Precinct caucuses don’t work as a way to pick candidatesIn a little over two weeks Minnesota Republicans will tell others in their party who should be the GOP nominee for president. Actually, they’ll sort of say who should get the nod, because at precinct caucuses their preferences will be expressed in a straw poll.
In a little over two weeks Minnesota Republicans will tell others in their party who should be the GOP nominee for president. Actually, they’ll sort of say who should get the nod, because at precinct caucuses their preferences will be expressed in a straw poll.
Straw houses are bad because one was the first to fall to the Big Bad Wolf. Straw men are also bad because they represent phony arguments used to make a point. Other straw men are known as scarecrows, and we know from the Land of Oz that they don’t have brains.
Straw polls are not much better and will have little impact on the Republican presidential race, since delegates at party conventions after the precinct caucuses need not mirror the caucus choices.
Welcome to the non-wonderful world of precinct caucuses and my biennial complaint about these sound-good-on-paper-but-work-lousy-in-real-life gatherings.
Many Minnesotans likely didn’t envy Iowans who saw presidential candidates everywhere they turned before that state’s Jan. 3 caucuses. But they at least drew candidates; Minnesota gets overlooked until the general election.
The biggest reason Minnesota should drop precinct caucuses as a way to express party preferences for president is that few people take part in them.
They’re also bad because the delegates chosen at them simply go on to later conventions until a few of them show up at the parties’ national conventions. Such conventions can be a fun party time, but it’s been decades since one was held with any doubt about a party’s nominee.
Party primaries are a much more direct way for voters to nominate. Minnesota had party primaries until the 1950s, when party leaders got upset because Minnesotans voted for candidates the leaders didn’t like — so now we have caucuses that don’t work.
Yes, Iowa uses a caucus system also — but it works because it’s the first presidential vote in the nation and candidates show up in hopes of making a quick start in the race. Even so, that state’s 1,774 precinct caucuses drew about 122,000 GOP voters. Quick math tells you that caucuses averaged fewer than 70 voters each, not exactly a big show of political force.
Four years ago, Minnesota’s precinct caucuses were held on the same day as the Super Tuesday primaries which drew voters in 24 states, so Gopher state preferences at least got some small mention as that day’s results were analyzed. This year, our precinct caucuses will be held a month before Super Tuesday, so don’t look for Brian Williams and other analysts to focus on our choices.
So how should Republicans, Democrats and smaller parties pick presidential nominees? The best system would have four regional primaries, each involving 10 to 15 states and held two to three weeks apart in the spring of election year. A rotating schedule could ensure that each region got a chance to be first every 16 years.
That wouldn’t be perfect — but a lot better than our current setup in which some states have indirect methods (caucuses) and other votes are held so late that they come with party choices already decided. Regional primaries would also ensure that Iowa and New Hampshire — two states that don’t even begin to resemble the rest of America — can’t have a disproportionate influence. Candidates could campaign in each state because travel among them would be easier.
And a fixed schedule of regional primaries would avoid the risk we faced in this round of party presidential selection, in which Iowa and New Hampshire threatened to move their votes back into 2011 as other states jockeyed to join the early-voting parade.
For Democrats, that choice is moot in the presidential race, of course, but DFL caucuses will join Republicans in having delegates that will favor various state legislative candidates at later conventions — though filings for those races are still months away and I’ve heard almost no talk about such campaigns.
Budgeteer opinion columnist Virgil Swing has been writing about Duluth for many years. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.