Since the presidential nominating process was overhauled a half century ago to increase citizen participation, the states have had two basic choices when it comes to selecting their national convention delegates. One is primary elections, where voters can cast their ballot at a time of their choosing on primary election day—if not before. The other option is caucuses, neighborhood events in states, such as Iowa and Nevada, where voters meet at a certain time to express their presidential preferences, and sometimes stay for hours to align themselves into viable groups, which among Democrats is at least 15% of the vote. But have these caucuses overstayed their welcome?

Over the years, far more states have chosen to hold primaries than caucuses. The former is run by the states, who keep the voting lists, open the polling places, and tally the vote. The latter is operated by the state parties, and can require the volunteer-dependent organizations to spend time, money, and energy to put on an event they are not always well-suited to administer.

Still, caucuses have long maintained an honored place in the nominating process. That is until now, where they appear to be on a slide into oblivion. At their worst, the caucuses are complicated, time-consuming, and prone to vote-tallying delays and errors, all of which have been evident of late. In the process, they have lost a lot of their luster and more than a few of their defenders.

Doubts about the caucuses began to appear in 2012, when the Iowa Republican event produced two different winners. On caucus night, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney finished ahead by eight votes and was widely heralded as the nominal winner, even though there were precincts still outstanding. When the last votes trickled in over the next few weeks, former U.S. senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania emerged on top by 34 votes, with a few precincts that never reported. At this point, the Iowa GOP threw up its hands and said no winner could be definitively declared. It expressed congratulations to both candidates.

In 2016, it was the Democrats’ turn for angst in Iowa. Caucus night was a nip and tuck affair between former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York and Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont that ended with Clinton narrowly ahead in state delegate equivalents, 700.47 to 696.92. It is the novel—and complex—measurement of choice employed in Iowa Democratic caucus politics. The Sanders’ forces cried foul with the result, arguing there was a lack of transparency magnified by the absence of a popular vote.

After the election, national party leaders took note of the problem and adopted rules for 2020 encouraging states to hold primaries, in which more voters would participate and the results were simpler to tally. Many of the dozen or so caucus states in 2016 made the change, leaving a corporal’s guard this year holding caucuses, a number that included Iowa, Nevada, North Dakota, and Wyoming.

To increase transparency, the Democratic National Committee (DNC) required caucus states in 2020 to add two popular votes to the mix: The first measuring presidential preferences as voters entered each precinct caucus; the second tallying the popular vote after voters realigned in each precinct behind candidates that had reached 15 percent support.

However, on Iowa caucus night (February 3), the technology employed to deal with the new system was overwhelmed. Precinct leaders could not get their tallies into state headquarters. Participants milled around caucus sites waiting for something to happen, many of them looking like stranded travelers at a bus station. And media commentators, who showed up to analyze the results, instead turned their ire on the debacle that was happening before them.

No results were reported on caucus night, and initial returns from Iowa did not appear until late the following afternoon. They revealed a confusing set of numbers. Sanders handily led the two popular votes—the entrance poll by more than 6,000 over former South Bend mayor Pete Buttigieg, and the post-alignment vote by more than 2,500. But Buttigieg ended up winning the all-important count of state delegate equivalents over Sanders by the narrowest of margins, 562.954 to 562.021 (according to a posting on the web site of the Iowa Democratic Party as of March 10).

In the wake of the Iowa caucuses, the state Democratic chair quit. And the national party worked feverishly with Democrats in the next caucus state, Nevada, to try to prevent a similar Iowa-style disaster from happening. They largely did, helped in part by the one-sided nature of the Nevada vote; Sanders won in a landslide. Still, the Nevada count was slow to unfold, and by the morning of February 23, the day after the caucuses, half the vote was still not tallied.

Caucuses do have their strengths. While primaries draw a number of casual voters, the caucuses often serve as a recruiting tool for the state party, drawing activists who become the backbone of party activities. And while the primaries have frequently been expensive affairs for the candidates, requiring extensive advertising campaigns to reach large audiences, the caucuses can be run on the cheap by candidates—outside the expensive lead-off event in Iowa, that is.

The caucuses nowadays, though, has few public supporters in high places. DNC chair Tom Perez, for example, has been highly critical of them. So too has former U.S. Senate majority leader Harry Reid, who sees no place for the caucuses in the party’s future, even in his home state of Nevada. “I believe it’s time for the Democratic Party to move to primaries everywhere,” he wrote in a statement following the Nevada vote.

Whether there will be any caucuses around in 2024 is an open question. But it does not look good, as there is little doubt that a long-accepted part of the presidential nominating process has become virtually persona non grata.

Document Citation
Cook, R. (2020). The caucuses: is it time for them to go?.
Document ID: rcookltr-1527-112961-2946752
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