Thursday, February 9, 2012

Don't Hold Your Breath: Caucus States Aren't Going Anywhere

Subtitle: The post in which FHQ takes out its scalpel and carves up a story overstating the likelihood of reform. I do not agree with Reid Wilson's piece up at the National Journal today.

...and there is a lot with which to disagree. What that article needs most, however, is context.

Look, FHQ doesn't have a dog in this fight. Unlike many others (mainly in the punditry), I don't engage in the normative arguments about the plusses and minuses of caucuses versus primaries. The simple fact of the matter is that it is up to the parties to decide. And throughout the post-reform era (1972-present), the national parties have deferred to the state parties on this issue of which mode of delegate allocation to utilize. The intention of the McGovern-Fraser reforms that took effect on the Democratic side in 1972 was actually to create more caucuses; to allow some participation of rank-and-file members of the party as a means of growing the party up from the grassroots. But state-level convenience overrode that unwritten intention. In reaction to the DNC's new mandate -- about binding delegates -- most states simply added presidential preference votes to their preexisting primary elections (assuming they fell roughly between a March-June window). Other states either immediately created separate presidential primary elections or gradually added them over time. It was the creation of those separate contests and in some cases the switch over from state party-funded caucuses to state-funded primaries also that most caused the frontloading of presidential nomination contests in the period between 1980-2008. [And don't hold your breath that that is over just because of what happened in the lead up to 2012.]

The point is that caucuses have largely disappeared as a part of that process. Yet, some states continue to use that mode of delegate allocation. And, again, that is something with which the national parties have been more than glad to go along. One of the pieces of political science research that FHQ cites most frequently on this front is the Meinke et al (2006) piece that makes quite clear the reason that some state parties prefer a caucus to a primary: It allows the state party more control over the process. The basic finding is that states where there is a lack of ideological convergence between the state party and the rank-and-file members of the party in the state are states where a closed caucus system is most often found (...closed primaries, too).

Now, again, pin whatever normative argument you please to that, but that is the way that it has been and the national parties have been fine with that. It would be completely out of character for the RNC to begin dictating to states what they can and can't do in terms of delegate allocation. The party has put in place some minimal restrictions on timing of primaries and caucuses over the years. It added rules that minimally changed the method of delegate allocation for 2012 -- curbing winner-take-all contests prior to April 1. And while FHQ has long argued that that latter change was a big step for the RNC, the change is not nearly as big as most have thought. Very plainly, the RNC is mostly hands off when it comes to this stuff.

The DNC, on the other hand, is not. The Democratic Party routinely tweaks its delegate selection rules from cycle to cycle and has over the years switched from a hands off entity on delegate selection to more hands on. The party since the 1980s, for instance, has required the proportional allocation of delegates to its national convention based either on a primary or the first step of a caucus/convention process.  During the intervening period between the 2008 and 2012 cycles, both the Democratic Change Commission and then the Rules and Bylaws Committee, acting on the former's recommendations, looked into the caucus process in the wake of the benefits the Obama campaign reaped from the caucus process during the 2008 Democratic nomination race. And result was not to tear down the caucus process. Instead, the result was to honor "the spirit of caucuses as an institution and an in-person party building tool." The commission recommended developing a set of "best practices" for caucuses with the goal of making the caucus process more uniform across states. [It should be noted that those recommendations led to no noticeable changes to the DNC delegate selection rules in 2012 relative to 2008.]

FHQ doesn't know what will happen specifically with Iowa and Nevada on the Republican side in the future, but there likely won't be anything more that emerges from the 2016 rules than a set of best practices for caucus states generally from either party.1 Those best practices may include some way of dealing with the vote counting issue. [Is it just FHQ or is anyone else of the opinion that the length of the count in Nevada was a direct response to the counting issues in Iowa? Knowing the process was messed up in 2008, the Nevada Republican Party erred on the side of caution and made sure they had the count right. Of course, that doesn't explain the closed door policy surrounding the count, but that's a different issue.] As I have said repeatedly -- and perhaps you've ascertained as much by now as well -- this quadrennial dance whereby the national parties set rules and states and state parties respond is a messy one.  Each of those entities -- national parties, state parties and states -- has a vested interest in the process, and getting them all on the same page across 50 states and additional territories is no small task.   Iowa and New Hampshire and a handful of other states realize this and have exploited the extant tensions between various combinations of those groups to maintain or force their way into privileged positions on the calendar. Iowa's parties band together. Nevada's don't. And that may be the downfall latter's Republicans if they can't stand up for their position or demonstrate that there will be changes in place for future cycles.

Regular readers will know that FHQ is extremely skeptical of any broad, sweeping reform to the presidential nomination system. Again, I don't have a dog in the fight. Change or no change, it provides me with a research agenda either way. But the above reasons are why it is unlikely. What we are likely to see -- or should logically see perhaps -- is the parties go one step beyond the informal coordination they had in formulating a calendar and basic rules for 2012 and coordinate uniform penalties across the parties for states in violation of the rules. Otherwise the state parties and states will continue to pit the national parties against each other to game the system. Regardless, none of the changes are going to come anywhere close to ending the presence of caucuses in the process.

Some other items in Wilson's piece that need some response:
1) "Thanks to movements inside both the Republican and Democratic national committees, 2012 may mark the end of this presidential nominating system."
Movements? What movements? Are there people in both parties that would like to see a change to the system? Yes. Is there a consensus on doing anything or in terms of what to do? No. Are we close to that? Well, the RNC passed the Ohio plan in 2008 which would have fundamentally rewritten the presidential nomination process, but it was quashed at the St. Paul convention and was never really a seriously discussed alternative at the Republican Temporary Delegate Selection Committee meetings that recommended changes to the Republican Party's delegate selection rules. 
2) "The sticks established in 2010—namely, halving a state’s convention delegation and giving them lousy hotel rooms—weren’t enough."
The sticks on the Republican side were not enough. But it bears repeating that the Democrats, both in 2008 and now in 2012, have a penalty in place to strip any candidate of their delegates from any state in violation of the party's rules if the candidate campaigns in that violating state. The rationale: Penalties keep the candidates away and in the process keeps the media away. States that desire an early slot want that attention. If said attention is not forthcoming, the motivation to move up is removed. In isolation -- used by only one party as the Democrats found out in 2008 with Florida and Michigan -- that is perhaps an ineffective tool; particularly if Republicans control the strings that set the date of a primary or caucus in a state. However, across both parties -- with both enforcing it -- that is likely a fairly adequate deterrent. 
3) "Because Iowa and Nevada don’t actually allocate delegates until much later, they thrive only on media attention."
Wilson also raises the notion of delegates being allocated at district and state conventions in caucus states, and that the precinct vote is nothing but a straw poll. True. Nevada is an exception and that is not made clear in his piece. The allocation and binding of the Nevada Republican delegates is based on the proportion of the vote each candidate received in the caucuses on February 4.
And while we're on the subject, it should be noted that all states allocate their delegates "later". Yes, even in primary states where there is a parallel process whereby delegates are selected. That allocation, however, is binding based on the results of the primary or caucus (in the case of Nevada.) 
4) "Reform is coming soon..."
Perhaps, but don't hold your breath that it will fundamentally change the current system. The national parties are plenty satisfied to incrementally chip away at reform whenever it becomes necessary.
1 I don't know what will happen but I have my doubts that either -- Iowa or Nevada -- is going anywhere.

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