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June 02, 2008


how about we go the other way on the caucuses, giving people 8 hours off to participate, national holidays for voting, daycare centers, grilled vegetables, the whole shebang? geez, its that really how you spell it?

Sheesh, I take off two days to go to Vegas and I come back to find Clinton gambling with the future of the Democratic Party.

The key thing that we need to commit to (and this showed up in 2000, 2002 and 2004) is that you have to make election rules well in advance and you absolutely must stick to them when it comes down to it. It is impossible to maintain the seeming of fairness if you try to tinker with the rules once the votes are cast. At that point it becomes possible to know exactly how your rule-changing will help or hurt you and the urge to tweak that toward your favored candidate is almost impossible to resist. Humans are too good at post-facto rationalization.

Redwood, it still wouldn't help for a lot of folks. You'd have to mandate the break time nationally, and then you'd have to attend to the situation of people who really can't afford to lose a day of work and also time-sensitive processes that need someone to tend them. (This includes rocket science, drying concrete, people needing constant medical supervision, and a lot else.) You'd still have problems for people who can't devote extended periods of time to any activity (like people recovering from various illnesses, just for starters, plus folks like my friends just getting started with treatment for severe sleep apnea, and so on), and like that.

Gary Farber makes some great arguments in favor of caucuses, and I can see his point. But insofar as the goal is to get as many Democratic voices heard as possible, primaries are the way to go.

Publius, in addition to the things you list - all of which I agree with - I'd want to make sure there's PR about procedures for appealing policies in advance and a much clearer, firmer rule about challenges made after the fact.

I agree with those things on paper but I have qualms

1) Such a system would greatly favor people with high name recognition and boatloads of money. Say what you want about Iowa but if they had not taken the time to get to know Barack Obama one-on-one, Hillary would have swept everything. Regardless of whether you think that was the right outcome or not, as everyone pointed out, our party benefits from fighting the nomination at least a bit. A sweep for Obama if he had won NH would have been bad. Same thing if Hill had won Iowa. Same thing happened in 2004. Without Iowa, John Edwards would never have been on the scene in 2008 and influencing the nomination the way he has.
I understand the idea that it is not fair for a state to always go first but there are clear drawbacks to multi-states primary right off the bat and Iowans do know how to vet candidates.

2) Caucuses do not always disenfranchize people (see Maine where people could vote by proxy) and are very useful in terms of party building. As Kos pointed out a few days ago, an hybrid system in every state would help gathering name and energy for the party while opening the results to a larger population.

3) The SD system as is now is ridiculous. That someone like the moron from the VI who changed his mind twice in three weeks is allowed to have such an impact on the nomination is outrageous. That said, the system was created for a reason, and I don't see anything wrong with guaranteeing a spot at the convention to, at least, our elected officials such as Governors or Senators. That may even reward states that elect Democrats vs those who don't.

All to say that while I understand your reform proposals are grounded in principle, in real-life things are different. There are good reasons for every messy piece of the messy puzzle and there are flaws with what seems on paper an ideal system.


While I hope President Obama will direct the DNC into that reform direction, I do NOT want this to be the focus of the netroots for the time being.
First, we have an election to win. And secondly, this would end up being played as a proxy for the Hillary/Barack wars. People would start projecting their candidate on every system and would judge based on what impact it would have had if ...
Better let those passions die down and let's talk about it next year.

Benjamin, I've seen proposals for assembling blocks of states that include states with various features: low-population relatively rural, major industrial, and so on. It'd need a lot of work and testing to make sure each block was in fact comparable, but then that's true of anything. And then the idea is that one could arrange them in any order and get the benefits of our current system without the liability of the same states dominating every time.

Sebastian, is it okay if we blame this all on your not paying attention? :)

Eliminate caucuses.

Hold primaries and count all the votes.

Revise the delegate allocation by districts to remove the unfair influence the all black districts have on the party. Revise the demographic allocation of delegates to reflect the actual demographics of the states they are representing.

Keep the superdelegates as is. With or without them it is possible for two or three candidates to go to the convention without the needed majority of delegates to win on the first ballot. Super delegates provide a cadre of people who know how to horsetrade and that is what is required when no one has a clear majority.

Right now the Democratic party is in danger of becoming a permanent minority party. If they don't change then no matter what the republicans do the democrats will be unable (deservedly so) of winning a national election.

You are dead wrong about the first four primaries -- it's not just IA and NH, there's also now SC and NV. Those four primaries spread over a few weeks in relatively small states makes it possible for lesser know, lesser moneyed candidates to get in the race. (Or, let's put it this way: No Iowa means no Obama.)

Perhaps there's some way to broaden the pool of states to begin the process, but in principle beginning with a one smaller state at a time series makes very good sense because it keeps the process open to smaller name, less well known candidates.

Now I agree with rotating regional primaries after that. That makes a lot of sense. But to demand of small time candidates that they compete right off the bat in a regional primary just ain't right. If that had been in place this year then Clinton would be the nominee.

Oh, one more. Rotate the primaries, but by region instead of by state.

So when New Hamphire votes, then so do the other states in its region. California votes with Oregon and Washington. Texes votes with New Mexico and Oklahoma. The midwest all votes on the same day, etc.

a couple of thoughts on that and then to bed.

first, I don't think you can base everything on obama. this system also brought us kerry -- (not awful, but not the strongest either, i think). the point though is that we need to look more systematically and outside the lens of this particular race. on balance, is beginning with individual states good or bad and why.

second, i'm not completely opposed to beginning with individual states. I can see why retail politicking is a good thing at first. But even if that's right, i think it's clear that those individual states need to rotate. but is suspect few disagree with me on that last point.

ken: "Super delegates provide a cadre of people who know how to horsetrade and that is what is required when no one has a clear majority." Well, that is one way of solving the problem. A better one is to actually ask the voters. Really, it's not so difficult: On my workplace, all internal votes, from the photo competition to election of board representative, are taken with ranked ballots. In case of no outright majority (really, in all cases) it is resolved with something called Schwartz's rule or CSSD. It's deep mathematical election theory magic, and I dare say very few can explain why it works so well, but around here we respect mathematics :-) Just like all voters don't need to know arcane rules for delegate distribution, all voters don't need to know the math here. People just rank the candidates from best to worst and voila - you have a winner.

I totally agree with the desire for a rotating (and centrally dictated) calendar. Rotating so that IA and NH don't own the candidates for a year before the election every time, and centrally dictated so that states can't jump the queue.

I am not at all sure I agree with Publius about caucuses. I've never voted in a caucus state, so I've got no experience, but the retail politics, neighbor-swaying-neighbor, and high-commitment voter aspects impress me in theory. That said, I realize that if caucuses are to be just some accomodation must be made for those unable to attend.

There are some other problems. For example, this is being discussed as a Democratic party issue, but I;d suggest it is not. In states such as Michigan, citizens can vote on the Democratic or the Republican primary ballot - but this only works if the primaries coincide. So rescheduling either means a joint Democratic and Republican effort, or it means addressing the laws in some number of the 50 states, which in turn might require cross-party cooperation.

Also, I see all the enthusiasm for regional primaries, and I never know whether there's more behind it than simple efficiency. I don't actually care for regional primaries; in fact, I rather like the notion of scattering the primaries on any given day. If a region happens to vote en bloc very early in the process, that could skew the results towards the candidate with a demographic advantage there - think Clinton in Appalachia, or Obama in the deep South.

My own pet notion for the scheduling is a Reverse Auction: states vote the delegate penalty they're willing to accept, and get slotted into a fixed schedule on the basis of lowest bid first. So a state willing to lose 90% of its delegates can go first, while a state that wants 150% of its delegates goes last.

I'm not convinced it's a feasible notion, mind you, and I think additional controls should be added to make sure that the first few states are relatively small and affordable, but at least it's reasonably fair and transparent.

P.S. One other fix: Puerto Rico should become a state or a country (from my position of ignorance, I'm agnostic as to which), and shouldn't have this bolus of delegates if they don't vote in November. Similarly, DC should become a state or a country, and I rather think the latter option there is impractical and undesirable.

I fully agree that both parties should revise thier primary systems before 2012. Most of these issues are equally salient for the Republicans, they just didn't have an extended close campaign for these to matter. Also, some of these issues, in particular the order of states, will be much easier if there is coordinated action by both parties. If for no other reason, there is a cost and time savings for the government officials who run the elections.

I agree with the commentators who have tauted the value of having individual, small states conduct the first few elections. It allows for less well known and less funded candidates to have a chance. Some will be a flash in the pan (Ron Paul); others make a reasonable showing but still get overtaken by the favorite (Dean, Huckabee) but every now and then an initial dark horse will make it (Carter, Obama)

If the first election is in either a big state (or medium state with expensive markets, e.g. CT) then the first primary will essentially be the money primary, as a large ante will be required to have any chance. In particular, if there are two candidates with strong money and establishment support, others will be boxed out from the start.

Even after a few small state primaries are held to winnow down the field, I would not want to see regional primaries. The problem would be that all of the candidates would zig their positions to suit one region, then zag them back for the next. Look at how both Clinton and Obama became very vocally anti-NAFTA when OH and PA were coming up, after both being seen as moderately free trade candidates. Just imagine if CA / OR / WA were the following week. Have several states each week, but have each week be a mix.

