In Defense of Caucuses

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Paul Waldman over at the Plum Line makes the case against presidential nomination caucuses. The national Democratic Party wants to get rid of them and have primaries everywhere, but it can’t do much about it: The decision to hold primaries or caucuses is mainly one for state legislatures, and whatever limited influence national Democrats might have over legislatures in Democratic states, they have virtually none in Republican states. 

Still, it’s an important argument to have because it gets at what is really going on in the nomination process. Waldman ably makes the case for primaries instead of caucuses: Because caucuses are real party meetings that take a serious investment of time, turnout is far lower than it is in primary states. Even worse, he argues, is that voters with fewer resources tend to be the ones who can’t attend caucuses.

I do agree that the parties should be open to all, and therefore I think that the new Democratic decision that all caucuses must allow absentee voting is a good step.

But over all, I have no problem with caucuses.

What I see in nomination politics is the party trying to come to a decision. But who is “the party”? Restricting participation to only formal party officials would be way too narrow, and even arbitrary given that the formal party is not central to the overall party in many states. But conceptualizing the party as all voters, or even all party identified-voters, isn’t correct either. To me, the party is composed of a wide array of party actors — politicians, campaign and government professionals, activists and donors, formal party officials and staff, party-aligned interest groups, and the partisan press. But not what I think of as just-plain voters — people whose political activity doesn’t go beyond the act of voting. 

That said, it should be extremely easy for citizens to move from just-plain voters to party actors; party policies that make it difficult for new people to participate in party affairs are, to me, highly undemocratic. But restricting participation in nominations — the critical decisions that define the party and its agenda — to party actors is absolutely justified.

That parties have opted to use primary elections to determine most nominations is still fine. Not because (just-plain) voters have a right to be involved in those decisions similar to their right to vote in (general) elections. They do not. Nominations are decisions by political organizations, not elections for public office. But primaries are OK if the parties want them, because parties should if possible decide their own procedures. And there are perfectly good reasons for them to want to ask the voters in, whether it’s to test candidates in larger electorates, or because they believe winning real votes in the nomination stage helps in the general election stage. 

What parties should want for presidential nominations are procedures that allow them to compete and cooperate on the nomination and come to a resolution that gives them as good a chance as possible in the general election. I see no reason caucuses can’t be part of that. 

1. Vanessa Williamson at Brookings on the tax cut and the 2018 elections.

2. Rick Hasen on a new court decision that could make the House elections in North Carolina a lot more interesting. 

3. Julia Azari on the legitimacy of Trump’s presidency.

4. Melissa Deckman at the Monkey Cage on why voters might be especially likely to vote for women this year.

5. Dan Drezner on the increasing popularity of free trade

6. Catherine Rampell on Trump’s not-really-a-deal-yet to change NAFTA. 

7. And good reporting from Jonathan Martin and Maggie Haberman on Trump’s primary endorsements. Two caveats: Be very careful about attributing electoral results to Trump support. And while it’s true that recent presidents haven’t been quite as visible in their primary interventions, in fact they (and their parties) have been very active, and quite effective, in securing nominations for the candidates they prefer. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.

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