Commentary: The trouble with caucuses

The (Tacoma) News TribuneFebruary 16, 2012 

Come March 3rd — the good Lord and Rick Santorum willin' — Washington state Republicans could be somebody in 2012 presidential politics.

If the former Pennsylvania senator can stay competitive long enough to prevent perennial front-runner Mitt Romney from securing the nomination by then, the state’s caucuses might play a significant role in selecting who might be the next leader of the free world.

Which raises the question: Is that really such a hot idea?

That’s not a comment on the worthiness of the state’s Republicans. They are certainly as able as their fellows in Iowa or Nevada. Minnesota even. It’s a comment on the process all of these states use to select delegates. That would be the caucus system, a process that resembles a real election in the same way the Mariners resemble a real baseball team.

Let’s stay with this tortured analogy for a little longer. Like the Mariners, the caucuses draw increasingly smaller crowds. Caucus rules and process make the infield-fly rule seem transparent.

And the people who completely understand the process and strategies are the same lonely types who spend too much time calling in to talk radio shows.

Proclaimed as being an exercise in pure democracy, caucuses are really pretty undemocratic. Because of the tiny turnout, no one can be sure if the ultimate result reflects the sentiments of the state’s Republicans as a whole. Because of the Rubik’s Cube rules, no one can be sure if the ultimate result even reflects the sentiments of those who attend the caucuses.

But all of these shortcomings are nothing compared with the big one: In a real election, we know who won (save your Rossi-Gregoire wisecracks for another time). Not so with caucuses. In fact, the point of caucuses isn’t even to decide who won on caucus night. The widely reported results of the Iowa caucuses were just a straw poll, not the calculation of which candidate got the most delegates. And Iowa party officials even got that wrong … twice. (Shush with the Rossi-Gregoire jokes.)

In a caucus system, precinct delegates attend county conventions and decide which delegates attend the state convention. State convention delegates then pick the actual people who will fly to Tampa, Fla., the last week of August and cast votes to nominate a Republican candidate for president.

(State Democrats have caucuses as well, on April 15, but President Barack Obama is expected to win all delegates.)

The caucus system has been on a bit of a losing streak this year, starting with the First-In-The-Nation Iowa Caucuses. As mentioned, Iowa GOP officials declared Romney the “winner” by eight votes. Then they announced that they might never know for sure who won. Then a week later, they declared Santorum the winner.

Later, Nevada took so long in tallying results that the oft-quoted University of Virginia political science professor Larry Sabato began comparing party officials to the inept cops on a former cable show (“Hearty congratulations to Lt. Dangle and fellow ‘Reno 911’ cops for finally finishing NV GOP vote count,” he tweeted.)

So why not do what many states have done and use the more-familiar primary election to decide party sentiment? We did that when a voter initiative created a presidential preference primary in time for the 1992 election. Each time since, however, state Democrats have boycotted the results. Republicans have been more supportive but have moved away from using the primary results alone to distribute all of its delegates.

Democrats finally succeeded in killing the primary entirely this year, citing cost savings.

So we are left with a political process that can be described in two distinct ways.

To supporters, it is a hallowed example of grass-roots democracy where neighbors come together to discuss the issues facing our nation and world.

Think Norman Rockwell painting.

To critics, it is a haphazard, undemocratic process where activists argue to see who can win the illusion of carrying the day for their candidate.

Think Ultimate Fighting Championship.

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