Finally, there needs to be a balance struck between having a party center strong enough to enforce rules versus having the deck stacked against insurgents. One technical fix would be to set the Rules Committee membership early on, with strong pledges of neutrality (and maybe a requirement to recuse themselves if they or a close family member endorse a candidate.) Pick true elder statesmen, judges, law deans, rather than politicians.

Another idea would be to get the candidates to very publically committ to a statement of the rules and their guiding spirit as a condition of participating in the primaries, or at least DNC / RNC run events such as debates and caucuses. Make them say on video that they agree that the count of delegates should be the only measure of who won, that pledged delegates should not be tampered with, that penalties given to states should be respected.

I'm not sure about caucuses. One one hand, the caucus goers are also the party volunteers, the people the party will need to get the campaign going. By attending the caucus they are committing to the party, so I can see a reason for the party to take more notice of their voice. On the other hand, more and more people see the primary as another part of the election, rather than an intra-party function, and we should encourage voting, rather than make it expensive. The only compromise I can think of is a Texas like hybrid, but that leads to even more confusion.


Looks like we had similar ideas (involve both parties, break up regions) at the same time.


The deep mathematical election theory magic is actually black magic. There is a mathematical theorem (Arrow's impossibility theorem), stating that were there are more than three voters and more than three choices there is not voting method which can satisfy a list of criteria which most people would consider highly desirable in an election. For example, the methods you describe can allow for a candidate who is first choice of some but detested by 49% to win over a candidate who is everyone's acceptable second choice.

One idea that comes to mind (although probably less important than the others being discussed here) would be to alter the delegate allocation system, maybe to base it on the percentages of the vote for the entire state rather than by district. The current system leads the candidates to focus on districts with odd numbers of delegates, and weights large-margin victories disproportionately heavily -- neither of which is all that harmful, I suppose, but both seem arbitrary.


I think simple citing of Arrow's theorem is somewhat off point. Yes, any voting system will produce non-intuitive results in some pathological situations. For good voting systems, these pathological cases will be extraordinarily rare. So what? Why should that be an impediment to their adoption? Our current voting system produces bizarre results quite often, so it seems that we might benefit from alternative systems that produce nonsensical results less often.

There's no need to have a highly theoretical discussion here: these alternative methods have been in use in many governments for years now and have accumulated a track record. If you think their failure to handle pathological cases is a serious issue, then you should be able to cite specific instances where things have gone awry in actual elections and compare the incidence of such cases to failure rates in more traditional first-past-the-post systems.

To put it another way, my house is extremely ill suited to withstand falling meteors, but that's OK. Falling meteors are extremely rare and I'd much rather spend the vast sums of money it would cost to strengthen the house against meteors on things that practically benefit me.

One thing I DO like about the current system is the proportional delegates. I've always thought the winner take all system of the general elections does nothing but polarize the country more and disenfranchise voters in a lot of states.

If you're a Democrat in Texas (or a Republican in California), you're less likely to vote because you know you can't win there. And thus, you're less likely to win there because no one in your party gets out to vote.

It also encourages highly partisan and vindictive Presidents (like, Oh, say, the one we have now) to ignore, insult or even punish entire regions of the country, knowing they'll never pay a price.

I'd push for proportional Electoral Votes, personally, but only if it was done in every state.

1) As others have pointed out, it'll be hard to find alternative starting states that share some of the desireable features of the current setup.
2) AFAIK caucuses are cheaper and there is a point to letting each states party decide the process they favour. Admittedly, I also just don't care that much about potentially making it harder for some groups. One does get some other features in return and since it's not a general election but a party i.e. (special interest) group of people deciding who they want to be represented by I'm fine with allowing them to do it their way.
(Coincidentally the benefits of caucuses over an election increase as the party becomes weaker in a state. If everyone votes D anyway, sure, have a primary election. If it's only five people who will do all the work anyway there's little point to having their preference overruled a bunch of old people voting on predjudices or campaign promises.)
There's a tipping point obviously, but I'm fine with giving activists a greater say in who they'll be active for. They have greater stakes as well.
3) They're not only useful for a tie, they could also offer a useful corrective to excessive populism. I agree there need to be fewer of them and the selection process needs to be refined.

Far and away the best system would be a closed (to indpendents and members of other parties) single day, national primary with some system of single transferable voting (or rating voting) that directly selects the nominee. Such a system is the only way to let the voters of a particular party decide on the nominee in such a way that every one of their votes counts equally. And it's a revised and improved, through transferable or rating voting, variation on the way parties select nominees for every other office.

I simply do not understand the attraction of letting any states go first, even on a rotating basis. We don't vote for any other office this way. We don't select nominees for any other office this way. And nobody thinks we should.

Would our general elections for president be better if states rotated, with some voting in September, some in October, some in November? Of course not. Even with rotation, such a system would be entirely unfair in the short-to-medium run, giving an arbitrary group of states far more say in the governance of our country for at least four (and potentially eight) years.

California, New York, and Texas are big states in which "retail politics" are more or less impossible in statewide elections. Should the Democratic party of California or New York or Texas select its nominees for governor or senator through a series of rotating county or regional elections over several weeks or months? Isn't it interesting that nobody thinks that such a reform would make any sense?

There's a more particular problem with rotating presidential primary calendars: primary seasons are radically different in importance. Most important are primaries in which there is no incumbent from either party running in the fall (like this year). Least important are primaries in which the party in question has an incumbent running (e.g. Dems in 1996; GOP in 2004). In the middle are cases in which a sitting VP is seaking the nomination (GOP in 1988; Dems in 2000) and cases in which the party's nominee will face an incumbent from the other party (Dems in 2004). So even in the long run, rotating states won't necessarily create equal influence over the process (though it will, to a certain extent, randomize the system's bias).

Like our system of deciding on NCAA Div.I football champions (the "BCS"), our major parties' current systems for choosing presidential nominees are the result of a series of reforms (some more rational than others) to a system whose basis is "tradition," which is a red-white-and-blue way of saying "vested interests."

Will a single national primary favor candidates with lots of cash on hand? Without other reforms to campaign financing, of course it will. But so would any other system of selecting nominees without such reforms. It's no accident that the last two Democrats standing are the two candidates who started the campaign season with the most cash on hand. Letting the states vote in dribs and drabs does not at all reduce the advantages of money under our current system and rotating the order of the states is just rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.

As for the myth of "retail politics": if a whole state, let alone a whole region, votes on a single day, the campaigns can, in no meaningful sense, be "retail." The only retail politicking that goes on now is the result of the year-and-a-half of the NH and IA campaigns. Even this is only possible because these are relatively small states. And I think this process is, at any rate, overrated. At the end of the day, in nearly every election for the last three decades, the candidate who has won the "invisible primary" of party insiders in the year leading up to the election has gotten the nomination. Obama's victory this year is an exception to that rule, but I am not at all convinced that it depended on "retail politics."

Of course, just as we will never get an NCAA football tournament for the BCS schools, we will never get a rational, democratic, single-day primary. And for the same reason: vested interests in the parties would lose out. But let's not kid ourselves about what would be the best system in theory.

instant runoff voting.

I AM convinced Obama's victory in Iowa was due to retail politics. It's why he soared in the polls in Iowa and stayed firmly behind Clinton nationally in the weeks leading up to that caucus. I don't know what else would explain that difference.

"I don't think you can base everything on obama"

Nobody is doing that. The point of the Obama example is to make clear that the early primary structure has significant consequences. Unless you begin with series of small, retail politics states you give almost total advantage to the big name candidates.

Whatever you do later, you have to start out with retail politics to put all the candidates on as level a playing field as possible.

By the way, while I agree with the idea of regional primaries, I actually think there are a few "mega-states" that should go by themselves - California, Texas, New York and Florida. Given their population such states are effectively regions unto themselves.

Had I my druthers you'd have one event a week and each event (whether a regional primary or a mega-state primary) should have (very) roughly the same number of delegates at stake.

So after the opening retail states you'd have a series of "regional primaries" (like the Potomac Primary -- maybe one for New England, the Pacific Northwest, the Four Corners, a traditional souther Super Tuesday). And amid the regional primaries you have all the "mega states" interspersed one by one.

And every four years you rotate everything around. Or perhaps you decide the order by lot (which might be the fairest).

I have no particular information as to whether "retail politics" is real, though I would point out that a lot of people who've looked closely at Iowa seem to believe in it.

But I am a firm believer in an elongated primary season. It can be too long, and it can be structured to prevent the emergence of a decisive winner in a close race, and this can result in poisonous levels of divisiveness. I'd argue that in 2008 we've had all of those problems, and unfortunately the candidate that had essentially lost by March 4th but that, because of poor design, was on a technical level conceivably viable for three more months (at best!), chose to magnify the divisions in the party.

But if we'd had one national primary day, Clinton would be the nominee. A national primary gives extraordinary advantages to the institutional candidate, the one with the name-recognition and credibility with the cable pundits. That is to say, not Obama; and possibly not the 1992 Bill Clinton, either.

marc in asia, to get technical: Condorcet systems such as CSSD satisfy Arrow's desirable criteria if and when they _can_ be satisfied, which is happily almost always - as I said, we use them internally in my workplace, and we have never had anything but a true Concorcet winner. In those cases where Arrow's criteria can't be satisfied (when there is an intransitivity in majority preference, to get even more technical), other methods fare just as badly, if not worse. With your example I think you mix up Condorcet and IRV. The only time the candidate loathed by 49% (ranked below all others by them) would be preferred, is when 51% ranked the candidate above all others, or there was a huge preference cycle of candidates within one percent of being tied. I would be more worried about ties in the present system, to put it like that. Condorcet is generally very good at choosing candidates agreeable to all, which is something you dearly want in a primary.

