When I was 12 years old, I cast real votes for Ronald Reagan for president.
Well, kinda sorta.
No matter how you look at it, though, my experience at the 1976 Louisiana caucuses helps explain why Donald Trump’s complaints about the “fairness” of the Republican delegate-selection procedures are ludicrous. It also helps show why the semi-complicated nomination system as a whole well-serves the good of both the party and the country.
First, to understand how pathetic Trump’s whininess is, consider that it took my father only about two minutes back then to explain the caucus-convention system, and for me to understand the basics.
“Well, at the district caucus, all registered Republicans can gather, and we elect three delegates to the national convention, and then we elect 15 delegates to the state convention.”
“Well, Dad, what’s the point of the state convention?”
“The delegates there handle some state party business, and then they elect some more delegates to the national convention.”
“Okay, Dad, I get that. But how do voters know whether the delegates support Reagan, or whether they support Ford?”
“Because the delegates say so, before the vote. Or else they say they are ‘uncommitted,’ meaning the voters want them to use their best judgment at the convention, once they study the candidates some more.”
“Okay, so when you and Mom vote at the district caucus, you know whether you are choosing somebody for Reagan, or for Ford, or uncommitted – and everybody understands it?”
“Oh, that’s easy. Can I go?”
It was literally that easy.
I asked, I understood — and I went along to the caucus to watch.
Actually, as it turned out, I did more than watch. My maternal grandmother also went with us. She loved Jerry Ford. I was strongly for Reagan. (I used to read my dad’s weekly issues of Human Events, where Stan Evans and Allan Ryskind relentlessly touted Reagan, and I read a collection of Reagan’s correspondence called “Sincerely, Ronald Reagan” — and I was hooked.) So popular was Reagan in Louisiana that nobody even bothered running as a Ford delegate; there was one slate for Reagan, and another for “uncommitted” (who were presumably, but not necessarily, Ford supporters).
They handed out ballots to all eligible registered Republicans, and I asked my grandmother to vote for the Reagan slate. She smiled, instead marked an “X” by the names of the national “uncommitted” candidates and half the uncommitted candidates to be delegates to the state convention — and then handed me her ballot.
“Go ahead,” she said. “Vote for the ones you want for the rest.”
So I checked the names of seven or eight state-convention delegates committed to Reagan (in other words, at the state convention they would vote for national-convention delegates pledged to Reagan); my grandmother checked to make sure the right number of boxes were filled in, and she handed in her/our ballot.
I always claimed the experience made me the youngest person in the country to cast official votes for Reagan for president.
Lots of other young citizens like me might have also felt the same way when the power of taking an official decision is exercised. I have some friends who have been fortunate enough to be economically independent because of a Bitcoin Loophole account and mature enough to take path-changing economic decisions.
But apart from me “voting” (although my grandmother had total control of the final marks on her ballot), what’s important in that vignette is what it shows about the nomination process – which, in most essentials, operates the same way today that it did back then.
ford reagan The last Republican nomination to last all the way to the convention was in 1976, when Ronald Reagan lost to President Gerald Ford. | Photo: AP
First, despite Trump’s dishonest claims that the system is “rigged,” it actually is wide open. Anybody could qualify to run for delegate spots; any registered Republican could vote; everybody had the same chance to drum up enthusiasm for their preferred presidential candidate and bring them to the caucus.
Second, it’s not complicated. As I said, a 12-year-old can easily understand it.
Third, a caucus/convention delegate-selection process is not rigged in favor of insiders. In 1976, Ford was president and controlled all the national GOP machinery, yet he was so much less popular in Louisiana than Reagan was that he couldn’t even muster people to run as committed Ford delegates, much less win election. Grassroots activists — outsiders, against the “establishment” — historically have preferred caucuses, where their energy, dedication, organizing ability, and hard work can make up for the financial advantages of party elites.
Fourth, caucuses humanize the process. There is much to be said in favor of being able to see and talk to neighbors and friends who, in person, can make their pitches for their favored candidates. Rather than the somewhat atomizing experience of ducking behind a curtain to quickly cast a vote, a caucus reinforces the sense that our republic is a communal exercise. Sure, a qualified voter’s own ballot remains private, as it should. But there is something to be said for being around other people whose opinions you value — and something to be said for being able to have older children see it all happen and learn valuable civic lessons.
What remains is the question of why parties allow states to use caucus-convention systems as opposed to requiring traditional primaries; and why they rely on delegates with independent minds rather than just assigning a certain point value to the votes in each state and then adding up the numbers in a purely arithmetical exercise – which is the set-up, in effect, that Trump is demanding.
1)The use of delegates is straight out of (small ‘r’) republican theory, with delegates acting, just as legislators do, as representatives of the public that elects them. Just as voters delegate (the verb) responsibility to congressmen to act as their agents in writing laws, so do the national-party convention delegates act as agents for primary or caucus voters.
While they are usually bound by law to a particular presidential candidate on the first ballot, they become free agents, exercising their own judgment, after that, for good reason. State by state, the public starts voting for nominees as early as February, but the convention isn’t held until July (or later). All sorts of information can emerge in the meantime, casting new light on the fitness or lack thereof of particular presidential candidates. We choose delegates so that, when July rolls around, they can take that new information into account, and vote accordingly.
