Thursday, February 9, 2012

Caucus/Primary and Other Reform Questions

National Journal's Reid Wilson says that after the vote-counting flubs in Nevada and Iowa, caucuses are and should be on their way out. Josh Putnam demolishes the "are" part of that, pointing out that it's highly unlikely that  either national party would attempt to impose such a reform, especially the Republicans.

I'll take on the "should" part of this. In my view, this is Seligism at it's worst: reforming institutions in order to react to some minor glitch in the current rules or practice. In particular, the offense here -- the slow count in two caucus states -- just doesn't seem to me to be a very big deal. At all. It took two weeks for the recount in Iowa? So what! Recounts take a while. The offense here just doesn't seem like a very big deal to me.

In addition to better counting, Wilson endorses a few other reform goals:
Give candidates a break from holiday-time campaigning; ensure that candidates with modest war chests can truly compete; and produce a nominee  battle-tested in every region who isn’t too bruised and bloodied to compete in November.
Everyone agrees with the first one, but alas coordination problems, as Josh explains, make it difficult. The third goal seems like wishful thinking to me; there's simply no way to assure that a candidate is both "battle-tested" from a sequential nomination process without risking a nominee "bruised and bloodied." Still, it's an overrated concern. Barack Obama certainly survived as tough a process and one could expect and did just fine, and in general there hasn't been a problem that candidates emerge from the process at a disadvantage in November (the strongest cases were all long in the past -- George McGovern in 1972, Gerald Ford in 1976, and Jimmy Carter in 1980). As for helping candidates who can't raise money compete: it's not clear that's a good thing. I'm open to complaints that the system has suddenly tilted too far in the direction of one or two major donors allowing a candidate to survive, but the truth is that any candidate with serious party support is going to be able to raise enough money to compete. Failure to have more than a "modest warchest" is a sign of a failed candidacy, not, in most cases, something that the parties should want to reward. I do think that money should not be the only resource that matters in nomination politics, but fortunately it isn't.

The other part of this is to think of the nomination process as a complex coordination and competition game: hundreds, or really thousands, of party actors across the nation are trying to come to an agreement while protecting their interests within the party and without too much damage to the eventual nominee. You know what helps make that process work better? Stable rules. Without stable rules, it's a lot easier to get odd, random results; it's easier for candidates to game the system; and it's harder for the party to resist press manipulation. Obviously, there are other, competing values here. But stability in the basic rules is really a highly valuable asset for parties, and in my view at least they should be careful before embarking on major reforms without very, very good reason. Democrats in particular can remember the consequences of the major reform of the 1970s: the disaster (at least for them) that was Jimmy Carter.

All that said...the current system, if retained (as I agree it will be), will never give us complete stability either in the calendar of primaries and caucuses or in the choice of states of how to select their delegates. So we'll always have states switching from caucuses to primaries or vice versa. All that is fine. But I see no reason at all to attempt to impose one or the other.


  1. After I read that: Do you see this blog as a place where you state the truth, or as a place of open discussion or somewhere in between? (On a scale from 0 to 10)

  2. When I was supporting Hillary during the 08 primary season I thought that caucuses were a travesty of democracy. But I know that Dems in (mostly reddish?) states have adopted them as party building devices. And they do seem like a plausible way to ease the transition from ordinary voter to 'party actor.'

    But the more successful they are they more they become like (clunky) primaries.

  3. Change is disruptive. And, it can lead to temporary deviations in the quality of the selection process.

    That is an argument against frequent change, and a fair one. But it's a poor argument against any particular change, particularly if that change is relatively minor. If both parties banned caucuses next year, I think the consequences would be relatively minor.

    I actually think the existence of a few caucuses serves an important role, one that's not too dissimilar from primaries in many states. In order to effectively compete, one must have smart and skilled staff relatively early in the process. Obama showed that knowing how caucuses work could work in your favor, and that might have been the difference in that very tight race. And how did he know how they worked? By having staff that knew, and having them in place early...a function of being an acceptable party choice. Similarly, we see in Virginia the importance of primaries in states with varied access rules, so that the less disciplined and mostly new Gingrich campaign just couldn't get on the ballot. I think these are good features, and positive reasons to keep a few caucuses around. However, I wonder if the Virginia primary example is enough to say that those difficult ballot-access states are enough of a test of early organization to function as caucuses do.

    But the actual effect of whether a particular state is primary or caucus is nearly nil. Contests are reported as wins and losses, regardless of their formats, and that's what drives future party actor decisions. So, if Nevada went all primary on us and Florida became a caucus state, I don't think that'd make any difference. If many large states went caucus, you'd think that'd change the role of money in the contest somewhat, but I don't think it would do so in important ways. The only really bad effect of money on the nomination to me is the Romney effect, where the only reason he's a major candidate in 2012 is that he was major in 2008, and he was major in 2008 because he spent tons of his own money in NH & IA to fuel a rise in polls to get him into the media conversation. Romney's got conventional creds, so he's not the problem...but these nutjob billionaires that are able to buy themselves a seat at the big boy table by just spending a (relative) ton in tiny little IA and NH 14-18 months before the election...that ain't right. Steve Forbes does not deserve his status.
    (The other effect of money that we're seeing isn't on the nomination, but is potentially even more serious: imagine, if you will, President Gingrich. Tell me how he denies the Adelson's ANYTHING. When you have no floors and no ceilings (the current system), if the longshot candidate somehow makes it through, they could VERY easily have been bought off cheap early on)

  4. "Still, it's an overrated concern. Barack Obama certainly survived as tough a process and one could expect and did just fine..."

    Well, yes, you can come through a tough process and do just fine when the economy--under a president of the opposite party--is undergoing its worst collapse since the Great Depression. I think the prolonged process *did* hurt Obama--look how poorly he did in Hillary-friendly areas like western Pennsylvania which had gone for Kerry in 2004 and Dukakis in 1988. (Of course Obama's poor showing in Appalachia may simply have been because he is black--yet Doug Wilder carried southwestern Virginia in 1989.)

    "Democrats in particular can remember the consequences of the major reform of the 1970s: the disaster (at least for them) that was Jimmy Carter."

    A good case can be made that no Democrat other than Carter could have defeated Ford in 1976. (I am quite sure that no other Democrat could have managed the near-sweep of the Southern and Border states Carter did, and I am very doubtful that the other candidates would have won enough extra electoral votes in the North and West to make up for it.) Of course winning an election (like 1928 or 1976 or 2004 or maybe even 2008, though this seems less likely now than it did a few months ago) can in the long run be a disaster for a party, but it is hard to see how any party rules can guarantee no bad luck and no bad management during a president's administration.

  5. The caucuses would work fine (with respect to their actual goal of keeping party actors in control of the process) if they would just get rid of the preference poll that is reported to the newsmedia so they will have a phony "result" of the caucuses on election night.

    The problem is the actual way caucuses work has nothing to do with the preference poll, so as long as the media announces the poll result as the "winner" there are going to be changing results.


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