Ben, I think a single national primary would be an awful idea. It would reward the candidates who can most successfully amass a lot of money at once, and encourage them to concentrate on a handful of vote strongholds. Both of these are bad.

America is a big country. Geographically, it's worth noting, Los Angeles and Chicago are about as far apart as Lisbon and Moscow, and in the US there's still another third of the country to go after that. And it's got a lot of people. Nobody conducts all-at-once votes over that social and geographical scale anywhere else, and for very good reasons.

A primary season that was, say, four months long from first primary to convention would give time for the emergence and testing of candidates that I think we should want. Our current system is too long, but that doesn't make some duration a good idea, just as it's a good idea to start with some compact (not necessarily low-population) states, even though it's bad to always start with the same few.

Oh boy, voting systems? Well, I think someone has to mention range voting... it *does* satisfy Arrow's criteria, because it doesn't satisfy the hypotheses of the theorem!

Wow, a year+ has gone by, and now someone has finally gotten around to thinking of an alternative! Billions wasted, two states worth of primary voters disenfranchised, and now someone sees the light!

Firstly, if the DNC has punished Florida and Michigan LAST YEAR, this year's primary calendar was not that bad.


Secondly, there is an alternative, and it's been around for awhile, the Graduated Random Presidential Primary System, or American Plan http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Graduated_Random_Presidential_Primary_System).

Nothing was done, because no one wants reform. The only solution is to destroy the Democratic party and start over, and hopefully the GOP will go down with it. And then, it's realignment time. It's been awhile, but nothing says either party deserves to exist any longer.

I AM convinced Obama's victory in Iowa was due to retail politics. It's why he soared in the polls in Iowa and stayed firmly behind Clinton nationally in the weeks leading up to that caucus. I don't know what else would explain that difference.

Well Obama in fact won under the system we have this year. That's indisputable.

Although nobody in this thread (thank goodness) seems interested in coming up with a system based on who would win, there seems to be a general concern that Obama wouldn't have without a long series of primaries.

Although this is, of course, purely speculative, I don't think one could write off Obama's chances if there were a national primary conducted with some system of tranferable or rating voting (and that would include range voting as a possiblity, Sniffnoy). There was always a large Anybody But Clinton vote in the party. Obama was setting fundraising records long before Iowa voted. And there would be an extended primary campaign even without an extended calendar of primaries; just look at how long the general election campaign lasts. Of course, such a primary campaign leading up to a national vote would look totally different from the campaign we actually saw, which was almost entirely framed by narratives about who was winning and who was losing. Again, think of the way general election campaigns look. Very often, the candidate ahead at the beginning of such campaigns is not the winner. Even Michael Dukakis was up by 18% on Bush just before the GOP convention in 1988.

But if we'd had one national primary day, Clinton would be the nominee. A national primary gives extraordinary advantages to the institutional candidate, the one with the name-recognition and credibility with the cable pundits. That is to say, not Obama; and possibly not the 1992 Bill Clinton, either.

Again the current system gives precisely this advantage to the institutional candidate (and Bill Clinton was the institutional candidate in 1992). See this academic paper for a thorough rundown of the advantages that the current system confers on institutional candidates. This year has been a partial exception to this rule, but as I've already said, I'm not at all convinced that it wouldn't have been an exception to this rule with a national primary, too. Certainly the drawn out series of state contests has never prevented institutional candidates from always winning in the past.

Ben, I think a single national primary would be an awful idea. It would reward the candidates who can most successfully amass a lot of money at once, and encourage them to concentrate on a handful of vote strongholds. Both of these are bad.

As I've already pointed out, the current system already rewards candidates that can most successfully amass a lot of money at once, as Clinton, Obama, and McCain all did. Rearranging the order of the states wouldn't change this at all. Serious campaign finance reform would take serious campaign finance reform, not fiddling with the calendar.

As for concentrating on areas with the most votes: that's democracy. It follows from the principle of one person, one vote. I've been assuming that the best system is the most democratic. But I suppose a more self-consciously corporatist or sectional primary system might be preferred. Parties are private entities and they can select candidates any way they like. Just don't claim that such a system is the most democratic.

America is a big country. Geographically, it's worth noting, Los Angeles and Chicago are about as far apart as Lisbon and Moscow, and in the US there's still another third of the country to go after that. And it's got a lot of people. Nobody conducts all-at-once votes over that social and geographical scale anywhere else, and for very good reasons.

This just isn't true. We ourselves conduct such an election every four years, in our presidential election (which is marred by the electoral college system that, whatever its quite different theoretical biases, actually irrationally biases the system toward the concerns of battleground states in general, and large ones in particular).

And other large, diverse countries conduct actually direct elections of heads of state: Brazil, Argentina, Chile, and Indonesia immediately come to mind. But I think France, though a good deal smaller, also passes the size threshold for these purposes. And as I've already indicated, I think our larger states also pass the most significant size thresholds, too. It is perfectly possible to have a national election in a physically large republic.

there seems to be a general concern that Obama wouldn't have without a long series of primaries.

I'd like to think that Obama would have been nimble enough to have come up with a strategy that would have worked for him. That his strategy worked this time does not necessarily mean that if the circumstances had been different, he would not have done things differently.

Here are some random thoughts.

I haven't seen this mentioned. Primaries are incredibly expensive to mount. Not all states are willing to fund them. Caucuses are what the parties can reasonably be expected to put on themselves.

Caucuses are also highly effective for party building. I understand the "count all the votes" appeal, but, for instance, in my state, no one registers as D or R -- so everyone, literally, has the right to vote in one of the two primaries (sometimes the other party won't even participate in the primary because it objects to this feature of it). So you are still going to be left with disparate processes and the notion that you simply cannot limit D party selection process to Ds.

I think the biggest reform that would be important for blunting the effect of name recognition and early fund raising advantage would be prohibiting states from holding contests in January. It still steams me that one of the reasons that Michigan was moved up was pretty directly to help Clinton win an early big state.

OTOH, how can I say this -- I am hoping that we NEVER get another candidate with such embedded name recognition advantage. I feel like it distorted the entire nomination process, and I still feel like it's the main reason why the Clintons can't believe they lost. Her support was a mile wide -- and an inch deep. An early nomination process clearly leveraged that advantage.

Considering the death spiral that the Republican Party is in, the Democratic Primary of 2012 could be and the Democratic Primary of 2016 will be the defacto national election.

Thus, a single national primary should be held some time in May or June to limit the amount of time between having a de facto president-elect and the inaugural.

Image is Senator Obama would have won New Hampshire. He would have been the de facto president-elect for an entire year.

I think the biggest reform that would be important for blunting the effect of name recognition and early fund raising advantage would be prohibiting states from holding contests in January.

How does the date of the first primary make any difference whatsoever? People start paying attention relative to the start of the primary process, not relative to the general election. If the first primary were held a month earlier, people would simply pay attention a month earlier. Mind you, I'm not arguing for earlier primaries. As I say above, I think a single-day national primary is the answer. And if it were up to me it would take place in June or July. But if you're going to have a multiple primary system, I just don't see the starting date of the first primary making that big a difference. Incidentally, the parties' concerns about controlling the starting date have more to do with preventing states from fighting amongst each other and making the calendar unstable (this year, for example, we didn't know the date of NH until December, I think), than any absolute concerns about slightly earlier opening primaries.

I am hoping that we NEVER get another candidate with such embedded name recognition advantage. I feel like it distorted the entire nomination process, and I still feel like it's the main reason why the Clintons can't believe they lost. Her support was a mile wide -- and an inch deep. An early nomination process clearly leveraged that advantage.

This year was unusual, but in nearly the opposite way from what you suggest. Check out the paper "Political Parties in Rough Weather" (I linked to it above without mentioning the title), which was published this January. The four political scientists who authored it argue that there is usually a candidate who has the backing of the party establishment and from 1980 to 2004, whenever there was such a candidate he won.

What was unusually this year was not Clinton's advantage, which is all too typical, but the fact that she lost despite it.

Considering the death spiral that the Republican Party is in, the Democratic Primary of 2012 could be and the Democratic Primary of 2016 will be the defacto national election.

This seems wildly optimistic to me.

The GOP seemed like it was in a "death spiral" in 1936. In addition to FDR's landslide victory, the Democrats attained a majority in the House of Representatives of 334 to 88 (with 13 seats in the hands of minor parties). Following the 1942 elections, the Democrats majority had been reduced to 222 to 209 (with four seats in minor party hands).

Or look at 1964: a huge, landslide win for LBJ and a Democratic majority in the House of 295 to 140. But the GOP won the White House four years later, and won in a landslide eight years later.

We have no idea what this country will look like four, let alone eight, years from now. There are an enormous number of chicken that will come home to roost from eight years of malfeasance and corruption. And the last year and a half of Democratic control of Congress does not necessarily suggest that the Dems have the answers. And if the Democrats control both houses of Congress and the White House, they could well be blamed from all the domestic and foreign blowback that is to be expected after two terms of Dubya.


Your forgetting that in all of the elections you are citing over 90% of the voters were white. Given the difference in birthrates between whites and non-whites, anyone should recognize that there will fewer republican voters in eight years and more automatic votes for the Democrats.

