THE BLOG
03/14/2008 11:23 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Caucus, Shmaucus: A Primary is Better

We've learned that Barack Obama rocks the caucuses and Hillary Clinton's strength is big primaries. The media credits Obama's success to his supporters' passion, but I say their secret weapon is....punctuality.

A primary is designed to accommodate people's individual lives. You vote to your own rhythm (before work, after lunch, etc.). A caucus, on the other hand, cuts no slack. It demands your presence at a specific time. It's an event, and one thing Obama does well, let's face it, is events. This puts a caucus right up his alley, and what happened in Texas showed the difference full-on.

He filled the Toyota Center in Houston with 19,000 fans. In Big D, 17,000 hung from the rafters at Reunion Arena. Upwards of 20,000 jammed his downtown Austin street rally. Clinton never came close to those numbers at her events.

Nevertheless, she won the primary, 51% to 47%. It was the largest turnout in state history, more than 2.8 million Democrats, and included a two week early voting period. After the polls closed that night, Democrats held a smaller "phase two" caucus in each precinct to divvy up the final third of their delegates. Attendance at 7 p.m. sharp was required if you wanted this second vote to count. Results remain incomplete, but it appears a solid majority arrived - on schedule - to support Obama, the Caucus King.

As Woody Allen once said, "Eighty percent of success is showing up."

Has Obama won each state's caucuses? No, but far more than Clinton. Has she won every primary? No, but she's taken the heavily populated states, other than Illinois. The pattern is clear: His odds go up at caucus time, hers in large-state primaries.

I'm reminded of 2000, when Republicans bragged that the infamous red-blue map of the country was far more red despite the Democrats winning the popular vote nationwide. Some of us noted that the lesser blue Democratic parts were stuffed with actual voters, while much of the giant red Republican swath had more rocks and coyote.

Yet in 2008, media pundits - Left and Right - breathlessly cite caucus results from Wyoming (population 515,000, 3 electoral votes and Republican next November) as if they carry the importance of primary results in Ohio (population 11.5 million, 20 electoral votes and a swing state next fall). Some things never change.

Is one method of choosing candidates the fairest of them all? You bet, and it's no contest.

Progressives have long fought to make democracy open to all. Poll taxes were finally declared illegal by the Supreme Court in 1966. Early voting periods provide greater opportunity to cast a ballot. Same-day registration increases involvement. These are positive updates to our installed civic products.

A caucus system doesn't fit this forward trend. It limits the pool of available participants, which is why the Democratic Party began switching to primaries after 1972, opening things up to the rank-and-file. Republicans slowly followed suit.

Anyone at their job during a caucus is automatically excluded. And it isn't just nurses, cops and bartenders. Everywhere you look are millions and millions of citizens who are not free to simply walk away from their ticket counter, mall kiosk or college classroom to vote at some time-certain event across town. It's absurd to think they could, and many are doubtless Democratic Party sympathizers.

Nasty bosses don't make it easier. "You miss one more shift and you're fired!" is not an uncommon refrain in the real world. Hourly wage earners lack the options of white collar professionals and ladies who lunch. Want to switch out with a co-worker or take sick time to attend a caucus? Good luck with that, especially if you've had to miss work lately for other reasons.

And the elderly? At one caucus, a thousand people descended at once, ballots tallied on scraps of paper. Another didn't start until midnight. Seniors are the most reliable citizens of all, but young and old alike agree the process shouldn't be Animal House revisited.

The goal is to vest more people in the outcome of the general election, not turn them off. The more people vote in the primary process, the more they are naturally interested in the November outcome. It's that simple.

Despite quaint Iowa (population 3 million), caucuses are an unfair anachronism there and in the rest of modern America. Take the Dallas-Ft. Worth metro area. It has an estimated 6 million people, and the majority chose Obama. If caucuses had been the sole vehicle for voting, hundreds of thousands would have been earning a paycheck, unable to sanctify the results.

That's unfair to the worker and the winner. A primary increases the legitimacy of an eventual nominee, just like a media poll increases its accuracy with more respondents.

We know why Hillary is now anti-caucus and why Barack dares not discuss it: politics is about whose ox is getting gored, and his isn't. The bottom line, however, is that your ox is gored if the only chance to vote is at one assigned hour on one lousy day. Sure, caucus numbers are up this year, but primaries are through the roof because all voices get a shot at being heard.

Speaking of gored, almost 2 million Florida Democrats voted in their primary this year, a record. If the Howard Dean do-over is converted to caucuses as currently contemplated, it will noticeably shrink participation. It need not have come to this.

The Republican National Committee punished their Florida team, which also voted early, by docking only half its delegates, and McCain, Giuliani et al competed for the Sunshine State with no lingering mess. Hell, they blessedly knocked out Rudy in the process!

Why the DNC decided to bake such a draconian cake boggles the mind.

Today, 19 less populated states still hold caucuses, along with places like the Virgin Islands. The vast majority of states now run a primary, and early voting is increasingly part of the mix.

We know democracy works best when it's inclusive, and a caucus is exclusionary, regardless of who wins. Why pick candidates this way, anywhere?