On the Primaries, Caucuses, and Conventions


With the final recount in from the Iowa caucuses, Rick Santorum has been declared the winner of Iowa. With Romney having won in New Hampshire, and Gingrich’s recent win in South Carolina, the talking heads are now talking about the Romney campaign implosion, and a brokered convention (with less than a week having passed since they were talking about the Romney steamroller). Ron Paul is now talking about no longer campaigning in primary states, but focusing on caucuses. This seems to be an opportune time to discuss the idiotic system that we use to select our President.

The Primaries:

The primaries have the fewest problems, when the parties pay attention to them. Getting the read of the largest percentage of the voters in any state with primaries, they should be a good guide of the mood of the voters. The main problem with the primary process in Presidential elections is that the more representative a primary is, the less likely the parties are to recognize its results. For example, in Oregon, where voters usually register by party, the parties give far greater weight to the primary results than in Washington, which has open primaries (and, as a result also has caucuses for President).

Of course, political parties do have freedom of association, and if they wish to restrict their primaries to their members, that is their right. However, taking into account the whole voting public would probably help them to select a candidate who is more likely to appeal to the whole of the voting public come November.

The Caucuses:

Caucuses appeal to the dedicated partisan, either to the die-hard supporter of a political party, or to the ardent supporter of an individual candidate. Where a primary can test breadth of appeal, caucuses test depth. In a caucus system, voting is done in public, and (at times) through a multiple-vote system. The time involved (and discussion between votes) tests depth of resolve. Caucuses are far less representative than primaries, and appeal to the voters who are more likely to work for the party and individual candidates. As a result, parties prefer them to primaries (especially open primaries), even if they are more likely to reward the unelectable candidates.

The Conventions:

Party nominating conventions are a bastardization of democracy. To give the convention a democratic veneer, the delegates do vote for a candidate to be the party’s nominee for the Presidency. What this masks is the way that the delegates get there. Many (in a pastiche of the ridiculous Electoral College) are selected as committed delegates via the state primaries and caucuses. Others (sometimes referred to as Super Delegates) attend by virtue of holding either elective or party office. Skewing everything even more, the delegates committed to candidates who have dropped out of the race become free to vote for whichever candidate they choose. Then, in the end, they all vote to make their vote unanimous.

If it weren’t all so important (this is the way that the two parties with influence choose to nominate their candidates for the most influential political office in the world, after all) it would be laughable. I’m sure that there must be a better way, but I don’t know what it might be. Perhaps we could start with a direct election of the President in the general election, with alternative vote (instant runoff) voting, which would slightly decrease the influence of the parties — then how they choose their nominees wouldn’t matter so much. On the other hand, the chances of moving to a system that might actually be sane and productive are so remote (requiring a 2/3 majority in Congress, and of the states) that we may as well just laugh at the insane system we have.


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