Given the changing demographics of the U.S., the Republicans as a conservative party in any form will cease to exist. Thus, the question is whether the U.S. needs to liberal parties or can function with only a single political party. Given the current political climate in places like Mass., RI, Del, Maryland, California, or even Ill, it is easy to see that large political bodies can function as de facto one party states.

Also, the voting patterns of Detroit, NJ, Mass., Maryland, Phiily, chicago, etc clearly show that there are huge blocks of automatic Democratic voters no matter how bad the government performs. Those automatic Democratic voting blocks are growing relative to the population. Thus, the Republicans will eventually be irrelevant.

I don't think that the IA/NH/NV/SC part of the process is broken. There's no reason to believe that some different combination would have given us different nominees or better prospects in November in any election. All you're really talking about is moving patronage around -- and, like term limits in state government, what you end up with when you do this is replacement of a skilled cadre with a profesisonal class. NH and IA have well developed local systems and institutions designed for their respective roles. Replace one with NJ, and you end up with national people taking a more prominent role.

I have no obection to caucuses as part of the mix. There should be a mechanism for absentee voting, but there'[s nothing intrinsically wrong with a bias toawards higher-information/committment voters in the selection process.

Superdelegates are usually there to change the nominee -- we nearly always have that decided before the convention. They are there to be co-opted into the candidate's campaign. This is a very big deal, and well worth keeping.

I'd say more, but I have to get on a plane.

I think the circumstance that superdelegates were created for was if no candidates can reach a majority because more than 2 candidates ran strongly. For example, if Edwards had received enough delegates to be the difference between Hillary and Barack getting the magic number, what happens? If the Edwards delegates aren't binded to his say-so, then you get a bunch of Joe Blows deciding the nomination. If they are, it's not much better: you get one candidate, who might not have gotten that many votes, with spectacular leverage over the winning campaign, and possibly the next administration. With super-delegates, at least you get a cross-section of the party casting the tie-breaker.

Ben, I disagree. Having a primary election on January 3 compresses the available time to pay attention to an absolute minimum, given the impact of the holiday season for most voters (e.g., college students out of school, people more likely to be on vacation or engaged in personal commitments). It may be that in NH or IA, people are paying attention because they have such a tradition of early nomination voting, but I think it's definitely suboptimal. Even late January would be okay.

I'd like to see states that are expected to be battleground states (probably defined by how close the election was in that state the year before) be given disproportionate representation. A candidate who performs well in Ohio is more valuable than one who performs well in Texas (and arguably more valuable than one who performs well in Florida).

I take the points about caucuses being harder to participate in, but I'd hate to see them eliminated entirely. It's worth something if a candidate has a lot of activists who are willing to invest that kind of time in a cause.

Apportioning delegates by statewide percentage of vote rather than by district is a good idea, too.

I like Warren's 'Reverse Auction' idea. And I think it could be done without stepping on the states' right to set their own primary dates, which I think will kill stricter rescheduling proposals.

I'd keep superdelegates, but I'd cut out the unelected officials, mostly as a way to cut down on how many there are.

I just want to put in a plug for caucuses. As others have pointed out, they are party building tools and they can and do work to create party loyalty and active voters. That they could and should be tweaked, no doubt, is a good idea. Myself, like redwood, I'd serve liquor and sausages, organize daycare, and make them fun. Primaries are OK but they are no picnic given that they almost always happen on work days and people often have to vote near home instead of near work. My main take home point is that there are zillions of better ways to pick the nominee and we should really run through them all publicly--that is, have a real open debate with games and systems theorists explaining just which kinds of candidates do best under which scenarios so that whichever system is picked (or combination of systems) at least its public. I like the long primary, myself. It was acrimonious but it certainly got people's blood up and got them committed to their candidate. A short winner takes all primary means that the biggest bucks and biggest names rule, and that seems like a recipe for more of the usual disaster.

I like the reverse auction suggested above, how about a reverse auction which also let the first state privilige go to the state that could get the *largest number of candidates* on the ballot and also allowed IRV with the proviso that the winning candidate's votes would be apportioned to the eventual winner of all the primaries? That is, the first states would be the ones with the most candidates on the ballot and people could really vote their conscience knowing that if their candidate dropped out later their vote would kick over to their second or third choice automatically? In my case this would have enabled me to give my vote to Edwards (say) and yet have it still "count" by going to Obama or Clinton as the race narrowed. I know, crazy talk, but it would be cool and perhaps give fringe candidates and their issues more viability.


One of the problems with caucuses, depending on how they are organized, is that they are not accessible. But they also could be held on weekends (unlike primaries, which typically require the assistance of a state agency), over a longer period of time at a greater number of locations, whic would allow people to attend for less time, with "organizers" committed to being there for longer periods of time. Trading a weekend day and making caucuses more accessible timewise would go a long way to avoiding some of the more acute problems associated with caucuses.

I harp on the name recognition issue because, IMHO, that is why we ended up with Bush. Just because Clinton is a much more credible person doesn't mean that the issue isn't a real one.

If you are (1) old...it’s a lot harder for you to sit around the high school gym for hours listening to others talk.

Don't buy this Clintonite bullshit. Until this year, the understanding was that caucuses were dominated by old people. Obama manages to do something amazing in terms of getting young people to go to caucuses, and suddenly caucuses discriminate against old people. This is ridiculous.

I'd like to see states that are expected to be battleground states (probably defined by how close the election was in that state the year before) be given disproportionate representation. A candidate who performs well in Ohio is more valuable than one who performs well in Texas (and arguably more valuable than one who performs well in Florida).
That creates a perverse incentive to make the race as close as possible to conserve influence down the road. And for places like NY and Califonia to just not bother. Which IMO is short term thinking, sacrificing long term commitment to democracy and the democratic process for short term electability.
Even aside from that, it imposes a measure (ability to compete in battleground states) on the primary voters which strikes me as unnecessary and a bad case of best for me, best for everyone. Currently, we trust the primary voters to make their own calulations about electability and to weigh it against other factors (issues, sympathy). I'm convinced it would to a lot of long term harm to render those concerns irrelevant and subjugae everything to the ability to win in battleground states.

I think caucuses are unfairly maligned. They are certainly better than open primaries.

How about a move to all caucuses, in all 50 states, Jan - Mar which would allot say 15% of the delegates followed by a national primary in June to allot the other 85% for the candidates that clear a certain threshold of support in the caucuses? That gives you 3 months of retail door-to-door and neighbor-to-neighbor politicking finalized by a national count of the preference of all Democrats. Also, it would lessen the value of going first since the actual contest would be the national primary.

Wagster - for an indication of the idea behind superdelegates, see 1984, when, if there had been no superdelegates, Mondale would have been forced to cut a deal of some sort with Jesse Jackson (or, less likely, Hart; or else Hart and Jackson possibly could have gotten together, although that also seems very unlikely) to get the nomination. It was for circumstances like that that the system was designed.

As to supers, I think what they need to do is to eliminate the vast majority of DNC superdelegates. Including the elected officials makes considerable amounts of sense - shouldn't major elected Democratic officials get a say in who the party's nominee is? And giving votes to the "distinguished party leaders," to the National Chair and National Vice-Chairs, and to state party chairs, arguably makes sense (especially since some states, like Alaska, have no Democratic congressmen, senators, or governor). But there's hundreds of other superdelegates who nobody's ever heard of and who basically have no Democratic legitimacy at all. They should be culled with extreme prejudice.

I think people are confused about what is and is not within the purview of the DNC regarding the primary structure. The number and role of superdelegates, yes. The scheduling of primaries, yes, although not absolute. Whether a state uses a primary or a caucus? No. States can choose whatever method they like, and there's really no way around that. Nor should there be.

Just for an example, Nevada refused to fund a primary this year, which is why the parties had a caucus. States might be more willing to fund primaries, but, pace Michigan and Florida, once the state gets involved the party can lose control because the state might try to advance other goals (like greater state influence) and not be willing to just remain a neutral enabler of the political system. Demanding a "primary only" system could cede a lot more influence to the state than you might imagine.

There are all sorts of interesting arguments in favor of caucuses, but caucuses are unquestionably an alternative to, rather than a way of achieving, one-person one-vote democracy.

I go back to my original point: the most democratic system is a single, national primary with some sort of transferable voting (or rated voting) system. And I remain wary of other less democratic systems of selecting nominees because they are less democratic.

I obviously don't expect everyone to agree with me about national primaries (I know my support for them puts me in a small minority). But I wish someone would take more seriously the issue of democracy.

So far Bruce Baugh has come closest to taking the bull by the horns by opining that democracy is impossible in large republics. I very much disagree with this argument, but at least it's an argument.

Turbulence and Harald,

I didn't mean to make too big a deal of Arrow's theorem; I agree that there are good methods which work reasonably in all but extreme cases. I mostly wanted to reject the idea, which I have heard from proponets of some systems -- most commonly STV and IRV -- that these solve all problems.

Practically, I think there is an issue with having millions of voters fill out a preference vote rather than just a choose one. I've also participated in elections using these systems and it takes a non-trivial amount of effort to fill in the ballot correctly ("I'm putting A at the top. B should be second ... or maybe C ... D I don't like, he goes last, E I haven't heard of, put that somewhere in the middle, F, oh yeah, I like her, I'll put her high, but I've already filled in 1,2, and 3, can I move one of these down ....") Think of the state of our voting systems. I just won't work.

