To Primary or to Caucus? - Pacific Standard

To Primary or to Caucus?

What states get when they decide to hold a primary instead of a caucus—and why it matters so much.
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A voting ballot photographed as part of the Polling Place Photo Project, a nationwide experiment in citizen  journalism that encouraged voters to capture, post, and share images  of primaries, caucuses, and elections. (Photo: Heather Katsoulis/Flickr)

A voting ballot photographed as part of the Polling Place Photo Project, a nationwide experiment in citizen journalism that encouraged voters to capture, post, and share images  of primaries, caucuses, and elections. (Photo: Heather Katsoulis/Flickr)

Colorado legislators are considering holding a presidential primary in 2016, even though the state has been holding caucuses for the past few presidential cycles. This is actually a pretty big deal—very different people show up for these different events, and very different candidates tend to win them.

Primaries are how most state parties seek to nominate presidents, and indeed it's how party nominations for most offices are made in this country. That's how most Americans think of the presidential party nomination process: The candidates campaign, and party voters all show up on one day to cast a secret ballot, just as they would in a general election.

Caucuses are very different. Unlike primary elections, caucuses are communal events. Your vote is not secret. Indeed, part of caucus night is spent speaking on behalf of candidates and trying to woo supporters. Caucuses take time—typically around two hours on a weeknight. They involve passionate people arguing and debating and discussing the issues of the day. If you're ever feeling down on the American political system, go watch or participate in a caucus—they're damned inspiring.

Primary voters and caucus-goers aren't necessarily different ideologically—caucus-goers aren't more extreme or less tolerant—but they do differ on other dimensions, specifically political engagement.

At the same time, they're damned time-consuming and exhausting. Not many people have the time, energy, or interest to participate in such an event, which is what makes caucuses so disappointing. In Colorado's 2008 presidential caucuses, only 5.5 percent of eligible voters participated. That was a record high, achieved in a year when both parties still had competitive races. In most years, the presidential contests are all but decided by the time most states get to weigh in. Yes, caucuses get to discuss nominations for other partisan races and party platform stances, but if the presidential race is uninteresting, very few people show up, leaving the event to the one or two percent of the population who cares and has the time to participate.

People do show up at primaries, however, since they're so much easier to participate in. In 2008, just 16.3 percent of eligible voters showed up for the Iowa caucuses, but 51.9 percent voted in the New Hampshire primary. Those were two of the most heavily advertised political events in the entire country that winter, but the primary obviously drew much greater participation.

These differences in turnout suggest that primaries draw a very different type of voter than a caucus does. In a paper on this topic, Eitan Hersh shows that primary voters and caucus-goers aren't necessarily different ideologically—caucus-goers aren't more extreme or less tolerant—but they do differ on other dimensions, specifically political engagement. Caucus-goers are joiners. They're more likely to attend meetings and join organizations than primary voters are.

Thus caucuses and primaries advantage different types of candidates. Those candidates with supporters who see themselves as part of a movement (think Obama in 2008, Rand/Ron Paul supporters in multiple years) tend to do pretty well in caucuses. Obama ran about 13 percentage points better in the 2008 caucuses than he did in the primaries. Although there were only 13 caucus states that year, the margin he ran up in those states was enough to give him the majority of delegates and the presidential nomination. Even though caucus states see lower turnout and have a rather byzantine procedure for translating caucus preferences into delegate counts, they still get as many delegates as primary states, and ignoring them can be costly, as Hillary Clinton learned.

Another important difference? Cost. Primaries cost a state millions of dollars to administer. One of the reasons Colorado switched from a primary to a caucus system after 2000 was to save the state money. Caucuses are free for the state government, and are financed and administered directly by the parties. If you participate in a caucus, expect to see a plate passed around asking people to donate a few dollars to offset administration and facility rental fees.

So if Colorado switches to a primary, how might that make a difference? Well, the Democratic presidential contest is likely to be a snooze, which means turnout will be low, although probably higher than it would be in a caucus. Among Republicans, it's hard to say. Part of this depends on when the contest is held and how many viable candidates still remain at that point. Movement candidates like Rand Paul and Ted Cruz, who might well dominate a caucus, would likely not fare so well in a primary, leaving the contest to the likes of Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, or Scott Walker. If two or more of those candidates are still competitive at that point, Republican participation in the primary will likely be pretty high, and Coloradans can look forward to several weeks of intense advertising and candidate visits.

Oh, and other caucuses in Colorado for other partisan races would still happen, but fewer people would participate in those if they're divorced from the presidential process. And important decisions about which candidates to nominate for Senate, House, and the state legislature, and which stances the parties should take, will be left up to the handful of hardcore activists who actually show up.

What Makes Us Politic? is Seth Masket’s weekly column on politics and policy.

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