Ahh, caucuses. As John Avlon notes, there is no better expression of the "romantic notions" of street-level politics than the sight of friends and neighbors, gathered together in high school gymnasiums, taking those first fitful steps on the year-long journey of our democracy. Is it possible to not love them, and their pageant-drenched role in presidential politics?
Actually, it is possible to do so, now more than ever, because of the numerous problems that have plagued the caucus process this year, which include such matters as "counting votes" and "accurately determining the winner."
Yes, this year, some of the intrinsic difficulties of staging the caucuses, which tend to be woolly affairs compared to primaries, have made themselves manifest. Begin in Iowa, where two weeks after former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney was declared the winner, former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) was declared the winner. Missing votes and counting errors prevented Iowa from determining the winner in a timely fashion, and despite the fact that the confusion briefly made Edith Pfeffer and Carolyn Tallet media celebrities, the overall verdict was that the process had "damaged the credibility" of the Iowa Caucus.
But the snafus did not end in Iowa. In Nevada, the eternity it took to count up the votes were just a sideline problem in a process that was plagued with confusion and disorganization. As Anjeanette Damon of the Las Vegas Sun reported: "Instead of the pride of the West, one national commentator described it as a 'national embarrassment.' And Nevada’s role as a 'major player in national politics' has been thrown into question." And the Maine caucuses might have provided the tipping point in getting the caucus process reformed. There, counting errors were compounded by a caucus that was cancelled due to snowfall and several other precincts whose tabulations were left out of the mix.
Avlon says it's time to do away with caucuses altogether, and not just because of the rampant lack of competence:
Even after the endless media hype surrounding the GOP primary contests this year, turnout was essentially flat in the Iowa caucuses between 2008 and 2012, despite the absence of a Democratic contest to siphon off participants. Turnout was dramatically down in caucuses in Nevada, Minnesota, and Colorado. In Maine, fewer than 6,000 voters bothered to participate--roughly 2 percent of the registered Republicans in the state. Overall, caucus turnout is averaging about 10 percent of registered Republicans in each state.
Moreover, those 10 percent who do turn out tend to be the most ideological and hyperpartisan--meaning that the winner of a caucus is increasingly a bad barometer of who might actually carry the state in a general election by being able to win over independents and centrist swing voters.
In addition, caucuses are one of the chief offenders when it comes to setting the primary season's calendar. Florida and South Carolina both paid a price for moving their primaries up to the early part of the season -- each state's delegation will be slashed in half for ruining the Republican National Committee's sacred rules. But because the caucuses are non-binding, they aren't subject to sanction. As Aaron Blake and Rachel Weiner note, "Minnesota, Colorado and Maine have held February caucuses this year without paying any kind of penalty." But those states contributed to the frenzied calendar chaos just the same.
Yet as Blake and Weiner go on to report, it seems that while this year's caucus mishaps call out for reform, party elites are hesitant to do away with tradition altogether:
“The problems encountered in two or three caucuses does not call out for abolition of caucuses, but for better methods of implementing caucuses,” said Tennessee Republican National Committeeman John Ryder. “And I say this as someone who favors primaries -- at least for my own state.”
Mississippi Republican National Committeeman Henry Barbour agreed, but noted that primaries have experienced problems too: “I think there is definitely a place for caucuses in the nominating process, but not without a transparent, accurate reflection of the vote count.”
In addition, Blake and Weiner note that the Caucusdammerung discussion is an evergreen one:
This debate is leftover from the 2008 campaign, when President Obama won the Democratic nomination largely on the strength of his wins in many caucus states.
At the time, Hillary Clinton’s campaign argued that caucuses didn’t matter as much because they were low-turnout affairs that had no bearing on actual delegates — much the same argument Romney’s campaign made when he lost in Minnesota and Colorado last week.
What's been left out of this discusssion? The campaign of Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), and its plan to hack the caucuses. In the coming weeks, as the various caucus states head to the next steps in the process by which the Republican National Convention delegates are selected, we'll see how successful Paul's operation is at poaching delegates from the candidate that everyone presumes is going to the nominal "winner" of the caucuses. If it's successful, you can bet that calls for reform will pick up considerably.
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