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The Controversial Caucuses: An Outsized Influence in 2008

A Commentary By Rhodes Cook

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Maybe one of the most intriguing - and nefarious - aspects of this long-running Democratic presidential campaign is that the legitimacy of the system itself has come into question. Doubts, to be sure, have been raised about the role of the unelected "superdelegates".

But the campaign of Hillary Clinton has fingered a different villain for its greatest contempt - namely, the caucuses, which it claims are undemocratic as well as unrepresentative. They argue that her hard-working, blue-collar base was largely disfranchised by the sometimes awkward caucus meeting times.

The ire of the Clinton forces is a bit understandable. While the New York senator has run close to even with Barack Obama in the primary states, she has lost decisively to him in virtually all of the caucuses. The latter constitute a large share of her deficit in both delegates and popular vote which could in the end be her margin of defeat.

It is ironic that such a small slice of the nominating process could prove to be so decisive. For in size, the caucuses are much like the tip of an iceberg. In recent elections, about 35 to 40 states have held primaries. The rest have scheduled caucuses (with Texas Democrats famously holding both). Turnout has always been much, much larger in the primaries. So far this year, more than 33 million ballots have been cast in the sanctioned Democratic primaries, compared to less than 2.5 million votes in the Democratic caucuses.

Yet until this year, the credibility of the caucuses was rarely, if ever questioned. They were considered a worthy part of the nominating process that tested a different set of political skills than a primary. Conducted like a general election, the primary offers voters the flexibility of casting their ballot morning, noon or night. A caucus, particularly of the Iowa variety, has a set starting time and can last for hours.

An old rule of thumb is that while a primary demonstrates vote-getting appeal, success in a caucus demands considerable organizational ability. And while a primary can draw tens of thousands of "casual" Democrats or Republicans, a caucus tends to be limited to the party's dedicated "hard core" - the long-time activists and newly energized voters who make the party click at the grass-roots level. In short, caucus defenders promote their process as a place where the quality of the turnout trumps the quantity.

When the Democrats overhauled their presidential nominating process after the 1968 election, there was considerable sentiment within the party's reform commission to encourage the creation of more caucuses just for this reason. But in the political ethos of the late 20th century, with the elevation of "one person, one vote," greater voter participation was accented and the scales were tipped in favor of more presidential primaries.

Figure 1. '08 Democratic Primaries and Caucuses: Four States Held Both

It is understandable why Hillary Clinton detests caucuses. She has run much better this year in the higher-turnout primaries than the lower-turnout caucuses, a point illustrated by results from the four states that held both. The caucuses elected Democratic delegates in all four states (Idaho, Nebraska, Texas and Washington) and were won easily by Barack Obama. The primaries, however, were much closer, although the one in Texas (carried by Clinton) was the only one of the four that also elected delegates.

   

Dates

 

Dem. Turnout

   

Dem. Winners

State

 

Caucus

Primary

 

Caucus

Primary

Caucus Turnout as % of Primary

 

Caucus

Primary

Idaho

 

Feb. 5

May 27*

 

21,224

42,882

49%

 

Obama (80%)

Obamo (56%)

                     
 

Nebraska

 

Feb. 9

May 13*

 

38,670

93,757

41%

 

Obama (68%)

Obama (49%)

 
 

Washington

 

Feb. 9

Feb. 19*

 

244,458

691,381

35%

 

Obama (68%)

Obama (51%)

 
 

Texas

 

Mar. 4

Mar. 4

 

1,000,000

2,874,986

35%

 

Obama (56%)

Clinton (51%

 
 

TOTAL

 

1,304,352

3,703,006

35%

 
 
 
 
Note: An asterisk (*) in the primary date column indicates a non-binding primary that did not elect delegates. Primary results from Idaho and Nebraska are based on nearly complete but unofficial returns. The Texas caucus results are based on an incomplete tally while the caucus turnout is an estimate from the Texas Democratic Party.

At the same time, the caucuses emerged as a place for political passion. In 1972, the anti-war candidacy of George McGovern flourished in the low-turnout world of the caucuses, enabling him to dominate delegate selection in states such as Idaho, Utah and Virginia, where it is doubtful that he could have carried a primary.

In 1988, Jesse Jackson won first-round caucus action not only in heavily African-American South Carolina, but also Alaska, Vermont, Michigan and Texas. On the other hand, in 1992, Bill Clinton mounted a centrist campaign for the Democratic nomination that was beaten more often than not in the caucus states, as his wife's has been this year.