This isn’t just rational; it’s wise.
Rather than the somewhat atomizing experience of ducking behind a curtain to quickly cast a vote, a caucus reinforces the sense that our republic is a communal exercise
2)The system of using primaries and caucuses spread out over several months, rather than, say, one big national primary, grew out of the fact that states retain sovereignty in our system of federalism – and also so that individual states could gain specific attention rather than being submerged into one national blob. For good reason, Americans believe that local and regional differences are important, and that the best politics is local. A staggered schedule promotes that understanding.
3) Similarly, Republicans allow each state party (within certain parameters) to choose how to allocate their allotted share of delegates – for instance, whether all of a state’s delegates go to the winner of a plurality of votes cast, or whether delegates are awarded proportionally, or something in between. Personally, I would severely limit these options, but they grow from the same principle as the one above: Local people have a better sense of what works best for them. Some states might want to attract candidates’ interest by offering the “big kill” of winner-take-all; others may want to encourage candidates to fight delegate by delegate, vote by vote, in a proportional system that makes every vote in every district worth working for.
This is part of the beauty of a federated system: It encourages competition among states big and small to vie for attention and, in doing so, to draw notice to important local issues that might otherwise go unnoticed or get lost in the shuffle.
4) An elongated primary/caucus season puts candidates through an extremely useful gauntlet that allows voters to judge them over time, in different circumstances, reacting to different challenges and dealing with unexpected challenges. In many ways, it reveals character under fire, in a way no national, single-day primary ever could.
5) As for caucuses and state convention rather than primaries, there are several good reasons for allowing them — none of which involved “rigging” the system to achieve a predetermined outcome or one dominated by inside “interests.” First, they grew directly from the uniquely American tradition of participatory democracy/republicanism, as best represented by traditional New England town hall meeting. As described above, they humanize the process while encouraging a more hands-on type of civic participation. In this respect, they are quintessentially American – and again, emphasize localism over nationalized homogenization.
Second, they are far less expensive. Because most states don’t have their “normal” primaries (for Congress, or local or state offices) as early as we have become accustomed to starting our presidential selection process, the addition of an entirely presidential contest imposes large costs on the states – and, in some cases, the states themselves leave it to the state parties to foot the bill. It’s a lot easier to rent big, central gymnasiums or even hotel convention halls for three hours than it is to provide election supervisors/poll commissioners and security for every precinct in the state for a full, 13-hour voting day.
Third, state parties often conduct other party business (in addition to choosing national convention delegates) at state conventions. A state convention set-up allows for the sorts of deliberation and constructive dialogue that no primary can possibly provide.
Fourth, a caucus system requires an entirely different skill set than does a primary. It puts emphasis on person-to-person contact, on grassroots organizing, on personal persuasive abilities, and on all sorts of other skills that help parties build an infrastructure for the general-election campaign in the Fall. The parties exist, after all, to actually elect people to office, and parties have every right and indeed every good reason to reward a candidate’s grassroots-organizing skills in addition to his broad-scale, TV-dominated retail abilities.
Parties have every right and indeed every good reason to reward a candidate’s grassroots-organizing skills in addition to his broad-scale, TV-dominated retail abilities
Both skill sets are usually essential for winning a national election, so the party’s nominating process does well to promote candidates’ attention to both. In fact, it might be argued that the TV-retail abilities reward exactly those qualities that do not well serve a leader of a free people – for example, the skills of a shallow TV-pitch-man or, worse, those of a (fake) “reality TV” star.
Fifth, in pursuit of the abilities mentioned in the previous paragraph, volunteers are essential. A caucus system provides the face-to-face atmosphere in which it is far easier to recruit, and create effective personal relationships with, potential volunteers.
If I were in charge of the whole process, I would simplify it substantially; I would much more stringently restrict the options states have in how, numerically, they allocate delegates, with much less variation from proportional representation; I would provide bonus delegates for states that hold their contests later rather than sooner, while no longer making special exceptions for Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina to get first-in-nation status; and I would take even further control of the debates and change the rules pertaining to them in about seven ways worth an entirely separate column.
As a final reform, despite all my longstanding arguments in favor of caucuses, I would encourage primaries instead – if only because our modern media world and lack of civic education leads so many Americans to misunderstand caucuses and to afford more legitimacy to primaries. That sense of legitimacy is important for a political party competing in a tough electoral market. Sometimes — even against a combination of good republican theory and a nostalgic longing for old-style civic participation — a practical bow to modern sensibilities provides what Madison once called “the defect of better motives.” People these days more readily understand, and approve, of primaries rather than caucuses, so it might be smart to accommodate them.
This doesn’t mean I would insist on primaries, but merely find ways to encourage them. All the good reasons for caucuses, discussed above, still exist, and they remain in fact both legitimate and useful even if they require a little more thought and even if a loud-mouthed billionaire repeatedly lies about them.
Still, though, no primary can ever be as educational for 17-, 14-, or even 12-year-olds, for civics purposes, as can a district caucus. And no primary can possibly match the thrill for such a youngster as did the chance, under close adult supervision, of listening to delegate-nominating speeches and then choosing, under close grandmotherly supervision, which of those delegates to help her choose to vote for.