Monday, February 11, 2008

More on Caucuses

Markos Moulitsas, founder of the Daily Kos website, has one of the savviest political minds in the liberal blogosphere. He recognized the transformative potential of the internet while most party pros were still learning to master their Hotmail accounts. Moulitsas knows his way around electoral politics and quite obviously recognizes the difference between a primary election and a caucus. Sunday afternoon, however, he made the following statement:

"Obama should win [the Maine caucuses] by double digits which would be a stunning defeat for a Clinton campaign that by all reports should've been able to replicate its New Hampshire success in this state."

New Hampshire, of course, held a primary election—not a caucus—last month in which Hillary Clinton shocked the pollsters by defying their predictions and defeating Barack Obama rather handily. Had Maine, which shares its western border with New Hampshire, decided to inaugurate its own primary, Moulitsas's comparison would have been well taken. But they did not, and if the current electoral season has taught us anything, it is that primaries and caucuses produce very different electorates—and, in most cases, very different results.

Going into Sunday morning, Obama had won nine of the ten caucuses conducted since the New Year, losing the other (in Nevada) just barely. Anyone paying even the slightest attention to the unfolding of the Democratic race would have predicted another strong victory for Obama yesterday in Maine. That Moulitsas did not most likely suggests a desire to spin the results into some kind of major upset, or, to use his own words, "a stunning defeat for the Clinton campaign".

Markos Moulitsas owns his website and has every right to use it as a megaphone for the Obama campaign if he so chooses. My point is not to criticize Moulitsas or anyone else who spins the news in support of a favorite candidate. Rather, I continue to be astounded by the inability or unwillingness of pundits to acknowledge the consequences of employing the caucus, rather than the primary, system for selecting convention delegates.

To begin with yesterday's example Obama beat Clinton in Maine, where approximately 47,000 voters participated. By contrast, the totals in New Hampshire were 112,251 to 104,772 in favor of Senator Clinton. The two states are roughly equal in population, and yet the totals in New Hampshire dwarf those of its eastern neighbor. As I noted in my previous post, caucuses self-select for the most devoted and, often, ideologically driven voters who will do whatever it takes to achieve victory for their champion. Barack Obama's backers are both more fanatical and more liberal than Hillary Clinton's.

The news media have done a terrible job of illuminating the enormous differences in turnout under these two systems. Let me try another example. Minnesota has slightly more people than Alabama, as evidenced by their possession of one additional electoral vote. Moreover, of the two, Minnesota is by far the most Democratic, having supported the party in every presidential election after 1972; Alabama, on the other hand, has an uninterrupted record of backing the GOP since 1976.

Nevertheless, almost 300,000 more Alabamians than Minnesotans participated in the Super Tuesday Democratic contest. The difference, obviously, is that Alabama held a primary election while Minnesota conducted a caucus. Indeed, Clinton's losing share in the Heart of Dixie eclipsed Obama's winning tally in the Gopher State by over 80,000 votes.

Here's another way to look at it: six caucuses were held on Super Tuesday. At the same time, a primary took place in Obama's home state of Illinois. As expected, the favorite son overwhelmed Clinton in the Land of Lincoln by a percentage margin of 65-33. Still, Obama actually did even better in five of the six caucus states, and did almost as well (61-37) in the sixth, North Dakota.

Two things, then, are clear. First, caucuses produce relatively small turnout and, in most cases, an unrepresentative electorate. Second, Barack Obama benefits from this phenomenon far out of proportion to his actual levels of support. Does anyone really believe that Senator Clinton would have received less than one third of the vote in a Minnesota primary, as she did in the state's caucuses?

Again, as I said yesterday, this discussion should not be taken as a brief on behalf of Senator Clinton or against Senator Obama. Obama may indeed be the candidate best situated to defeat John McCain in November. But his current momentum has largely been generated by lopsided results in caucus states with relatively low, and extremely self-selected, participation.

This leads, finally, to the question currently facing the Democrats as to how to handle Michigan and Florida. Both states violated the party's edict prohibiting all but Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina from choosing delegates prior to February 5. As a result, both states have been informed that their delegations will not be seated at the Democratic National Convention in August. Complicating matters is the fact that Hillary Clinton won both the Michigan and Florida primaries, though Obama was not on the Michigan ballot.

Suggestions have been raised that the two states might conduct do-overs, completing the process anew in accordance with the party's rules. The expense of holding another primary, however, may lead Michigan and/or Florida to hold last-minute caucuses. Should they do this, and should the party sanction such a move, everyone must be aware that they are effectively handing the presidential nomination to Barack Obama. There is nothing inherently wrong with this—maybe party bosses have concluded that he is their best hope to win in November—but they should at least acknowledge this reality.

Of the two states, Michigan presents less of a problem. Since Obama's name did not appear on the state's ballot, the primary election there lacked any real sense of legitimacy. In Florida, however, both candidates were in contention and, while neither campaigned there, local supporters made a serious effort on behalf of their favorites. Clinton received over 800,000 votes and Obama nearly 600,000. A do-over there, particularly if it takes the form of a caucus, would create a very serious problem of fairness.

I have written before about my dissatisfaction with the American system of choosing presidential nominees. If it were up to me, I would return control of the process to the parties and their notorious smoke-filled rooms. But if we are to continue the present system on the grounds that it gives the people a real voice, then it is long past time to abandon the low-turnout caucus and demand that all states conduct primary elections.

UPDATE: Thanks to Redbarb, in the comments, for correcting me on the tunrout figures for Maine. The numbers have been corrected.


redbarb said...

One quick comment as I continue to read. The totals you list for Maine are the number of "delegates" each won on Sunday. That's not the vote total. Your point still stands in that the turnout is much higher in primary states as the numbers for Maine's Democratic caucus was about 47,000 (compared to 17,000 in 2004). The numbers you are listing are overstating the difference.

redbarb said...

I am not a fan or opponent of caucuses. I can see why a political party prefers to hear from those most motivated to act over the vagaries of who shows up for a primary. You do remember Lyndon Larouche and Illinois Democrats, don't you?

What fascinates me in this race is that Obama's campaign clearly identified a strategy to take on a well-funded, national figure with lots of strong ties among Democratic voters and it is working. He's made up for losses in big states by piling up numbers in a mix of winnable primaries (they've split those states so far), states with caucuses where he ran up the score and within congressional districts in these states with the goal to maximize delegates. I've looked for an overall vote count between the two but only seen that on Supersized Super Tuesday they were as even in the vote count as they were in the delegate count. I am curious to see if Obama's wins this month makes this race all about Ohio on March 4th. How will he adjust to try to attract more working class voters? Will she still focus on having women voters carry her?

For political geeks like us it is fascinating.