Democracy Soup

Making sense out of the world of politics

To be a presidential nominee, you must master caucuses and primaries

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Originally published on on Tue, 06/03/2008 – 9:46am

Welcome to Super Final Tuesday*. As the great philosopher Kenny Loggins once said, “This is It.” * (at least until November)

Montana and South Dakota are in the spotlight for the first time, since, well, uh, a long time. They are two of the many overlooked states in this process.

We are celebrating, well, perhaps, celebrating is not the right word, acknowledging about 40 years of the non-smoke-filled rooms in deciding a president. And this primary season has been the first in a long time where people who are traditionally not into politics are observing the process for the very first time.

And it’s fair to say that many would love to change the process. Take power away from Iowa and New Hampshire. Set up regional primaries. Stop moving up the process so candidates are eliminated by January 3.

But one move has been proposed, and it’s been almost exclusively from the Hillary Clinton campaign and her supporters: Caucuses are bad; primaries are better.

Some states have had caucuses and others have had primaries. Texas had both.

Barack Obama did do better than Hillary Clinton in the caucuses. But if you think Clinton has a huge advantage in the primaries, take a look at the numbers:

Caucuses Obama (15)
Iowa, Alaska, Colorado, Idaho, Kansas, Minnesota, North Dakota, Nebraska, Washington, Maine, Hawaii, Texas, Wyoming, Guam, Virgin Islands

Caucuses Clinton (2)
Nevada, American Samoa

Primaries Obama (18)
South Carolina, Alabama, Connecticut, Delaware, Georgia, Illinois, Missouri, Utah, Louisiana, D.C., Maryland, Virginia, Wisconsin, Vermont, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oregon, Democrats Abroad

Primaries Clinton (20)
New Hampshire, Michigan, Florida, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Ohio, Rhode Island, Texas, Pennsylvania, Indiana, West Virginia, Kentucky, Puerto Rico

In a recent letter from a Hillary Clinton supporter to BuzzFlash, we were asked if we weren’t “in favor of one person one vote? A vote that is secret, not a product of the bullies in a caucus is what democracy is all about.”

Well, 40 of the 57 contests are primaries. If Obama wins Montana and South Dakota, he will have as many primary wins as Clinton. That counts Michigan and Florida (where Clinton was more well-known) and California (which Obama would likely have won if it were held now).

The caucus system seems a little strange, but in smaller states and territories, it may be a practical way of determining a candidate. But in looking at the size of the states that use the caucuses, the vast majority of the states are made up of low-population states. Of the 17 caucuses, 3 are territories; and 10 of the 14 states have a population of less than 3 million people: Wyoming (50 in population), North Dakota (48), Alaska (47), Hawaii (42), Maine (40), Idaho (39), Nebraska (38), Nevada (35), Kansas (33), and Iowa (30). And Texas doesn’t really count, since they also have a primary.

And ironically, the only state caucus Clinton won was Nevada, which had its first caucus this year as part of moving up to be one of the Big 4 states that go early.

If you want to switch the number of states with caucuses vs. primaries, you should do it because it’s better for democracy, not because your candidate didn’t do as well in them. If you aren’t used to caucuses, they are a bit of coercion and appeals. But there isn’t any reason to think the caucuses of 2008 have been particularly more outrageous than in previous years. We just hear more about them this year, and not just from the Clinton camp.

Clinton supporters also have argued that splitting the vote in states hurt their candidate, and if the Democrats did it the same way as Republicans do (winner take all), their candidate would be ahead.

If you look at the Republican side, McCain didn’t end up with serious competition because of how the Republicans run their primary. In the crucial states when McCain was gaining momentum, he wasn’t even winning 50% in those states, yet he took all the delegates. Mike Huckabee had healthy percentages after Mitt Romney suspended his campaign, yet didn’t gain a single delegate.

The Republican way is designed to solidify a front-runner, since they don’t like debate within the party. Democrats like to hear from a lot of different voices, and aren’t as eager for an easy coronation.

McCain was the clear winner, yet isn’t sure if at least half the Republicans would have picked him. In a lot of states, Clinton got more votes than McCain.

Since Democrats and Republicans have different ways of picking their candidates, you end up with two different types of candidates. Democrats like battle-tested, Republicans like coronations.

It’s not likely the two parties will ever agree to the same rules, kind of like the American League in baseball uses the designated hitter and the National League doesn’t. And caucuses aren’t going away, though changes could be made.

Yes, Clinton would have done better under Republican rules and Huckabee would have done better under Democratic rules. But no one won or lost this campaign because of caucuses or primaries. Winners and losers emerge because of how they run their campaigns and their ideas for the future. Winners adapt to the rules and losers don’t.

And if those rules are different in 2012, we will see those candidates adapt accordingly.


Written by democracysoup

June 3, 2008 at 9:46 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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