected to that position at a precinct caucus. The county convention selects state delegates for the presidential voting, among other things.

My posts have focused on the presidential candidate selection part of the caucuses, but after that is completed, attendees have a chance to debate and approve or reject resolutions for the county platform. I have brought many resolutions to my precinct caucuses, usually drafted by non-profit groups with which I am involved. Individuals can also submit resolutions they have written themselves. This post explained how to write a party platform resolution and provided some examples.

Most resolutions get approved at the precinct caucus, though many of them don’t pass the next levels of scrutiny: county platform committees and county conventions. I don’t know how party platforms are drafted in primary states, but I imagine it’s more difficult for an ordinary voter to become involved in the process.

Again, I don’t believe that benefit outweighs the many problems of the current caucus system. I would like both parties to adopt reforms including some kind of absentee ballot to expand the electorate. Democrats should consider holding a straw poll like Republicans do, so that caucus-goers can keep their preferences private, and every person’s “vote” carries the same weight. If Democratic Party leaders insist on keeping our current system, they should negotiate with counterparts in New Hampshire to find a way to report (without threatening our state’s place in the nominating calendar) how many Iowa caucus-goers supported each candidate during the first division into preference groups.

If I have left out your favorite argument in favor of the caucuses, please post a comment, and I will update with my response.

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