David Broder’s column today reminds me of something I keep meaning to mention:
You know those Iowa caucuses today? You may have heard about them. Well, pay no attention to them if you are watching to see:
- Which candidate has the strongest appeal among Democrats.
- Which candidate has the strongest appeal among Republicans.
- Which candidate has the strongest potential appeal for the general election in November.
Remember that these are caucuses, and only reflect the views of a very small minority in each party who are willing to attend a two-hour meeting and publicly declare, and argue for, their preferred candidate. It’s difficult to conceive of most voters being willing to do anything of the kind, and the turnouts at these caucuses have long borne that supposition out.
Who would attend such an event other than a few very vocal partisans, professional advocates of various stripes, and a few bloggers (and among bloggers, we’d be speaking only of those of you who have the guts to comment with your real, full names)?
Anyway, here’s an excerpt from what Mr. Broder had to say:
The maddening thing about the caucus system, for candidates and outside observers as well, is that large and enthusiastic rally crowds tell you almost nothing about the dynamic of the decision-making. I have been dazzled this year, not only by the thousands who filled arenas in Des Moines and Cedar Rapids to see Oprah Winfrey and Barack Obama but by the turnouts of hundreds in high school gyms on freezing Friday nights in small towns such as Oelwein.
Yet getting crowds to a rally or a town meeting is child’s play compared to getting them to caucus. In 2004, 1,506,908 people voted in Iowa in the general election for president. Turnout at the Democratic caucuses that year was estimated at 122,000. The biggest number ever for Republicans was 115,000 in 1980.
That system empowers the activists and those with built-in organizational ties who can mobilize people to leave their homes for a couple hours on a weeknight and motivate them to declare a public — not private — preference for a candidate.
On the Republican side, those networks belong principally to conservative Christian groups, anti-abortion organizations, home-school advocates and some economic interests.
On the Democratic side, organized labor and the teachers boast the best existing networks, but the main impulse is a broader populist tradition that tugs the Democratic Party of Iowa to the left…
Of course, you may be tempted to ignore Mr. Broder and me both, seeing as how he and I have a personal beef: Caucuses bar him and me from participating, because the canons of our profession bar us from such public participation in the process.
I was really ticked when I moved home to South Carolina in 1987 and found that in the following election year, only the Republicans were going to afford me a chance to participate in the winnowing process that takes us down to the two candidates left in the fall. That’s because the Democrats, probably influenced by the sorts of party purists who don’t want independents having a say, were choosing their delegates by caucuses. As the editor in charge (at that time) of The State’s political reporters, I couldn’t very well turn up at a party caucus and express a preference. So it was that I was disenfranchised.
But this is a much bigger problem than just Broder and me. I’ve noted over the years — and had the lesson emphasized by my blogging experience — that most citizens are extremely reluctant to surrender their anonymity as political participants, for whatever reason. So the caucus process intimidates them out of their franchise. Not to mention braver souls who nevertheless are too fastidious to participate so directly and publicly in a party function.
Primaries are bad enough as it is — they force us to choose one ballot or the other. Then, once we do, the party in question has the audacity to count us among its adherents as it proudly touts its turnout. I don’t know about you, but preference for one party or the other (as an UnParty man, I despise both equally) plays no role in which ballot I choose in a given election cycle. It’s purely a matter of which ballot offers a more critical choice, the choice most worth spending my one shot on.
What I just said is pretty straightforward to me, but in case it isn’t to you, I’ll explain: It may be that I prefer ALL of Party A’s candidates to any candidate in Party B. But I know that Party B’s nominee is just as likely to be elected in the fall as Party A’s, and one of these people will almost assuredly become president for the next four years. And I have a preference among Party B’s candidates — perhaps a strong preference for one over ALL the others. So of course I will vote in Party B’s primary, where I believe I can make the most important difference. In the next election, presented with different candidates, I’m just as likely to choose Party A’s ballot, for the very same reasons.
Partisans take that equation and turn it on its head: They claim that people who are not their loyalists only vote in their primary to "sabotage" it, intentionally voting for the weaker candidate. Perhaps there are people who will do that, but I submit that they are as blindly, insanely partisan as their critics, a class of people who in my experience make up a small minority of the electorate. What sane person would cast a ballot for someone who, by virtue of becoming a party’s nominee, would have close to an even chance of being elected, if the voter believed that person could not do the job? Maybe they’d do it for dogcatcher, but for president of the United States? If a significant portion of the electorate would do that, we need to scrap this whole system of representative democracy.
Anyway, back to my original assertion: Mr. Broder’s right. Pay no attention to what happens in Iowa, unless all you care about is turnout organization (an important political skill, but nothing more than what it is). Watch New Hampshire for a real test of the candidates’ appeal among the electorate.
As for what happens in South Carolina, I won’t feel fully enfranchised until I’m allowed to vote in both primaries, and neither should you. With eighteen or so candidates running, you shouldn’t be forced to choose from among only half of them, as the decision is being made that will leave you with a choice in the fall between just one or the other. And too often, what’s left at that point is essentially no real choice for those of us who despise parties.