Idaho Needs a Caucus to Stop the Crossover Problems
Caucuses help ensure that Republicans choose Republican candidates and Democrats choose Democrat candidates.
scenes from the Iowa caucus, 2016
Republicans should choose Republican candidates and Democrats should choose Democratic candidates. Only someone interested in sabotaging one party or the other may disagree with that principle. Primaries make this simple idea difficult to achieve. Even the closed primary, where partisans of one party are not supposed to vote in the other party’s primary, makes it relatively easy for voters to crossover from one party to the next.
Primaries also attract crossover candidates, especially in non-competitive states like Idaho.
The only solution to the crossover problems is the caucus-convention method of selecting general election candidates.
What is a Caucus-Convention Selection Process?
Political parties must have methods to select who will represent them on the ballot. Some states have open primaries. Idaho uses a closed primary, as do more than a dozen states. Utah, in contrast, uses the caucus-convention method, as a handful of other states like Iowa (often confused with Idaho!) and neighboring Nevada do. Idaho even used a caucus in its 2016 presidential selection when it was feeling the Bern!
The caucus-convention method filters party opinion through delegates who select the candidates on behalf of the party faithful. There are two stages of this filtering. First, delegates are selected at local caucus meetings. Then, these delegates go to state conventions or district conventions to select the candidates that will represent the party in the general election.
Let us look at these two stages.
A caucus is a meeting of local members of a political party to register preferences about which candidates should run for office or which delegates should attend a convention. A caucus meeting takes place at the precinct level, usually in a large room like a school gym.
During a caucus meeting, the precinct partisans first hear arguments from candidates or the representatives of candidates about whom to support. Then the partisans debate the merits and demerits of candidates. Lastly, the people who show up to the meeting divide into separate groups or signify their support publicly for different candidates. The final votes are tallied and the level of support is translated into delegates for particular candidates at the next level.
Idaho has 932 precincts. If Idaho adopted the pure Utah caucus-convention method from 2016 or 2018, where each precinct has one vote, these 932 precinct delegates would be charged with selecting Idaho’s statewide candidates like governor, secretary of state, or U.S. senator at state party convention. Whoever received a majority of delegates (or some higher percentage) would become the party's candidate for governor or U.S. Senator or whatever.
Much the same thing could happen at district levels. There could be district conventions of selected delegates to select candidates for state legislature or state senate or for the U.S. Congress.
The caucus selects the delegates. The delegates select the party candidates at a convention.
There are variations on this theme. Iowa awards different numbers of delegates to different precincts, depending on how many Republican or Democrat votes their precinct delivered in the past two general elections. Heavily Republican precincts are awarded more delegates, while less Republican precincts get fewer. Under these circumstances, a local caucus meeting may produce several delegates for one candidate and a few for another and one for yet another.
Advantages of Caucuses
By limiting themselves to involved partisans, caucuses filter out crossover voters. By eliminating crossover voters, caucuses and conventions filter out crossover candidates.
A caucus can be a very deliberative event. Local partisans weigh the merits and demerits of each candidate, weighing ideology and electability. More knowledgeable and politically active, caucus-goers are less easily manipulated than the general electorate. Silly slander is less likely to work with caucus goers. Group endorsements from fake groups are likely to matter less. A caucus is a sample of the rest of the district, but likely a sample that is more politically savvy and interested. They are more based in knowledge and people. They are more likely to know who has helped the party and who is just posing.
Part of the calculus among partisans at caucuses is who can win a general election while still representing the party platform. When the partisans are interested in choosing an ideological candidate, they can. Bernie Sanders won or nearly won most Democrat caucuses in 2016, for instance, and Sen. Mike Lee became a U.S. Senator from Utah through the caucus system. When caucus goers want to choose more pragmatically, they can.
A caucus disentangles the political party from the state government. States run elections, and therefore state party primaries are regulated and controlled by the state. The caucus system transfers the responsibility for candidate selection to the party, where it belongs. It also transfers the cost to the state party.
The caucus system enshrines the idea that members of the political party should select the candidates for that political party. If crossovers voters enter, partisans can call them out or even exclude them. If crossover candidates enter, caucus-goers are likely to sniff them out and vote them down.
Caucuses act as a filtering device used by interested and knowledgeable party activists to select candidates. Not the richest activists. Not the activists with the best connections to interest groups and outside money. Committed, knowledgeable party activists are front and center in the caucus system. And that makes for a more high quality choice in line with the party's interests and beliefs.
We will answer a few common questions in our final feature on the caucus-convention system.
See Part 1 and Part 2 in this series: