Why the Caucus Hatred?

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Caucus and convention goers are finding that all their participation isn’t necessarily producing the candidates they like. Will reform follow?

By Seth Masket


People cheer as Bernie Sanders speaks during his caucus night event at the at the Holiday Inn on February 1, 2016, in Des Moines, Iowa. (Photo: Joshua Lott/Getty Images)

This year’s presidential election contest is producing a great many calls for reforms of the nomination process. Why are people so dissatisfied with the system this year? In part, it’s because of the nominees it has produced.

To be sure, there’s usually a good deal of grumbling about the primary and caucus process. In any given year, people will show up only to discover they’re not eligible to participate, the contests are held at inconvenient times and locations, there’s not always a strong connection between who the voters pick and who ends up with the most delegates, etc.

But this year has gone beyond the usual grumbling. The Colorado state legislature came close to abolishing its closed caucus in favor of an open primary just before the legislature adjourned for the year, and there may be a state initiative on this fall’s ballot to achieve the same end. Minnesota recently abandoned its longstanding presidential caucus in favor of a primary. Nevada has looked to follow a similar path following a controversial caucus and state convention. These are states with considerable histories of presidential caucuses, and yet opponents of those systems seem to have the upper hand. What’s going on?

Calls for reform typically quiet down when the object of reform is no longer in the news every day.

In part, this is the culmination of several unusually lengthy nomination cycles. Both in 2008 and this year, the Democrats have seen competitive contests until June. This year’s Republican cycle saw an uncertain outcome until early May. This is atypical; in the modern era, we’ve usually seen nominations effectively sewn up by March. New Hampshire and Iowa typically get plenty of attention, but they’re used to it, and those contests can usually withstand some public scrutiny. The result of these recent prolonged contests, however, is that they’ve drawn attention to the quirks of various state systems, which tend to look somewhat messy and confusing when they’re heavily contested.

And voters and caucus goers haven’t necessarily liked what they’ve seen. The rules in Pennsylvania that have voters pick among delegates without knowing how those delegates would vote in a convention, the Nevada system that produced a raucous state convention, the Colorado Republican Party’s choice to remove the presidential vote from the caucus, etc., left bad tastes in voters’ mouths.

Relatedly, particularly on the Democratic side, caucus and convention goers are finding that all their participation isn’t necessarily producing the candidates they like. The 2008 cycle saw relatively high turnout for caucuses, but the overwhelming winner in those races was Barack Obama. Participants were able to look past some of the disorganization and quirks in those contests since the candidate that they liked prevailed. This year, however, it’s been Bernie doing well in the caucuses, but he’s not winning the overall nomination. Many of those angry with the party’s treatment of him are blaming the complicated rules and procedures across state party systems and demanding reform.

Generally, people’s feelings toward the rules of a contest are strongly determined by their satisfaction with its outcome. Sanders’ supporters haven’t liked the way things have gone nationally for their candidate this year, stoked in large part by Sanders’ own statements that the system is rigged against him. Many of these supporters are young and new to the political system, and they’re angry to find that it’s not as openly democratic as they’d expected. This outrage is helping to fuel reform efforts this year. And while Donald Trump has eased off some of his claims of a rigged party nomination system, it certainly caught the attention of some active Republican voters early on.

A good deal of this anger and disillusionment will subside in the coming months as the parties rally around their chosen nominees; calls for reform typically quiet down when the object of reform is no longer in the news every day. But the wheels are already in motion for several reforms this year. And, after the election, when the parties try to assess what went right and what went wrong, their eyes will likely turn to the nomination system to see what changes need to be made.