Flyover Primaries or Why I Became a Caucus Guy

I, like many people on the coasts, had never given much thought to the difference between a presidential caucus and a primary. I knew they were different somehow, and that is about it. Perhaps it was the importance of this election, or the fact that as a graduate student in the field I really ought to better understand what goes on at these events, that made me want to attend. The fact that even the retiring pp could be persuaded to attend was also encouraging. We decided to show up, and see how it went. We ended up staying far longer than I thought we would and I have come to the conclusion that caucuses offer certain advantages over primaries.

My first impression of the caucus was that it was much more of a "party" (pardon the pun) atmosphere than the primaries I voted in in CA and MD. Parking at the junior high school is tight, and the cars in the lot all sport the "right" bumper stickers, e.g. Wellstone, Rainbow Flags, etc. Inside the corridors, classrooms buzz with people conducting meetings.

The first order of business is to find the classroom where your ward meets. (The state is divided up into districts, which each host their own caucus. Districts are divided up into wards, and wards into precincts.) People crowd around a large board in the hallway which tells them which classroom to report to. Fortunately, pp has a letter from the Dean campaign chairperson telling her which ward and precinct we are in. We report to a classroom outfitted to teach science in Spanish.

In order to participate, one must sign a pledge to support the party in the general election and commit to stand for its principles. (Anyone is welcome as an observer.) Participants are issued a "presidential preference ballot" on which are listed all the candidates. The room soon runs out of ballots, a good sign. Small pieces of binder paper are issued as substitutes for the latecomers; they will have to write their candidate's name on the ballot by hand. Everyone is instructed to sign the back of their ballot, in case the precinct's votes are challenged. Latecomers also have to stand, while the earlycomers get steel stools and spots at the lab tables.

Most people in the room don't know each other, but we are all neighbors. No one lives more than a few blocks from anyone else. F., next to us, lives on the next block in the white and red stucco apartment-house. S. and C., friends of friends, live around the corner. More than anything else, the meeting resembles a block party held outside the neighborhood, to talk politics. And no Republicans (or Greens or Independents, for that matter) are invited.

Everything gets voted on, loosely following Robert's Rules of Order. We elect a meeting president, and two tellers to count the votes. C. from around the corner is elected secretary. The Dean person who sent us the letter is elected precinct captain for the next two years. Her two associates are enthusiastic. The elected positions are hardly contested; as people offer to work on behalf of the party, they are warmly applauded. We vote on the rules we want to conduct the meeting by. We vote for presidential candidates. We propose, amend, and vote on resolutions, which are submitted to the county and possibly state conventions.

While our president for the evening conducts the meeting, several envelopes are passed around, a collection for the local precinct to pay its share of the night's rental of the classroom. People are generous, another good sign. Just as the envelopes finish making their way around the room, we are interrupted by a state party worker bearing an envelope to be passed around for the state organization. Rather than have a separate collection for the state, it is moved, seconded, and voted on that we share the collection we just took with the state organization. The fraction to go to the state is lengthily, if calmly debated. Robert's Rules of Order bend under the strain of many motions and seconds with no votes. The matter is complicated by the fact that no one in the room really knows who pays for the facilities. Finally, a 90-10 split in favor of the precinct is approved. Let the state come on its knees and beg for more.

A similar confusion occurs when we are supposed to elect twenty-six delegates to the county convention out of the sixty people in the room. These people have to be available on the 7th and the 28th of the month. The 7th is given as a Saturday when it is a Sunday, and so a runner (who I suspect is the meeting president's spouse) is dispatched to straighten out the error.

The meeting seems to bog down a bit as we listen to people introduce their various resolutions. We tend to be in favor of just about all of them, as far-fetched as some seem to be. When a Kucinch supporter announces that he has five resolutions, I resolve that we are not going to stay until the end.

So it is easy to see how caucuses are fun for those of us who like talking politics, but why are they any more useful than primaries?

First and foremost, caucuses are all about participation. At primaries, you walk in, vote anonymously, and leave. At a caucus, you spend hours in the company of your neighbors, listening to their concerns and playing a role in how the proceedings will take place, electing officers to carry out the evening's (and the election's) goals. Caucuses also provide abundant opportunities for willing participants to serve as delegates, chairs, associates, tellers, and presidents. Participation makes people invest time and energy into their politics, which makes them care more about the outcome as well as the process.

Caucuses teach democracy. By presenting resolutions, discussing them, selecting delegates and officers, etc, participants are given an opportunity to exercise democratic muscles, or at least witness their utility first-hand. How many of the institutions that touch our lives are democratically governed? Caucuses give participants and the communities they constitute an opportunity to weigh in on the issues of general importance to them. It is hard to feel much of a sense of political efficacy when you cast one vote among millions. But it is surprising how clearly one voice can be heard in a classroom-size setting. I think our political institutions have a responsibility to foster and encourage democracy, and caucuses are one way to do just that.

Caucuses nurture party identification. In addition to motivating people to work for the party, they allow (or force) participants to decide for themselves what the party stands for in their precinct. Caucuses provide a "space" for the local community to decide for itself what issues are important to it. The more people get involved at the local level, the more responsive the state organization will be to their concerns. As long as representative institutions are geographically-based, it only makes sense that geographic boundaries ought to be respected. Caucuses break these electoral districts into precincts small enough to fit into a single classroom, where everyone's voice is given an equal opportunity to be heard. Caucuses encourage grass-roots rather than top-down leadership.

Finally, caucuses create "social capital." Meeting one's neighbors to discuss and shape politics in an informal setting encourages future conversations with them. We may not know which of our neighbors vote for other parties, but we know which ones are committed to our own. Caucuses generate community spirit by gathering together politically like-minded individuals into a political entity, transforming a national election into a local event.

A caucus takes much more of a person's time than voting in a voting booth. But it provides one an opportunity to feel as if one is making a difference. And heck, they come around only once every four years; if my good neighbors can spare the time, then I can too. And when I see them at the block party, I'll know who really cared when it counted.