Monday, July 12, 2021

Fixing The Caucuses, Part 1: "The Caucuses" vs. "First"

Time to get the beret out of mothballs, dust off the old blog, and settle in for some longer discussion.

As those of you who follow me on my main medium, Twitter, know, I've spent much of the year and a half since the Democratic caucus results collapsed arguing for an end to the caucuses. This week, I got some numbers and in subsequent posts I'll quantify my main objections.

But before I get into that, I'm going to explain what I mean by "the caucuses." I often make the mistake of assuming too much background knowledge, and assuming too much background knowledge is one of the problems the caucuses have.

When people who defend the caucuses talk about benefits like "a candidate with little money and name ID can break out of the pack and win" or "anyone can just walk up to the candidate and ask a question," or "it's a big boost to our tourism economy" or "it keeps national attention on Iowa's issues," they are not talking about the same thing I am talking about when I say "end the caucuses."

They are talking about First. First In The Nation, to be exact.

Through a historic accident that centers around obscure rules about numbers of days between conventions, and the limitations of 1970's printing and copying technology, Iowa found itself hosting its caucuses before the New Hampshire primary, which had long been considered the beginning of the presidential nomination contest. Jimmy Carter noticed this and rode a breakout second place finish - behind "Uncommitted"! - to the nomination and the White House. 

After that, what had long been a small and obscure set of living room meetings of a dozen people a precinct became a major national news story and a must-stop event for candidates, who spend more time in Iowa the year before the nomination contest than any other state (with one exception).

For Iowans, and this will be important in later posts, it grew. The caucuses are still a small and obscure set of living room meetings of a dozen people a precinct who pass platform resolutions and elect each other to committees in governor years, though the ADA has moved us out of living rooms and into public buildings. 

But once the media and the candidates showed up, the caucuses grew into a mass participation event that's become the functional equivalent of a primary - which it was never meant or designed to be - while keeping almost exactly the same rules that were designed for a living room.

When I talk about "The Caucuses" I am not talking about First: The Year Before. I am talking about Caucuses: Caucus Night Itself. I am talking about the process that requires people to attend a party meeting to express their presidential choice, instead of simply voting in an election.

New Hampshire gets many of these same advantages of attention from having the first primary, usually eight days after Iowa. Since the 1980s this has been an unofficial alliance, less friendly in recent years, in a tacit agreement that lets both states claim "First." And even as nearly every other state that had caucuses has abandoned them for a primary, Iowa has stuck with them.

A lot of defenders of Caucuses: The Institution argue that First: The Year and Caucuses: The Night are the same thing: "If we got rid of The Caucuses and had a primary, we would lose First." That argument is based on New Hampshire's pit-bull insistence on staying First as they see it, and on their objections to anything resembling an election-like process occurring before their state.

Why can't Iowans get absentee ballots for the caucuses? Why were we prohibited from releasing our raw vote totals from the caucuses until 2020 when the DNC made it mandatory? Because the New Hampshire Secretary of State said so, that's why. And Iowa's party leaders, of both parties, live in fear of upsetting the New Hampshire Secretary of State, lest he wish us into the cornfield.

I think we're already IN the cornfield.

The silliest argument of all for the caucuses is New Hampshire's state law requiring their primary to occur before "any similar contest," and Iowa's corresponding law regarding caucuses. What is stopping 48 other states from passing the exact same law? One already did - Nevada, which has been third the last few cycles but earlier this year switched from a caucus to a primary and announced plans to go before both New Hampshire and Iowa.

Both Iowa and New Hampshire have bigger threats to First than each other. The other 48 states, especially on the Democratic side, are not happy that two demographically unrepresentative states have monopolized First. Iowa faces additional hostility to caucuses as a process, for all the reasons I've been saying and will flesh out in subsequent posts.

Scheduling the nominating calendar is the prerogative of the party national committees, although election scheduling is also a matter of state law and the parties have weak and ineffective enforcement tools. In the past, parties have been unwilling to use the most effective tool, the nuclear option of refusing to seat a state's delegation if they have their nominating contest on a too-soon date. The threat is even emptier after 2008, when both Florida and Michigan cut in line and - because they were big swing states - walked away with no meaningful penalties.

New Hampshire and Nevada, about as purple a pair of states as still exists and with two Democratic Senators - might get away with rule breaking too, if the DNC decides to start elsewhere. (It should be noted that the other early state in recent cycles is South Carolina - home of new DNC chair Jamie Harrison.) But it would be very easy to make an example of Iowa. We're now safely red and we have no one in a really powerful position to fight for First the way Tom Harkin used to. And unlike Barack Obama, with his breakthrough at the 2008 caucuses and two Iowa general election wins, Joe Biden did very poorly in Iowa both in the caucuses and last November - so he owes us nothing.

Iowa Democrats are in a jam because, if the DNC decides, as I expect, to ban caucuses and only allow primaries, that decision is not binding on a Republican-led legislature and a Republican governor. And Iowa Republicans are clearly committed both to First and to a caucus process (which is much simpler on their side). The long bipartisan tradition of caucus cooperation, which has been good to me locally, may end this cycle.

I'm not here to argue about First. I like some things about First, although some of them are overrated. I like the idea of starting in small states, especially coming off a cycle that had billionaires Michael Bloomberg and Tom Steyer as candidates.

But in a nationalized, online political climate, little-know Pete Buttigeig and Andrew Yang were able to break out of a very large pack long before we actually went to our caucus sites. 

The much ballyhooed in person events "where anyone can ask a question" are full of a lot of repeat customers, gadflies, and, my pet peeve, selfie collectors. 

Guilty. (Though I did in fact caucus for her.)

A lot of people who brag up the in person campaign events are the inner and second circle of party activists, and "anyone can ask a question" really means "I can get four senators and two ex-governors as guests at my small county fundraiser, and maybe the New York Times will interview me.*" It's that class of activists, and the local journalists playing out their network anchor fantasies*, that First is really, really good for.

(* Disclaimer: I interviewed many candidates when I was a professional journalist, and I've been interviewed by many national media outlets including, yes, the New York Times. And yes, I admit, that stuff's fun. But I'm privileged enough to be in the inner circle, or at least my friends are in the inner circle and I'm in the next layer out.)

I'm certainly not going to argue against Iowa being first. Someone has to, may as well be us. But what I am arguing against is the idea that First and The Caucuses are the same thing, because they're not. My idea scenario would be Iowa keeping First as a primary, though that's not going to happen for all the reasons I list above.

I'm also - because someone always brings this up - I'm not going to argue against caucuses for things like committee seats and the platform. Personally. I'd do away with the platform entirely. Because it's it's not binding on Democratic elected officials, it's an empty gesture. The real platform is winning a majority and whatever you can pass as the best legislation. I'll also note that some states elect their party committee members in a primary, which some states do and which is more small d democratic than leaving the job to the handful of people who stay at the caucus to the bitter end.  

But I'm not gonna die on that hill. If we want to have a caucus for the Party Business, sure, the 12 activists who show up in the governor years can get together in the coffee shops or classrooms that replaced the living rooms.

What I am really, really arguing against is Caucuses: The Night as an experience for rank and file Iowans who are only interested in voting for president - which is roughly 90% of attendees -  and who have to fight massive crowds and work through a process that was never meant to be this big. 

I've come to the reluctant conclusion that the benefits of First: The Year are outweighed by the pain of Caucuses: The Night. In the next installments, we'll see that the caucus as it exists:

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