Wyoming Liberty Group

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The Curious Complications of Caucuses

More discontent emerges out of Wyoming’s Democratic Party caucuses, where Hillary Clinton obtained most of the state delegates even after losing the popular vote to Bernie Sanders. This newest wave of anger and confusion over caucuses and primaries is part of a national trend.

Last month, Donald Trump threatened a lawsuit when, after beating Ted Cruz by just under four percent in the Louisiana primary, both candidates obtained 18 delegates. After serious work by Cruz’s team, it will pick up additional delegates that were either unpledged or previously held by Marco Rubio. That should place Cruz ahead of Trump in the state’s delegate count even though Trump won more of the popular vote.

Or take the Colorado upset against Trump, where Cruz secured 34 delegates in a complicated hybrid caucus system. This had led Trump to describe Colorado’s system as “rigged.” Colorado’s complex system involves many small precinct and county meetings, where party members decide who will be delegates, and this leads to a final state convention. This sort of a system requires inside-party persuasion and sophisticated negotiation. Without a firm understanding of the rules and without a formidable ground presence, Trump lost out. Sour grapes.

Whether it’s Wyoming, Louisiana, or Colorado, Americans are feeling a disconnect about primaries and voting. They should. A substantial myth believed by many Americans is that a vote in the primary process must necessarily bind delegates to particular candidates. For most of history and in most states today, this simply has not been true.

As George Washington’s term came to an end, Congressional party caucuses determined who would run—there Federalist John Adams competed against Democratic-Republican Thomas Jefferson. These party caucuses lasted until the 1830’s where conventions and other models were generated. It is important to note that the popular voting that occurred in new caucus and primary systems often had no binding effect—primaries were often deemed “beauty contests.”

Changes came in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s where the Democratic Party developed more universal national rules for primaries. Initially, the Democratic Party favored more public say in primaries given Hubert Humphrey’s staggering loss to Richard Nixon. However, after Jimmy Carter’s loss to Ronald Reagan, the Democratic Party decided that “superdelegates”—delegates who could independently support a candidate irrespective of popular vote—were important. Superdelegates, it was reasoned, would help guard against popular candidates who had little viability in a general election.

The Republican Party also developed its own regulation of primaries, but largely allowed state parties to decide delegate allegation methods. This has led to a variety of nomination processes in states with winner-takes-all, proportional, and convention approaches. The Republican Party also establishes a new set of rules each election cycle that govern how the Republican Party will function as well as deciding convention rules. Throughout this process, the Republican Party has largely given freedom to delegates to decide who to support. Only once in history, 1976, have Republican delegates been bound.

For some, the notion of delegates not honoring popular votes is unsettling. In their eyes, if voting doesn’t bind a delegate, then the vote “doesn’t count.” But that approach is founded on the assumption that primaries have the natural effect of binding delegates. As history and current practice shows, that usually hasn’t been the case.

Why should it be this way?

Think about political parties as more like private clubs and less like branches of government. Political parties are private institutions—not unlike the Rotarians or Boy Scouts. Under the First Amendment, they possess the right to associate and govern themselves as they see fit. Indeed, when states have tried to control state party delegate rules they’ve lost again and again based on First Amendment grounds. When parties get together in a convention or caucus, they’re deciding which members they support, which values are important, and otherwise exercising autonomy. Members of the public can join these private institutions and help shape their direction, or they can form new political parties of their own, like the Green Party or Constitution Party. They can also vote, and be heard, but a public vote never controls the inner workings of a private institution.

Maybe this all seems counterintuitive. Americans are steeped in notions of self-governance and the democratic tradition from an early age. But allowing private political parties freedom to control their own affairs isn’t anti-democratic. It would be particularly troubling if the public, by voting, could exercise control of the private affairs of private groups. That’s not to say citizens have no say over political parties. Parties non-responsive to the public will dissolve under their own undoing. Many prominent political parties are now antiquated bits of history. Neither the Whigs nor the Federalists are with us today. Creative political destruction, as it were, gave way to more responsive, more popular, more representative parties.

So whether Cruz or Clinton got more delegates even when losing a particular popular vote isn’t all that much to fret about. Americans still control their political parties—if they want to. Caution. This involves work. Convention floors, late night caucus negotiations, and on-the-ground party apparatuses are made up of citizens who devote time to this very cause. If anything, perhaps the frenzied election cycle of 2016 will awaken Americans to the need for a resurgence of political participation.  

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Saturday, 27 May 2017
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