So practically we are left with either highest vote takes all nationally, highest vote takes all by state / county / CD, proportionate allocation (not necessarily direct) or some combintation. We've seen from this election that reasonable sounding ideas, like allocating delegates by CD based on their D votes in previous elections and using PR within districts can lead to strange effects, such as some odd delegate districts mattering more than other even delegate districts. Voting system design is not easy, and what will work well for a multicandidate election may not work as well for a two candidate election. However, since the most important issue is to set rules well in advance of knowing how candidates are likely to be doing, we need to try to balance all possibilities. Just remember here that we are looking for good; perfect is not available.

On the timing issue, I strongly disagree with Ben on a single national primary date. The staggered primary serves as a form of run off or tiered primary. This year provides two examples of how that can work. For the Democrats, there was one forerunner (Clinton) who had a considerable following, but also a considerable number of Democrats who did not want her. The Iowa through South Carolina primaries, in effect, served as a primary for the anyone-but-Clinton half of the party, with Obama winning. This set up a two candidate election for Super Tuesday and beyond. Without the early primaries, we would have had a national result likely similar to early polls -- Clinton with a clear lead over everyone else, but well shy of 50%, Obama and Edwards with sizeable but much smaller votes, and a good number spread among many other candidates. Then the allocation system would make a big difference, either giving the election to Clinton or leading to a brokered convention with each candidate trying to suade their delegates to back them in some deal with another. That would be much worse than what we had even this year.

For the Republicans, the early primaries served as a first round for each of two wings of the party, with Huckabee emerging as the choice of the religious right and McCain besting Guiliani as the choice of the secular Republicans.

Note that France does not have a single national election. They use a two stage election where unless one candidate achieves over 50% in the first round, there is a second round among the top two candidates. The first round has traditionally functioned like a dual primary, with two left parties and two right parties each running candidates, and one from each side emerging to the second round. This broke down in 2002 when several candidates on the left split the vote widely, allowing the facist LePen to take second place and forcing the French leftists to vote for Chirac in the second round. I wouldn't be so quick to use that system as a model.

The other problem with a single national primary, mentioned by several others, is money. Obama and Clinton raised and spent over $50 MM each to campaign in every state; and that is without either spending much in two of the most expensive markets. Only candidates with significant name recongnition (i.e. former presidential candidates, VP's or their relatives) or the ability to raise at least $25-30MM before showing any election victories outside their home state would be able to play a full hand.

A two to four state early round, whether its IA / NH / NV / SC or some other four, is manageable for a few million dollars; within the fundraising ability of most senators / govenors / house leaders. Performing well in the early round can lead to sufficient money to keep going (see Obama and Huckabee.)

I too will take a moment to speak up for both the first month of the process (to help candidates overcome pre-existing name recognition issues) and the caucuses. They can be made more accessible, and they are important for party building. As to the time issue, it's not like everyone can just vote in 60 seconds in primary. Years like this one when people are excited you might be waiting for a long time to get to a voting machine. So given that such an investment may be demanded anyway, an extra hour for a caucus doesn't seem terribly worse.

A personal note on caucuses: I can't go. Ever. Health reasons.

I'm not exactly the Boy in the Bubble, but there's enough of that in my situation to make it a useful starting point. Crowds are never safe for me, my energy is never reliable, there's nothing I can do to make aphasia or seizures less likely, nothing can greatly reduce the problem of neurotransmitters running scarce (whenever I'm using them a lot, in fact - it's why there are always gaps in my participation in the threads that most engage me, or one of the reasons), and that is by no means all of my list of concerns.

So I always hear "we need caucuses all the time" with the inevitable subtext "Bruce, you'll never be involved on election day again."

I would be happy if caucus advocates would take note of my existence and reiterate, from time to time, that they support some provision for those of us who genuinely can't do it. My situation is extreme, yes, but there are lots more people with more mundane reasons that are just as complete, for one election or all.

Caucuses are a more involved form of citizenship then simply voting. If simply marking a box on a ballot was a good party building mechanism then the American Idol Party would dominate and we'd have Speaker Ryan Seacrest. Caucuses have value in that they are incubators for involved citizens. I am sympathetic to the disenfranchisement that occurs from people who don't have the time to attend a caucus for whatever reason but I'd rather see a more liberal absentee caucus program for people who work shift work and party provided transit and day care to caucuses then simply saying "it's too hard to attend a caucus". Make it easier to attend and challenge people to become more involved citizens.

Bruce Baugh - I'd of course support health waivers for an expanded absentee process for caucuses. The point of a caucus isn't to create barriers to participation, it's to A) have a cheap party run vote counting excercis and B) encourage participation in party activities.

If the average time of attendance at a caucus is 2 hours then the absentee process could be involve some similar alternative commitment of time to party activities from the housebound or otherwise indisposed.

Granting a caucus waiver to anybody who does 1 hour of party volunteer work would be one way to address the problem.

How about allowing for tele-caucuses? Possibly even one at large tele-caucus per congressional district?

I know there are logistical issues (data security and authentication among others) but it could work, may work better for Bruce Baugh than even in person voting.

We can't have a rational discussion on this point. The Clinton dead-enders are bitter and irrational, and their solutions will take the form of change-things-that-helped-Obama. We'll end up with rehashing of fresh indignities and wounds. Witness the person upthread wanting to reduce the baneful influence of black people on the process.

Once we're back to the point of sanity, I'd suggest that a shorter primary calendar that starts later makes good sense. Nothing was gained by the desultory schedule of the last two months.

I think that caucuses have some enormous positives: participatory democracy instead of big-money advertising blitzes. And they truly help progressive elements in the party.

There should be far fewer superdelegates and more of a bonus (although not winner take all) for the statewide winner. In particular, I have no problem with Senators, Governors, and Representatives as superdelegates, but none of the background party apparatchiks deserve votes.

Kill the Caucuses

These should simply be eliminated — no ifs, ands, or buts.

I'll fight you unto death on this.

I'm all for reform of aspects of the caucus system, but I'd rather have more (reformed) caucuses than fewer. I'll eventually try to blog on this whenever life settles down, and I'm not having intermittent extreme pain, can afford a place to live of my own again, and so on.

Meanwhile, I'd like to ask anyone who opposes caucuses just how many election cycles they've participated in them to know their pros and cons. Me: 1980, 1982, 1984, 2004, 2006, 2008.

If someone has never participated in one, and therefore has no direct knowledge of their pros and cons, I'm rather inclined to doubt they are in much of a position to evaluate the pros and cons of caucuses. It's like that old joke about asking a Catholic priest for advice about sexual positions.

Among the reforms I'd like to see are:
1) having caucuses held on weekends only;

2) possibly finding a way to allow for 2, or even 3 possible alternative dates and coordinating the results;

3) Making it clear that simply showing up for one minute to cast a written ballot, and leaving, is a mandatory alternative. (This is effectively the case in every caucus system I'm aware of, but many people don't seem to be aware of it, given the immense degree about caucuses, particularly among those who have been participated in one.)

3) Allowing straightfoward proxy written ballots. And make them internet-castable.

This would allow for the same level of access, I think, as there is to a primary voting system, while still allowing the wonderful benefits of the direct democracy of the caucus system for those interested and able to make use of those add-on benefits.

4) Anything else that can increase access without screwing things up completely. I'm open to any kind of idea to do that, which I fully agree is the primary, and perhaps the only, negative aspect of the caucus system to date.

I'm always interested in hearing of any other problems, so that improvement might be considered and put into effect.

Additional note: I've just moved to a non-caucus state, and I'm extremely unhappy about that.

Unlike the caucus system, where in two different states I've been able to walk in not knowing anyone, or more than 1-2 people, and get elected to a party position, or slot to the County Convention, simply on the basis of what I had to say to my neighbors, I as yet have no idea what it will take for me to get involved with and participating in the local Democratic organizations. I find non-caucus-based party organizations to be vastly more opague, insiderish, and vastly less accessible, at first view, than the openness of a caucus. I never joined a local NYC party organization, despite fair knowledge of them, and despite working on a few campaigns as a low-level grunt volunteer, because of the insidery complexities. I'll have to do research here to figure out what the situation is here in North Carolina and Raleigh.

But I'd like anyone who complains that they find the caucuses system confusing to first tell me how easy they found it to get active in their local, primary-state, Democratic party organization, and how quickly it took them to, say, get elected as precinct committeeperson/leader, or to their State Democratic Convention. Me: 1 meeting for the former, commitment of 2 hours; 2 meetings for the latter, commitment of ~6 hours.

You? Did you find it that easy to get that involved that quickly in your primary state? If so, I'd like to hear more. If not, I'd like you to consider that you may have little idea what the benefits of a caucus system are, and that maybe you essentially, therefore, are missing out on the crucial aspects that would allow you to really know what you're talking about when you blithely want to wipe them away, and wipe other people's political access away, and that you might try moving to a caucus state, and going through at least one 4 year cycle, or even 2 year cycle, to find out what you're talking about killing, sight unseen, before advocating such from a position of no actual direct knowledge.

Lastly, were I still in a caucus state (previously I was in Washington State, and then Colorado), I'd bitterly resent people from out of state trying to tell us how we should arrange our system, save on a basis of equal access. And if someone told me that we had to change the system completely, I'd ask them to move to our state first to make the commitment that would entitle them to a say, and let them join in our state Democratic Party, and participate in setting our rules and procedures. They they have as much say as anyone else. But otherwise: no ticket, no play.

Okay, now to read the rest of the post, and the comments. Boy, that's quite a conversation opener, there. And trying to shut down the conversation from the get-go with "no ifs, ands, or buts" doesn't exactly give me warm fuzzies about your open-mindedness, and willingness to consider other points of view on this topic, publius. Maybe we could all talk about this first, before accepting your no-negotiation, my way or the highway, opening gambit? At least pretend to consider what other people have to say?

Crack; it's less of a solution than you think, when you're dealing with people who have to give attention to time-sensitive processes, for starters. I will spare you the complications I personally suffer, because they're depressing and not really relevant. Just...yeah, there is a pool of people who could take part in a real-time link from elsewhere, but there are still folks who would be left out.

I'm going to be a little radical here. I don't see why choosing the candidate of a political party should be a one-person, one-vote process. Presumably candidates are supposed to represent something. And that something is supposed to be some sort of promise about what the party in which the candidate campaigns would do in office.

From this perspective, caucuses, run by the interested party with reasonable provisions for folks who cannot attend, seem to me the BEST possible way to pick candidates. That's not elitist; rather, it is a plea that our system of governance be used delineate some ideological lines. And that candidates be held to some responsibility to parties.

Party activists should be the ones who decide who they run; if the majority of the citizenry choose to be indifferent to party involvement, they get stuck with the choices the activists come up with. Otherwise they can get involved.

The popular democratic moment is the election, NOT the candidate selection process. I don't get the need to replicate the election in the primary season.

Janinsanfran, I feel a lot of sympathy with that stance.

Gary, this is embarrassing to admit, but I think that my disagreement with you on this issue, insofar as I have one, is one of those basically emotional things rather than a justifiable one. I'm going to poke at it a bit more to see if I can draw out any actual concepts from the part of my brain that's going "yea, but". I am right now particularly impressed by your comments about the ease of getting involved in the organizational stuff, since I regard that as important.

None of this discussion matters. At all. As long as state governments have a significant say in the running of primaries there is nothing the national party can do to avoid things like Michigan and Florida.

The national party needs to set up a system that completely divorces the primary process from state government. Once that is done the system can be fixed. If it is not done the system will remain broken.

What Gary said on caucuses. I've been to them. They are useful. I'd also like to add that caucuses and primaries are not mutually exclusive. Having both is an option. The press being unable to 'call' TX the night of the primaries isn't a bug its a feature. The delegates will get apportioned and the horse race coverage will be hindered.

I'm sticking to my caucus-national primary hybrid idea.

Should nominees for office represent party activists/lobbiest/elitist or should they represent ordinary people?

Caucus results give us nominees that represent activists/lobbiest/elitists.

State run primaries get us as close as we will ever come to having candidates who represent actual real people who spend their lives working and raising a family with no time to sacrifice for party building.

Given a choice between the two I would always go with listening to as many voters as possible over letting a small group of partisans control the outcome.

But then, I have pretty liberal principals that guide me.

When I read those above comments talk about party building what they are really saying is that they do not want to lose their prividged position of influence over events. After all, in a primary election they would be just one vote among hundreds of thousands, or millions. They see themselves as above the riffraff, due to participation in activities like GTV, so they should count more than the riffraff.

I have to disagree with them. Your vote should count no more than does the vote of the mother with small kids who votes after the kids go to school as she heads off to work. Your not that special. Get over yourselves.

Ken, the word you're looking for is "principles". "Principals" are the heads of educational institutions and such.

Washington has caucuses - on Saturdays, always. We also have proxy voting, and alternate delegates, in case a delegate chosen at the precinct caucus can't make it to the next step(s) in the process.

I *love* caucuses. Not only do people get a chance to talk about their candidate, and why everyone else should support that candidate, but we also - at the district caucus level - get to hear from candidates for other positions.

We had candidates for the state legislature speak at the District caucus this year. How often do voters take the time and trouble to listen to candidates for state races, and how often do such candidates have a chance to reach thousands of voters all at once?

All that, plus we get to know our precinct's, and District's, fellow Democrats; get to talk about the issues that matter most to us; and get to do some campaigning of our own.

I support a dual system of caucus AND primary: caucus for those who can and are interested, primary for those who for whatever reason can't participate in the caucus. Some states manage this (Washington has both, but only the GOP actually choses a percentage of delegates based on primary results; the Democratic primary is purely a beauty contest).

I agree that primaries are more convenient, less effortful, and certainly more accessible to people with disabilities. But they're also rather sterile and uninteresting, compared to caucuses.

With the collapse of the Republican Party and the coming dominance of the Democratic Party, having staggered caucuses would be about the most undemocratic thing that could occur. That would leave a few percent of the voters in a few states deciding who the president will be.

Currently Iowa and New Hampshire have too much power and with only one real political party, those states will gain in power. Why reinforce the parts of the system that are causing the problems.

As someone who lives in NH, let me remind you all that it is a matter of law for this state to have the first primary. So people who are advocating that NH lose its place in the calendar should keep in mind that NH lawmakers will have to be convinced of this also. (I'm not advocating one way or another here; I think both sides have good points to consider.)

The presidential primary election shall be held on the second Tuesday in March or on a date selected by the secretary of state which is 7 days or more immediately preceding the date on which any other state shall hold a similar election, whichever is earlier, of each year when a president of the United States is to be elected or the year previous. Said primary shall be held in connection with the regular March town meeting or election or, if held on any other day, at a special election called by the secretary of state for that purpose.

The Republican party is not collapsing. It's taking a beating, but they'll regroup and come back strong. The Democrats, meanwhile, will assume they have a lock on power and use the space for intraparty fights instead of moving forward on the things they all agree on. The GOP's superior party discipline will be able to take advantage of this and slow progress to a crawl, after which they'll be back as the party of change.

This dynamic may not even need to wait until after the November elections. The Dems are already clawing each other's eyes out.

Just to go back to an earlier topic from this thread: a new study shows that Obama won this primary campaign by outspending Clinton. Over the course of the entire campaign, he outspent her 1.6:1. But during the crucial period in February when he built his delegate lead (and when, pace digby, he won this thing), he outspent her 3.71:1!

The current system of staggered primaries and caucuses is entirely dominated by money. Arguments that defend staggering primaries in terms of the system allowing those without money to compete are completely ignoring the reality of that system as it has always existed. And remember that Obama was outfundraising Clinton even before Iowa caucused.


Agreed in full.

It's worth noting that the propositions "the primary process ought to be as democratic as possible" or "the primary process ought to adhere to the 'one-person-one-vote' principle as much as possible" are simply assumptions, and need to be argued for. I have not seen yet a convincing argument for why that ought to be the case, but I have seen some pretty good arguments for why that ought not be the case.

For one, the Democratic primary process is not a public event; it's a privately-run process (that sometimes but not always involves state assistance) designed to elect institutional leaders. The Democratic party is an institution, and I don't see it as a given in the least that a purely democratic process necessarily will meet all the institutional goals the Democratic party is reaching to achieve through the primaries.

When selection a nominee, the Party is looking for someone who, yes, has broad appeal (which is an argument for including, not excluding, non-registered Democrats), but also someone who can activate volunteers to work on his/her behalf in the general election, who clearly presents the values and principles of the party, increases the popularity of the party, etc etc.

The primary process, as such, is about about more than anything selecting a tool. The goal, then, is not to be as fair as possible to every tool in the toolbox, nor is it to be as fair as possible to every individual who could have a voice in selecting the tool, but rather to accurately assess what functions the tool most perform, and then picking the best tool for the job. The primary process ought to reflect that reality, and not some abstract appeal to "democracy". Further democratizing the system is only good insofar as it increases the likelihood of selecting the best candidate (I'd argue it does not) or increases the viability of the party as a whole (I'd argue it definitely does not).

We can apply the same ideas to the suggestion we do away with caucuses, and it becomes obvious that they should have a role in the process. Having committed, enthusiastic, active supporters who are willing to advocate for their candidate is a very desirable trait in a candidate. Having strong organization and GOTV operations that can actually affect turn-out is a desirable trait in a candidate. The fact that those qualities is are disproportionately rewarded in caucuses should not be a knock against them; it's certainly in their favor.

Conversely, name recognition is a desirable trait in candidates in general, but its value is much diminished in General Elections, when message saturation for both candidates is pretty much a given. With that in mind, winnowing the pool of selectors to groups more likely to be highly-informed and less-reliant on name recognition seems to me a good thing. Again, caucuses are useful in that task.

Don't buy this Clintonite bullshit. Until this year, the understanding was that caucuses were dominated by old people. Obama manages to do something amazing in terms of getting young people to go to caucuses, and suddenly caucuses discriminate against old people. This is ridiculous

Thank you sir.

You'll notice that those arguing for maintaining caucuses are really arguing for maintaining the priviledged position they enjoy as a small elite that can afford to spend several hours in the company of other elites in order to make decisions for the common people.

Let caucuses settle issues like when and where the next party BBQ is going to be held and who is going to speak at the 4th of July celebration. But caucuses are lousy ideas for choosing party nominees when primaries are readily available in their place.

farmgirl - this is what I mean by the need to get state governments out of the primary process. As long as the state government is dictating the terms of the primary we will get things like NH, FL, and MI.

State government involvement is *the* long pole in the tent. Unless something is done about that nothing else matters. Instant runoff, rotating schedules, caucuses - all just pie in the sky dreaming until the state governments are taken out of the equation.