Yet passionate supporters must be organized for caucus success, and Obama has done that arguably with greater effectiveness than any candidate ever has in a hotly contested nominating fight. Obama won first-round voting in all but two caucus states, Nevada and New Mexico, where his losses were close; he drew at least 45 percent of the vote in each.

Meanwhile, Obama rolled up huge margins of victory in virtually all of the 13 caucus states that he won. Making his success even more impressive was the fact that his wins were accomplished in states where the African-American population was often miniscule.

He defeated Clinton by more than 10 percentage points in Texas and Maine; by more than 20 points North Dakota and Wyoming; by more than 30 points in Colorado, Minnesota, Nebraska and Washington; by more than 40 points in Kansas; and by 50 points or more in Alaska, Hawaii and Idaho. Obama's closest and arguably most important caucus victory was his first, in Iowa, where he defeated John Edwards by 8 points; Clinton placed third.

In contrast, Republican John McCain has tanked in the caucus states. He did not win any in his 2000 challenge to George W. Bush, and he took only one this year - a post-Super Tuesday contest in Washington state that he carried after his principal challenger, Mitt Romney, had quit the race. Romney, with his penchant for organization, and Mike Huckabee, with his appeal to the Christian Right, dominated the GOP caucus action in 2008. McCain, whose support was broad but not passionate, failed to poll more than 25 percent of the vote in any caucus state (including Washington).

The Arizona senator was able to wrap up the Republican nomination with a strong showing in the major primary states. But ominous for McCain is what his poor caucus showing may say about the organizational health of his campaign. As much as the former is indicative of the latter, it is a sign that this may be an area in the fall where Obama has a decided advantage.

Figure 2. '08 Democratic, Republican Caucus Results: Obama Dominates, McCain Struggles

It is sometimes said that caucuses test a candidate's ability to organize. If that is the case, this year's caucus results were good news for Democrat Barack Obama and bad news for Republican John McCain. Obama won virtually every Democratic caucus contest this year over Hillary Clinton, almost all of them by one-sided margins. In contrast, John McCain lost all but one Republican caucus (in Washington state). As in the primaries, turnout in the caucus states was generally far higher on the Democratic than the Republican side. Results below include the Obama and McCain share of each party's first-round caucus vote. Territories are not included.

 

Democrats

 

Republicans

Caucus State

 

Date

 

Turnout

Winner

Obama %

 

Turnout

Winner

McCain %

Iowa

 

Jan. 3

 

239,000

Obama

38%

 

119,188

Huckabee

13%

Nevada

 

Jan. 19

 

117,599

Clinton

45%

 

43,578

Romney

13%

Alaska

 

Feb. 5

 

8,880

Obama

75%

 

13,703

Romney

16%

Colorado

 

Feb. 5

 

119,831

Obama

66%

 

70,229

Romney

18%

Idaho

 

Feb. 5 (D)

 

21,224

Obama

80%

 

-

-

-

Kansas

 

Feb. 5 (D)/Feb. 9 (R)

 

36,731

Obama

74%

 

19,516

Huckabee

24%

Minnesota

 

Feb. 5

 

214,066

Obama

66%

 

62,828

Romney

22%

Montana

 

Feb. 5 (R)

 

-

-

-

 

@

Romney

22%

New Mexico

 

Feb. 5 (D)

 

149,379

Clinton

48%

 

-

-

-

North Dakota

 

Feb. 5

 

19,012

Obama

61%

 

9,785

Romney

23%

West Virginia

 

Feb. 5 (R)

 

-

-

-

 

@

Huckabee

16%

Nebraska

 

Feb. 9 (D)

 

38,670

Obama

68%

 

-

-

-

Washington

 

Feb. 9

 

244,458

Obama

68%

 

n.a.

McCain

25%

Maine

 

Feb. 10 (D)/Feb. 1-3 (R)

 

44,340

Obama

60%

 

5,446

Romney

21%

Hawaii

 

Feb. 19 (D)

 

37,182

Obama

76%

 

-

-

-

Texas

 

Mar. 4 (D)

 

1,000,000

Obama

56%

 

-

-

-

Wyoming

 

Mar. 8 (D)/Jan. 5 (R)

 

8,753

Obama

61%

 

@

Romney

-

 
 

TOTAL

 

2,299,125

 

344,273

 
 
 
 
Note: The Democratic caucus turnouts in Iowa and Texas are based on estimates by the state party. "n.a." means not available. "@" indicates that the Republican caucuses were conducted with a closed universe of voters who were selected earlier. The McCain percentage in West Virginia is based on his showing on the first ballot at the state convention. A dash (-) indicates that delegates were chosen at another time, often by primary election.

Source: The Rhodes Cook Letter, April 2008.

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