Thursday, April 3, 2008

End the Tyranny of Caucuses!

Let's look ahead to November's general election and assume, as is now likely, that Barack Obama wins the Democratic Party's presidential nomination. But let's also make one further assumption: Obama loses to John McCain and the Democrats blow their best chance to recapture the White House in twelve years. Be honest: it could happen. The polls are pretty much dead even right now, and the Republicans have an undeniable Electoral College advantage.

I'm not predicting an Obama defeat, you understand. Obviously, unfavorable economic news on top of foreign policy failure typically bodes poorly for the incumbent party and its nominee. And John McCain is perceived by many as an old guy who knows less about economics than the average eBay bidder. Plus, Obama is eloquent, inspiring, he's the choice of a new generation (or was that Pepsi?), etc., etc., etc.

Still, the scenario by which Obama loses remains fairly easy to envision, even without a new and devastating terrorist attack. While the inflammatory words of his former pastor, Jeremiah Wright, may not have affected his support among Democrats, they continue to burn in the ears of independents and marginal Republicans. In addition, the bar will be set so high for Obama at this fall's presidential debates that McCain will merely have to speak in a language vaguely resembling English to acquit himself successfully. And we still have no idea what Rovian viciousness the GOP has up its sleeve in anticipation of an Obama candidacy.

And what state is Obama going to bring into the Democratic fold that John Kerry didn't capture in his losing effort four years ago? Hillary Clinton decisively won the two big swing states, Florida and Ohio, and Floridians in particular may well blame Obama for depriving them of their right to participate in the nomination process. Winning Missouri or Colorado would be insufficient; it's not even clear that winning both of them would get Obama over the hump. When the ballots are counted in seven months, most of Obama's best primary and caucus states, those in the Great Plains, Rockies, and Deep South, will support the Republican Party just as they have in nearly every election since Lyndon Johnson beat down Barry Goldwater nearly half a century ago.

So sure, Obama could definitely win, but he could also lose. For the sake of argument, let's assume the latter. The Wednesday after the election, as the Democrats spend another cold November evening in the grip of despair, one question will pass nearly every lip: Would we have done better with Hillary? That, of course, would be impossible to know with any accuracy, but the possibility would nevertheless haunt the party faithful.

The answer would obviously depend on exactly how Obama lost. If he was held to just the Kerry states, with perhaps a pickup of Iowa and New Mexico, speculation will center once more on Ohio and Florida, and Obama's fairly one-sided primary losses in both places. If he fell just one small state short, as Al Gore did in 2000, pundits might wonder if a likely Hillary win in Arkansas would have made the difference. The point is that should Barack Obama lose in November, nothing that happened this spring will matter. Instead, the party will be dominated by what-if games.

Should this occur, perhaps one good thing could come out of it. The Democrats might finally, at long last, put an end to the tyranny of the caucus. We have known for years that caucuses are easily dominated by ideological fanatics. Most average voters have better things to do than to show up at some schoolhouse or firehouse and give up part of their evening to interact with strangers. To do so takes a special measure of either political interest or single-minded devotion to a candidate. There were, to my knowledge, few if any Democratic caucuses back in 1972, but if there had been several, George McGovern, with his ferocious support among anti-war activists, would have enjoyed overwhelming success in them. Caucus victories simply do not provide representative results.

I've made this point before, but it bears repeating. In the official Washington State caucus, held on February 9, Obama beat Clinton 68% to 31%, an absolute blowout. Ten days later, however, the state party held a non-binding "beauty contest" primary, in which voters' ballots would be merely symbolic. Despite the fact that most everyone knew that this was not the vote that counted, and despite the fact that the period between the caucus and the primary was filled almost non-stop with good news for Obama, the Illinois senator's edge over his New York colleague shrunk from 37% to just 5%. Oh yeah, and 638,000 more Washingtonians participated in the "meaningless" primary than bothered to show up for the binding caucus. There's an obvious lesson here, if the Democrats are willing to learn it.

Without the caucuses, the Democratic presidential campaign would be a virtual dead heat right now. Nobody would be haranguing Hillary about dropping out of the race because everyone would see that her support is, for all practical purposes, equal to Obama's. It is the caucuses, populated largely by ideologues, that have propelled Obama to the presumably insurmountable delegate lead he currently holds.

And perhaps the ideologues are right this time. Maybe Obama is the party's strongest candidate. But in a better system, we would still have a fair fight, and the nomination would still hang in the balance. We would not face the prospect of a frontrunner who is only now being vetted, one who has shown a general inability to win over electorates in most of the states the Democrats need to win in November.

If the Democratic Party somehow manages to lose this presidential election to an out of touch warmonger with a tenth grade economics education, it will not be a result of the fairly mild attacks that have marked the current race for the nomination. Nor will it be because of McCain's wisdom in backing the Iraq Surge, which has cut U.S. troop deaths to "only" one per day with no political settlement in sight. It will have nothing to do with Bill Clinton or James Carville or any of the other mouthy relics of the 1990s.

Instead, the fault will lie with the unfortunate prevalence of unrepresentative party caucuses. So get rid of the Super Delegates if you wish; they were never a particularly useful innovation to begin with. But if you are, like our friends at Daily Kos, going to go on about "people powered politics" or some other such alliterative nonsense, at least have the honesty to acknowledge that caucuses are every bit as elitist as smoke filled rooms. They are simply less concentrated on winning and more concerned with ideological purity.

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