People are simply not paying attention to what happened in Florida - the state lost 50% of its impact in the DEMOCRATIC primary due to the maneuvering of REPUBLICANS. The only power the national party has is to decide how to punish Democrats for the actions of Republicans.

Why should Republican politicians have any input at all on the scheduling or running of Democratic primaries?

I think the best proof that caucuses are lousy ideas is to look at what happened this year. Obama, who is not qualified to be dog catcher, got a bunch of true believers out to dominate in minor state caucuses and he pulled ahead.

The cult like committment to him by the activists who dominated in caucuses will not be turned even by knowledge that his advisors routinely condemn America. The latest outrage is his close friend and advisor Pflager recently saying:

"America is the Greatest Sin against God'

I don't see this changing the minds of Obama's rabble of true believers but it would surely, and deservedly, lose him votes in any election held anywhere in America.

The problem with allowing loyalist and activist a priviledged position in determining the nominee is that they are more willing to make excuses for the inexcusable than are ordinary Americans.

This is one good example of why primaries are preferred of caucuses.

Just to go back to an earlier topic from this thread: a new study shows that Obama won this primary campaign by outspending Clinton. Over the course of the entire campaign, he outspent her 1.6:1. But during the crucial period in February when he built his delegate lead (and when, pace digby, he won this thing), he outspent her 3.71:1!

Meh, that study is unimpressive. Clinton's problem there was not an inability to raise funds, it was doubling-down on an already-evident strategic blunder.

Along the lines of my previous post, the primary process ought to reward superior strategic planning and disbursement of resources, and punish poor strategic planning and mis-allocated resources.

Clinton's campaign bankrupted itself by investing heavily in big states on Feb 5th, banking on the difficulty of getting message saturation for Obama depressing his support, and winning on her superior name-recognition. This was, in retrospect, an obvious mis-allocation of resources, since the proportional representation aspect of the system blunted any advantage she gained there. The key was the ability to run up the score in strong states, something the Obama campaign saw in advance and planned accordingly: rather than investing heavily in what were likely to be poor-return areas, they organized the hell out of small states where their GOTV and GOTC operations would have out-sized impact. This allowed them to squeeze more net delegates out of smaller states. It was an example of an intelligent assessment of the electoral landscape and appropriate distribution of resources.

The Clinton campaign, conversely, never invested heavily in field operations anywhere, relied heavily on "airwars", and bankrupted her campaign on likely low-return states. The primary process ought to punish that.

The result of those decisions was that the Clinton campaign had a clear choice: they could continue to heavily contest every primary and caucus, even though the coming states all seemed to demographically favor Obama, or they could double down on their already-failed "big state" strategy, go into triage mode, and horde cash for a big push in March and April in Texas, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. They chose the latter, it was a poor choice, and the process appropriately punished them.

Clinton's choice to not contest the remainder of February was a strategic choice. It was a poor choice. The same events we saw on Feb 5th were repeated 11 times in a row, and not point in time did their campaign ever think to maybe change gears and start trying to blunt the delegate gains his campaign was receiving, exactly the type of delegate gains that a sober assessment of the process would tell one would be hard for her campaign to replicate on the back end in their chosen battleground states of OH, PA, and TX.

Blaming her disastrous February on lack of money is a mistake; it was a lack of flexibility and strategic acumen that doomed her.

And again, if her campaign demonstrates a poor ability to accurately assess where it ought to allocate resources in the primary, why should we expect it to suddenly become strategic geniuses in the general? Indeed, their myopic focus on PA, OH, FL, & MI and constant harping on the importance of the white working class suggest that their strategic ineptitude would indeed extend to the General. Dismissing VA, IA, CO, NC, GA, and a host of other states that could be strong Dem pickups in the Fall hardly inspires confidence that they understand the opportunities presented by the electoral college, the changing demographics in the country, and the overall political mood of most voters. It's not just that they mistaken believe we're stuck with the same map and electoral battle we've seen replayed over and over the past two decades; its that they're actively working to make that so, and it need not be at all.

It's certainly not a flaw that our primary process badly punished the Clinton campaign for relying on a poor fundraising model, poor assessment of how to rack up delegate advantages, and overall poor allocation of resources. Indeed, to these eyes, that's a sign that the primary process worked exactly as one would hope, but choosing the candidate more likely to craft a winning General Election strategy.

. Apologies on the lack of the close html tag in the above post.

Ben Alpers,

Are you are writing about the primary process somewhere other than blog comments? If not, you should be.

To those who think a single national primary would increase the role of money and name recognition in the nomination process -- and would increase it by so much that it's worth sacrificing the fundmantal principle of one person, one vote -- I have a question:

Where are the candidates who, thanks to the current process, have defeated better funded, better known opponents?

Maintaining a privileged position? No sir, not at all, that's not what I am arguing. If you read Gary's post, you will find that caucuses allow ordinary people to participate above and beyond simply voting -- which means that it is those states that use primaries that reward insiders and the well-connected with outsize influence in party operations, while people who sincerely want to get involved are forced to stay outside the process.

togolosh is right. Get the state governments out of the nominating process. I'd love to see an initiative on the ballot in CA (my home state) stating that the state government may only sponsor one election in any calendar year.

Not only would this mean that Republicans can't force Democrats to break the rules, it would mean that I, as a registered Green Party member, would not be subjected to the farce that has been made of this primary season.

Short of this, though, the Democrats could help themselves enormously simply by deciding in advance what are the consequences of breaking the rules. It seems to me that a big part of the problem this go-round was that there had to be a long debate about what punishment was fair and just.

My own suggestion (though it holds no weight since I'm not registered a Democrat) would be to seat no supers (they're the ones most likely at fault for the breaking of the rules in the first place), but seat all pledged delegates at half-voting strength. Then get on with life already.



Why have primaries at all? Why not just have all the people run for themselves in the general? That will show us what the people want, not just those special few who have time to vote twice a year.

close tag...

barbara, ordinary people who want to be 'involved' by way of cuacuses are to be encouraged. But the caucuses themselves should be limited to deciding such things as chosing a decorating committee for the election night celebrations. They should not be allowed to choose the parties nominees as long as holding a primary election is a viable alternative. Otherwise we have a group of activists/lobbiests/elitists sitting in an undeserved priviledged position and without the wisdom provided by the mass of voters who take part in primary elections.

I'm all in favor of a rotating regional primary system. I don't think Iowa and New Hampshire should be exempted, but some folks have proposed that to stop them from whining.

I hate caucuses, and have heard far too many complaints about how poorly they're run from people who have participated. I know some people like the speeches-persuasion aspect, but there's no reason people can't do the same thing at party meetings in the weeks before an election. Iowa, with a record turnout, had about 16% participation of eligible voters (fewer than 6% in 2004) compared to New Hampshire's 53%. That said, I think the caucus versus primary thing has to be left to the states.

I'd also add instant runoff ballots. Rank your top three candidates, if so desired. That would solve some problems down the line, would be interesting data, and would be a better and more efficient way of preserving the "next choice" aspect of caucuses.

Public funding for elections would also help, and for the national election, I'd like to see electoral college reform. There's also the idea of a national holiday for the presidential election, as some countries have. The main arguments against a straight popular vote count for the general election would be how horrible it would be to have a recount, as well as unequal and unreliable voting systems across the country. Proportional allocation of electoral votes would be a step in the right direction, though. There are problems and challenges for some of those proposals, too, of course, and I realize some are not bloody likely any time soon. Regardless, I'll be happy if reforming the process received some serious consideration, and would like to hear other proposals, since I know some folks have already given it a great deal of thought. I'll try to check in later...

I think the caucus versus primary thing has to be left to the states.

Why? The national party already sets lots of rules, e.g. it does not allow states to hold winner-take-all primaries.

ken, I really think you are mixed up about what political parties represent. They are private organizations of like minded people who are trying to influence government through the election of representative members who (a)agree with the party and (b)have sufficiently broad popular appeal to be elected in a general election contest by those people who are also members of the party, and those who aren't.

About 20 years ago I worked on a case in which a Republican party member sued his state party for certain reforms it enacted to promote the participation of women in the party and reach out to women generally, in a very liberal state where women were a lot less likely to vote Republican. His argument was that it violated equal protection to "prefer" female delegates in the way that the party did (I'll spare you the technical procedural measures that were adopted, but they were fairly heavy handed), and the decision was: it's a private party and the party has great leeway in determining the methods and procedures by which it can promote its political agenda. In some cases, that might be a primary election, and in others, it might be a caucus, or a combination.

The notion that your most important position should be selected by people with little or no demonstrated loyalty to your agenda is a little bizarre, particularly in states (like mine) that don't even permit voters to make party designations when registering. I could have voted in either (but not both) of the primaries that were being held simultaneously on the same day.

Forgive me if this point has already been covered above, but I think there is an extremely important value added by having staggered primaries and/or caucuses over an extended period of time rather than compressing the calendar, which is:

If you bunch the contests together the payoff for dirty tricks, planting false stories in the media, attack ads and negative campaigning more generally is much higher. Staggered electoral contests give voters in the next series of states a chance to punish a campaign for "low blows" used during the preceding primary, which usually take some time to discover and document. Remember the Kantor video with the doctored audio this time around? If something really explosive like that (or worse) is released just before a national primary and it will take days or weeks to refute it (keep in mind that each year it becomes easier to tamper with video and audio records) and/or to trace it back to the source (in this day and age such things will likely emerge via blogs or other semi-anonymous sources first), then it will have a greater chance of succeeding without the campaign which benefits from it suffering from a backlash against such tactics sufficient to act as a deterrent.

