Assessing the Minnesota caucuses–final thoughts on why it is time to scrap them

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Minnesota’s February 7, political caucuses meant something this year…sort of.

This year they were part of a trifecta of non-binding events that included the Colorado caucus and the Missouri primary that awarded no delegates but nonetheless had a significant media impact in rendering Rick Santorum a viable challenger to Mitt Romney. In winning these three states the political world heralded that the party activists had again repudiated Romney. Thus, Minnesota’s caucuses had a signal effect even if no delegates were awarded.

But there are real problems with the caucus process in Minnesota and across the country. Criticism of the Iowa caucus is growing as arguments are again mounted that it should not be first in the nation since no delegates are awarded and its demographics are not representative of the country. 

Similarly, the recently concluded Maine caucuses will be read in two ways–evidence that Romney is again a frontrunner after his win there or that he is in trouble after eking out a narrow victory in his backyard again a weak Ron Paul in a state where no one else really campaigned against him. Yet with fewer than 6,000 Republicans participating in the Maine caucuses, one probably should not read too much into the results. Moreover, Ron Paul has a good argument in suggesting that there is a difference between winning caucus straw polls and collecting delegates and that despite his showing in the latter, he may be doing better with the former.

There are lots of problems with caucuses and straw polls. Beginning with the Iowa Straw Poll and up to the CPAC one over the weekend, one can make the argument that they are simply self-promotional media events that really mean nothing in the larger scheme of things. However, in a world of politianment where politics and media converge in a 24/7 cable news cycle and every state or group wants its 15 minutes of fame, they get reported on in a way disproportionate to their importance.

Some will defend these straw polls and caucus systems as important tools to judge political strength and organization (Santorum’s wins might argue against that) or that they are great ways to activate the political base. But let me offer six final criticisms of the Minnesota caucus system.

1. The Minnesota caucuses are exclusionary and non-participatory.  The criticism here is that at best 2-2.5% of the population participate in a caucus. Compare us in 2008 to Wisconsin where its presidential primary had a 37% turnout. We have pitiful attendance. Excluded from participating are those in active duty in the military, those working second shift, ill, elderly afraid to go out at night in the cold, those with child care issues, or a host of other matters. Caucuses are great to deepen political commitments and participation, but as Garrison Keillor once stated: “Democracy is a form for government for people with too much time on their hands.” Given how few people can and do show up, effectively it is not a system that really encourages civic engagement on a scale that makes it a really net contributor to social capital building.

2. The Minnesota caucuses are not representative of the party members. There is a real debate in election law over who is the party. Is it the party officers, candidates, caucuses or convention attendees, or primary voters? Good answers all. The problem here in Minnesota and perhaps elsewhere is that those who attend the caucuses do not seem representative of the broader voters in party primaries and instead are more conservative or liberal than the broader group of people who consider themselves Republicans or Democrats. Over the years in Minnesota we have seen successful candidates such as Arnie Carlson rejected by caucus and convention attendees only to win primaries and general elections. Democrats have a similar problem with Mike Freeman winning at conventions but losing in primaries. Thus, individuals selected via the caucuses process might not be the strongest party nominees, they might not enjoy the broadest support among the primary voters, and they ultimately might not be the strongest candidates for a general election.

3. The Minnesota caucuses conflict with our sense of privacy. Minnesotans are a very private lot of people. We keep to ourselves on many topics, preferring discourse about family, weather, and the miserable Twins and Vikings to anything more personal. Many Minnesotans do not attend caucuses because they do not want to openly identify their party affiliation or stand up and declare who they will vote for in an election. I know too many people because of professional work reasons (government workers ad journalists) who feel like they cannot attend caucuses because of how it identifies them politically. When we do have primaries it is a semi-open one that does not require you to declare party preferences openly. Minnesotans are much more comfortable with this type of process.

4. The Minnesota caucus process has a muted impact on national politics. Because we actually do not award any delegates at the caucuses, the impact that the state could have were it to have a primary is blunted. We are at best a beauty contest and generally their impact is more short-term and media-driven than real.

5. The Minnesota caucuses deny choice and voice. Whatever the caucus results last week, they mean nothing. In 2008 Romney won 41% in the presidential preference poll results in or caucuses. How many votes did he get from our GOP convention at the RNC in 2008? Zero! All the delegates voted for McCain. This is typical. By the time we select our convention delegates the contest for the party nominee is over and our delegation votes by acclamation and awards all delegates to whomever is perceived to be the party nominee (It does not help that at conventions Minnesota comes at the middle of the alphabet when called on to cast its votes). Think of how frustrated Ron Paul must be. He wins the Twin Cities and did well in the state but I doubt he gets any delegates who vote for him in the nomination is sewn up by convention time. Thus, caucus attendees really do not have their vote heard in terms of presidential preferences and it almost seems a waste of time for candidates to stump in a caucus state if they receive no delegates.

6. The Minnesota caucuses insulate against orderly political evolution. Party leaders love caucuses because they can generally control them. But with caucuses mostly attended by party activists they insult against change and evolution. Conversely many will say that the caucuses allow small numbers of people to alter the direction of the party rapidly. Both criticisms are correct. Parties need to evolve to survive and remain relevant, especially if they are to grow their base and appeal to swing voters. Yet the Minnesota caucus system seems to discourage that, as evidenced by the growing numbers who consider themselves not to be members of the two major parties. The parties just do not seem to line up with the way many Minnesotans think about a range of political issues, instead producing polarizing alignments. Thus, the caucus system does not seem to yield a system a system that promotes healthy party evolution.

Last thought: There is a great Sesame Street routine that shows several objects and asks which does not belong. In Minnesota we have caucuses, primaries, and conventions. Which does not belong?