What’s the Commotion About Caucuses?

The results of the Iowa caucus and the New Hampshire primary are in, and the race to determine presidential nominees is off to an exciting start. Unfortunately, Washington voters have to wait until the last leg of the race to participate.

At this stage of the presidential election, each state’s Democratic and Republican parties are voting to nominate delegates that will attend each party’s National Convention in July and determine the party’s official presidential nominee. To do this, states can use two methods: the caucus or the primary. In Washington, we do both.

In Washington, Republicans determine some of their delegates from the primary and some from the caucus. Because the rules of the Democratic National Convention do not allow splitting delegates, Washington Democrats determine all of their delegates in the caucus. Though in previous years the state legislature has voted to cancel the primary due to its high expense, this year Republicans, who utilize the process, influenced the allocation of $11.5 million to see the primaries through.

In the primary, voters fill out a ballot for one party, choosing only between that party’s candidates. The Washington primary falls on Tuesday, May 24.

While the primary is relatively straightforward, the caucus is more complex. In a caucus, voters of each party congregate according to precinct, debate with their neighbors about candidates and policies, and eventually nominate delegates based on a majority vote. The Washington Republican and Democratic caucuses will take place on Feb. 20 and March 26, respectively.

The caucus is much more participatory, and as senior political science major Izzy Gardon sees it, the caucus can also be a powerful platform for persuasion. For example, he believes that many Democratic voters in Iowa were persuaded to vote for Clinton rather than Sanders during the caucus.
“People will go into the caucus behind one candidate, and then be forced to hear both sides, be persuaded, and then reposition,” Gardon said. “I think a lot of people went into the caucus supporting Sanders, and then once people made speeches, they really questioned whether he had the ability to win the presidency.”

Political science professor Erik Olsen, who participated in the 2008 Washington Democratic caucus, especially appreciates the “old-time, neighborhood democracy” aspect of caucuses.

“People got up and spoke on behalf of their candidate, and they explained their reasons. It was really meaningful and substantive. It was among friends, but it was still pretty intense,” Olsen said. “And that’s what I like about it. It’s a reminder that democracy is about voting, but in a larger sense it’s about these practices of self-government.”

Critics of caucuses tend to focus on the aspect of required attendance, meaning that the many people who cannot be present at the caucus for various reasons are not counted in the vote.

“It’s a much more involved process,” said political science professor Julian Gottlieb. “Whereas anyone can cast a vote in a primary, and it’s just 10 minutes of effort on your behalf.”

Many have concerns that too much emphasis is put on the results of the Iowa caucus and the New Hampshire primary, as these states are not necessarily representative of the nation, but are merely the first states to elect their delegates. In recent elections, many states including Washington have tried to make their primaries and caucuses occur sooner, so that their delegates play an important part in the decision process.

Unfortunately, this year Washington’s primary and even the caucuses will occur relatively late in the process, meaning the nominees may already be determined by the time Washingtonians cast their votes.

As Gardon sees it, this means Washington delegates will not have a significant impact on either race. “It’s because we caucus so late in the game,” Gardon said.

However, Olsen recalls that in the 2008 race, by the time the Washington Democratic caucus came around, the race was still very close between Clinton and current President Barack Obama.

“In 2008 the election was close enough that the Washington caucus still mattered,” Olsen said. “We definitely were making decisions that impacted the ultimate delegate selection from Washington.”

In Olsen’s opinion, currently both the Republican and Democratic races are still so close that it’s very likely Washington’s primary and caucuses will have an impact. Gottlieb believes the race will be especially close on the Republican side.

“I think this one could prove to be even more competitive than the race in 2012,” Gottlieb said. “I’m actually still of the opinion that it will end up being Rubio, even though he held third in Iowa. The way I see it is that he as the most room to grow with his base of support, especially among establishment conservatives.”

Whether Washington’s delegates make the final decision or not, Olsen believes that for both parties, participating in caucuses is worthwhile if you’re able, because it provides a space for citizens to engage in discussions about policy and party priorities at a grassroots level.

“We privatize public life too much by reducing democracy and just voting for the horse race,” Olsen said. “I believe that democracy should involve interaction with other citizens—that’s the meaning of public life. And that, to me, is the great virtue of caucuses, as limited as they are.”

Alexa McConville is a Senior studying Strategic Communications. She loves dancing, theater and America!


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