Mend (Don’t End) Presidential Caucuses

The supporters of Representative Ron Paul (R-Tx) are scooping up delegates at state conventions, particularly states which held caucuses, even though Paul has won a relatively small percentage of caucus goers in most of these states. The determined effort of Paul’s supporters to steal the Republican nomination is the latest in what has been a bad campaign season for the presidential caucus system.


Iowa: On caucus night, Mitt Romney was eight votes ahead of Rick Santorum and the state GOP declared Mitt Romney the winner and also declared there would be no recount. However, this was a game of semantics. While Iowa never “recounted” votes, it did go through a process of certifying the unofficial returns and the certification process often led to slight changes in the final result.

In 2008, the certified results showed a net gain of 41 votes for Mike Huckabee over Romney from the unofficial returns. Given Huckabee’s solid margin, this didn’t matter in 2008, but in 2012, it made a huge difference. The final certified returns proposed a +42 vote margin for Rick Santorum. Because the Iowa GOP jumped the gun in calling a winner rather than announcing they would have a winner after certification, the entire dynamic of the GOP race changed in Romney’s favor.

Maine: Everyone wants to have a statewide vote. Unfortunately, Maine couldn’t bother to wait for everyone to vote. Maine announced the results of its caucuses on February 11, when only 84% of caucuses had voted and the results showed a margin for Mitt Romney. Subsequent results were added, but as of this date, the final caucus results do not include 100 percent of precincts. The vote was strictly non-binding, as national convention delegates would be chosen at the state convention, but why declare, “Mitt Romney won Maine” when all of Maine wasn’t included in the vote?

North Dakota: According to Green Papers, “The National Convention delegates from North Dakota are elected at the State Convention in such a way so that they best reflect the presidential preference of the Caucus participants.” The caucus results gave Santorum 40%, Paul 28%, and Romney 24%. At the state convention, however, the party establishment drafted a slate that included 20 delegates for Romney, 6 for Santorum, and 2 for Paul in order to reward party bosses and financial supporters. When a state convention delegate protested this allocation, she was told by the chair, “You weren’t on the committee, ma’am” as the convention ran roughshod over the rules and North Dakota voters.

Other Issues:

The Missouri caucuses were an absolute mess, with loud and contentious fights. One caucus even had to be postponed.

There were long delays in counting in the Nevada caucus, with the final results of the small caucus taking days to count.

The Idaho caucuses’ multiple rounds of voting kept one county voting until the wee hours of the morning, long after it had become clear Mitt Romney would win all of Idaho’s delegates no matter what that county’s results were.

In light of this, Ed Morrissey has called for an end to the caucus system, joining a long chorus of pundits. While this is understandable, there are three reasons this is not the right approach:

First, the main reason many states hold caucuses rather than primaries is that primaries are expensive. Forcing states to hold an additional primary will ultimately end up shifting the cost from political parties to the states. For example, South Carolina’s primary costs $1.5 million. Many states can’t or won’t spend that type of money for a primary. To deny the option of holding a caucus to these states would remove them from the nominating process entirely. Further, it would be odd for conservatives to be the ones pushing for a larger government in order to avoid caucuses

Second, primaries didn’t show themselves to be a great candidate selection process, either. Most state primaries were decided by which candidate spent enough money attacking his opponents with negative ads and/or who dominated the media narrative. At least the caucuses engaged the grassroots in a meaningful way. What type of campaigns will we have if candidates can adopt the Romney 2012 model in every state? It would be wise to avoid the unintended consequences of an all-primary campaign until we have a primary process that’s worthy of emulation.

Third, such a change would require the support of both the RNC and DNC to have any hope of getting state taxpayers to shell out millions of dollars. That simply isn’t going to happen. Too many caucus states and territories won’t go along with such a rule change.

However, this season has exposed deficiencies in the caucus system, and these should be fixed. Caucus states should seek to emulate the caucuses that were well-run, such as the Kansas caucus, where the results are binding.

Having voters take hours out of their day to participate in caucuses, listen to speeches, and finally vote, and then having their vote ignored by county caucuses flies in the face of our representative form of government. Caucus delegates should be bound to the votes of their caucus, not free agents who decide they will vote against the beliefs of the people who elected them.

States should also cut back on the number of rounds of caucus voting. Some states have precinct caucuses followed by county conventions, district conventions, and state conventions. This system is needlessly complex. Having binding county caucuses followed by a state convention makes the most sense. If states opt for additional rounds of voting, these should be conducted in a virtual environment with conference calls. That would not only save the party money, but create higher participation from delegates.

Additionally, caucus results should be accurate and complete. States like Maine that hold caucuses where some counties vote and some don’t shouldn’t be able to announce that someone has won Maine when everyone hasn’t voted. Similarly, caucus states should be required to ensure an accurate count. If the margin is less than a half a percent, there should be a careful certification and recount required by party rules.

Finally, states should have primaries or caucuses, but not both. States like Louisiana hold primaries that don’t elect all of their delegates and then hold separate caucuses to elect the rest of the delegates. The system is confusing to the average voter and benefits only party insiders and extremely committed political activists.

When it comes to the administration of caucuses, the goal should be to elect delegations that reflect the will and intent of the party’s grassroots voters, not the whims of a political establishment or the dreams of a hyperactive minority. In 2012, this hasn’t been regarded by the party establishment in many states or Ron Paul supporters. It falls to rank and file Republicans to ensure it’s respected in future elections.