For campaigns which are tempted to engage in negative tactics vs. each other, staggered primaries and/or caucuses are like an iterated Prisoner's Dilemma, whereas a national primary would be more like a one-shot Prisoner's Dilemma. The payoff matrix for cooperation vs. defection is different for these two scenarios, so choose carefully between them as you will get what you asked for in the way of campaign tactics.

barbara, where primary elections are not feasable then the less worthy alternative of having a caucus is the only remaining choice. But the subject we are talking about is what reforms should be made and why.

Caucuses are totally inferior to primaries and lead to crazy outcomes like having someone like Obama lead in delegate count. That would never have happened if the voters of those caucus states had an equal say, along with the activists/lobbiest/elitists in choosing the nominee.

"Ben, I think a single national primary would be an awful idea. It would reward the candidates who can most successfully amass a lot of money at once, and encourage them to concentrate on a handful of vote strongholds. Both of these are bad."

Absolutely. Worst idea ever.

Unless the goal is to absolutely lock in the most corporately acceptable, maximally establishment, best fund-raising, candidate, that is.

I still think that it's not possible to have an objective discussion now. For example, look at ken's comments.
"Revise the delegate allocation by districts to remove the unfair influence the all black districts have on the party."
"Should nominees for office represent party activists/lobbiest/elitist or should they represent ordinary people?"
"You'll notice that those arguing for maintaining caucuses are really arguing for maintaining the priviledged position they enjoy as a small elite that can afford to spend several hours in the company of other elites in order to make decisions for the common people."
"I think the best proof that caucuses are lousy ideas is to look at what happened this year. Obama, who is not qualified to be dog catcher, got a bunch of true believers out to dominate in minor state caucuses and he pulled ahead."
This is pure sour grapes from a partisan of a losing presidential candidate. It is worth discussing this, but the process needs to be divorced from the truly unusual Obama-Clinton contest. Before this year, for example, the common wisdom (borne out by polling data) was that retired voters were the key to caucus victories. Obviously that's not Obamas main demographic, and he got a lot of people out to vote in them.

The other more subtle problem I see with a single national primary or compressed schedule is that it would sample the concerns of the voters at a particular point in time rather than getting a broader sample over a wider range of dates.

The problem with a narrow chronological sampling is that it is more vulnerable to manipulation or freak events having an undue influence on the results.

Are people ticked off about high gas prices? No problem - the oil companies can take a loss selling gas below cost the week before the national primary.

What happens if there is a terrorist attack or a natural disaster right before the scheduled national primary? Then the candidate who took the most extreme position on the subject of national security, or earthquake preparedness, or flu-vaccination, etc. is the winner, swamping the effect of other issues which play out over a broader period of time.

IMHO this is not a good idea.

ken, I think your reasoning is result oriented. Since I think that "voting by name recognition" is the bigger threat to democracy than the disproportionate participation of party activists and loyalists (which is usually what happens in the averagy primary anyway), I interpret your comments as stating, in effect: "Clinton should have been able to skate by on name recognition with little or no effort to actually speak to the concerns of engaged voters let alone field a party operation in caucus states." Why? Why should she be able to do that? Why is name recognition such a clear indication of the suitability of a candidate?

I voted in a primary state that went to Obama overwhelmingly, so I disagree on that ground as well.

"Given the changing demographics of the U.S., the Republicans as a conservative party in any form will cease to exist."

Man, you've worn the groove deep in that broken record, superdestroyer.

"The most democratic system is...."

Is the highest priority to get the maximum number of people voting? If so, why? Are there other values to consider (ease of involvement in party matters; ease of achieving office; maximizing the involvement of subcategories of voters, be they the poor, the low-information voters, the high-information voters, the handicapped, the wisest, the most radical, the least radical, etc., etc; geographic distribution; other forms of population distribution; minimizing the Law Of Unintended Consequences; lessening the power of money, and so on and so forth)?

Discuss. I certainly don't see Maximum Democracy as an unquestionable highest priority.

"Get over yourselves."

Useful advice. We'll get right on that.

Helpful extra credit tip: assertions are not a substitute for reasoned argument. Argument by assertion doesn't fly very far. Announcements that things "should" be done the way you want because... you say so, aren't apt to be very persuasive to anyone but you and your mother. If you have an argument to support your preferences, I'd suggest making it.

It'll help people increase the attention given to your ukases no end, I suggest.

OT, but ARG says Clinton is up 60/34 in SD. 538 is skeptical.

Some truth to that, Marc. I am genuinely astonished at the level of virulent hatred within the party this primary. I blame Clinton's campaign for stirring a lot of it up, but it's by no means all their doing - there's been some really shameful sexist wallowing, and a lot of just plain freefloating rage going off. I don't recall anything like this going back and forth between candidates and supporters in any other primary season I've participated in (which takes us back to 1984).

Also, ken: repetition is not an argument.

"I don't recall anything like this going back and forth between candidates and supporters in any other primary season I've participated in (which takes us back to 1984)."

I'd venture the thought that there hasn't been this much acrimony in the Democratic Party since 1968.

Though there's a good case to be made for 1980, and Ted Kennedy's battle to get the nomination away from incumbent Jimmy Carter. This year seems very reminiscent of that race in several ways, though, of course, the racism and sexism issues weren't in play, and there were many other crucial differences, including the most obvious, that that was a fight between an incumbent president and a challenger.

1968 also had innumerable severely different circumstances than this year, of course, including the entire clash of youth counter-culture and mainstream culture, and The Draft.

"I know some people like the speeches-persuasion aspect, but there's no reason people can't do the same thing at party meetings in the weeks before an election."

I'm open-minded. I doubt this very much, but if this is so, please point us to which state that has a primary system, and which makes it equally easy for the average citizen, with no prior involvement in party politics, to walk in and get elected as a precinct committeeperson/leader, and equally easy to get elected to the State Convention, with only a total of 10 hours involvement, as has been my experience over many election cycles in the two caucus states of Washington and Colorado.

3 states would make a better case that this can be done, but let's start with the best case: which state are we going to look at and compare objective metrics to in comparison to the ease of involvement and citizen power in caucus states?

"Caucuses are totally inferior to primaries and lead to crazy outcomes like having someone like Obama lead in delegate count."

"My position is correct because the other position gives results I don't like" isn't an argument many people are apt to find persuasive, no matter how convincing it is to you. This is not, as it happens, a solipsistic universe.

Might I recommend some perusal of this page? It might, perhaps, help your ability to make an actual argument no end.

Sounds about right, Gary. I was just reflecting on my own experience as a participant rather than teenaged observer or after-the-fact student.

I also strongly agree that maximizing all possible votes isn't the point. Primaries are about preparing for the general campaign, where that is the point, or much closer to it. The primaries, I'm thinking, should be foremost about motivating those who will be helping drive the general campaign, including those who'll be doing it entirely apart from the organized campaign through their individual enthusiasm.


It occurs to me that I'm on the brink of suggesting the Democrats follow fandom. But I am. As Gary of course knows, and some other do, being a "fan" of some things can carry two strongly distinct meanings. There are those who are identified as fans because they read, watch, listen to, and otherwise enjoy something. And there are those who are identified as fans because they participate in the fannish subculture for their activity, help run conventions, and the like.

Well, in some ways I'd like primary participation to be less crucial to a lot of people's self-identification as Democrats. Most particularly those are sure their candidate is the unique snowflake of a messiah, but others too. I'd like it to be an honorable estate to vote Democratic without feeling obliged to turn into a junior administrator.

It is astonishing; I agree there Bruce. A lot of rage has built up over the last 8 years, largely warranted in my view. We have an uncompromising aesthetic which has become dominant in progressive circles. It's noteworthy to me that a candidate like Obama got such withering criticism for occasional references to comforting bipartisan bromides. I always interpreted these as being polite fictions for the most part, but they have become evidence of heresy (among Clinton supporters) and worrying signs that require renunciation (among Obama supporters.) It was inevitable that the weapons honed against Bush would be employed in a primary fight, at least in hindsight. However, race and gender factors ended up dramatically raising the temperature. There is a different level of heat between "you have an inferior health care plan" and "you're a sexist/racist."

Feminist identity politics sharpened the divide and made it more personal, and Clinton chose to amplify these factors rather than damping them. The Obama campaign worked very hard to avoid racial appeals (which would, in any case, have backfired for a minority candidate.) But their online advocates were primed for offense, no doubt about it, and seized upon it both when present and when imagined.

It is going to take time to heal these matters, and there will be permanent losses. I was really sadddened by how many of the people I'd been reading for years turned out to have either blind spots or to have some truly unpleasant traits revealed.

Keep dreaming about fixing the next one because this is never going to end.

All the nice little structures in the world don't mean anything if there's no downside to violation. Those of you proposing a regoinal primary have to answer this question: what do you do when Kansas decided it doesn't want to go on the same day as Oklahoma, but instead wants to go the same day as Vermont or Oregon? Do you 'disenfranchise' the voters? Or do you 'count every vote' and make a total hash of your nice little system?

The parties can't run primaries. There's no way they could afford the machinery, venues, tabulating infrastructure, voting judges, registration enforcement, and all the rest that comes with an election. And they can't 'certify' the results. They're not public officials and, you'll be shocked to learn, some may not be objective.

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