A little while ago, I attended a “Meet the Candidates” event sponsored by the Republican Women of Northern Utah designed to introduce state delegates to the candidates for Davis County Republican Party leadership positions in advance of the county organizing convention on April 22, 2011. The meeting was generally what you would expect: conventional, uncontroversial, and therefore largely uninteresting, though I did think a couple of the candidates distinguished themselves (no, I won’t say who, because I’m not a delegate and am therefore (almost) totally excluded from the process).
But I do want to take some time and comment briefly on a topic that was raised at the meeting, and that remains a hot issue in Utah politics: the future of the caucus-delegate system in Republican Party primaries.
The Caucus System in Brief
For those who may not know, Utah’s caucus system determines how party candidates are selected for the general election. At some point early in a general election year (usually toward the middle or end of March), people all over the state meet together for precinct caucus meetings. Anyone can attend the meetings, but to vote in a Republican precinct caucus you have to be a registered member of the Republican party (not difficult because they’ll have registration forms waiting for you). At the meeting, members of the precinct elect state and county delegates — these delegates are, in many cases, the sole determiners of the party’s candidates in the general election. At the party convention, delegates vote for the candidate they want to represent their party in the general election. The voting goes through multiple rounds. If one particular candidate receives 60 percent or more of the delegate vote at any point, that candidate is, without any primary election, put on the ballot as his party’s official representative for that particular office. In the event that one candidate does not receive 60 percent of the delegate vote, then he or she is forced into a primary against the candidate with the next greatest percentage of the vote.
One Party, Run by Delegates, with Republican Derivative Representation and Political Opportunity for All . . . or at least for all those inclined to seek election
Turning back to the recent candidates debate: Once the meeting advanced into the question and answer phase, it didn’t take long for the caucus system to come up. An individual (presumably a state delegate herself) asked each candidate if they would be willing to commit to work to preserve the current system. There followed something of an amusing charade in which each candidate for party chair and vice-chair proceeded to swear (or profess their willingness to swear) on an electronic bible their everlasting fidelity to the caucus system. A couple of the candidates even took some time to set out what they viewed as the system’s major advantages, which can be summarized briefly as: (1) the caucus system mimics our Republican form of government; (2) it helps keep big corporate money out of state elections; and (3) it opens the political system to those who are willing to work hard at the grassroots level even if they don’t have major funding and donors (i.e., significantly reduces bias toward incumbents).
As I was debating whether I should question any of these candidates on the viability of the system, someone else jumped in for me. Pointing out that, despite the record turn-out at precinct caucus meetings in March 2010, participation was generally dismal, she argued that the caucus system is, itself, vulnerable to being co-opted by committed fringe groups. She asked what each of the candidates would do to try and solve the problem of voter apathy. The answers were, by and large, predictable and uninspired, and skirted what I think is the larger issue: given the lack of general grassroots participation in the delegate system process, is the caucus system really a legitimate and viable means of selecting party candidates?
The Caucus System: Theory and Practice
The theory behind the caucus system is fine. In theory, people delegate their primary voting authority to individuals with the time and inclination to invest the effort to study the issues and candidates carefully, and the party ends up with the best slate of candidates as a result. The ignorance and apathy of the average voter is excised from the process. As something of a failsafe, a limited primary takes place if one candidate isn’t the overwhelming delegate choice. The system ensures that potential candidates are not prejudiced by lack of money or name recognition — the idea is that anyone who puts forth the effort to connect with the delegates can get themselves on the ballot if they are right on the issues. And it limits the influence that corporate money has on the candidate selection process.
In practice, however, it’s an entirely different matter. Polls document that there is very little “representation” going on. Very few people show up to their local caucus meeting. Most who do tend to be more “extreme” (and I’m using that word to refer only to the distance of one’s positions from the center of the political spectrum) than those who do not. The most extreme tend to run as, and often are selected as, delegates.
Once elected, these delegates don’t bother to consult the members of the precinct they have been elected to represent; they simply vote according to their own — again, theoretically — more enlightened political philosophy. As a result, candidates who compete for the party’s nomination for a certain office move correspondingly father away from the political positions of the majority of the party’s members in order to appeal to the delegates. They are then limited by the political commandment of “Thou Shalt Not Flip-Flop Too Soon,” in their ability to moderate later (and lack incentive to moderate given the almost total absence of a legitimate opposition party threat). In short, the caucus system produces a slate of candidates who are often out of balance with the views of the party electorate.
Problem with the System, of the Electorate?
One way to respond to this divergence of theory and practice is simply to suggest that it’s not a problem at all. After all, one might say, this is not a problem with the caucus system, but with the electorate itself. If people would be committed to participating in the process, the caucuses could not easily be hijacked by extremists. Why abandon the advantages of the caucus system merely because people are too lazy to properly participate?
There is some force to this argument, which is well-articulated here.
But, in my view, the potential advantages of the caucus system become problematic in practice. One should ask, just what is it that we’re saving? As I see it, the primary advantage of the caucus system is that it mitigates the pro-incumbent bias that makes it so extraordinarily difficult to for a challenger to beat a party incumbent in the primary. This can be a good thing when it helps keep the incumbent honest about representing his or her constituents. But Utah’s caucus system often doesn’t help keep candidates honest. Rather, it creates an unwarranted asymmetry for incumbents who do represent their constituents at large during the course of their terms. These representatives, come primary time, are made to answer only to a handful of delegates that are often more extreme than the constiuents the representative may have been conscientiously representing while in office.
It’s time to confront the question: If the reality of the caucus system is a slate of relatively extremist candidates who do not represent the political views of the majority of the party electorate, is it time to abandon the system? Those who defend the caucus system do so, in part, on the ground that it mimics our national republican form of government (the classic appeal to the Founders). Those who defend the caucus system on this ground should consider that there are two reasons the United States ended up with a representative, republican system over something more democratic and ask themselves whether those same justifications apply to Utah’s party candidate selection system. The first reason for our republican government was the Founders’ fear of demagogues that would inflame the passions of the ignorant electorate; the second was much more practical — it was simply impossible to have a significantly democratic system, the logistics didn’t work in practice.
Today, the practical constraint is much mitigated. And one would do well to ask whether the first concern is, in Utah, mitigated or exacerbated by the caucus system. It strikes me as quite possible, if not probable, that a limited slate of delegate are more likely to be inflamed by an extremist demagogue than the “ignorant” public at large. Finally, I think that the negative effects are exacerbated in a state, like Utah, that is overwhelmingly dominated by one political party, since the moderating influence of a legitimate opposition is essentially non-existent.
I’m not a strict democrat (in the little “d” sense of the word). I think representative government is a good thing. But I also think that the gradual move toward democratizing some aspects of representative government — including opening primary elections and having direct election of U.S. Senators (post on this coming soon) has been good. It’s easy to take things to extremes, and I think that’s what Utah has done by stubbornly clinging to a system that fosters an extreme slate of candidates and penalizes incumbents for representing more than a party’s extreme wing.
Party primaries play an important role in making sure that candidates remain true to party principles. It’s good for candidates to be held accountable to the views of the party, as well as the people, they claim to represent. But the caucus system takes it too far, especially in a world where the political reality is one party dominance and poor participation — even in the years when the people are most motivated.
So, let the search for alternatives begin. I have a post planned on this topic, but I’d be interested in your thoughts as well. Use the comment form below and have at it