In the early years of our nation Presidential candidates were chosen by a Caucus of the members of Congress who considered themselves loosely affiliated with the parties, i.e. Federalist or Democratic. The last such Congressional Caucus was held in 1824. There were five candidates for President that year (one John Calhoun ultimately dropped out and became everybody’s candidate for Vice President). The caucus was controlled by supporters of William Crawford of Georgia. And while there were congressmen who supported Henry Clay and John Quincy Adams there were few behind Andrew Jackson. His supporters throughout the country began having state legislative bodies adopt nominating resolutions declaring for Jackson’s candidacy. Jackson campaigned against what he called King Caucus and in support of popular election of the President. Though Jackson did not win in 1824 John Quincy Adams who did was not the caucus candidate.
The rematch in 1828 of Adams and Jackson which the latter won saw the complete defeat and elimination of King Caucus. In 1832 Jackson had the Democrats copy the Anti Masonic concept of a national convention and from then on national conventions were used to nominate Presidential tickets. After 1832 the political process battle became how to select delegates to the national conventions.
At the turn of the 20th century direct primaries were instituted in many states to allow the voters to choose the party candidates for public office. And, at the Presidential level a preferential primary was adopted in many states which allowed the voters to express their preference among candidates while still allowing the delegates at the national convention the authority to choose the nominees. With John F Kennedy’s nomination in 1960 the political establishment clearly accepted that the preference primaries were in fact choosing the candidates. After the battle of 1968 the Democrats, and then the Republicans, began changing their rules to require that delegates chosen to the convention either by primary or local and state convention should express their presidential preference before hand and consider themselves bound to follow their public choice.
Many states preferred to stay with their system of state conventions choosing national delegates and so the manner of choosing delegates to the state conventions began to figure into the Presidential campaigns. In 1972 George McGovern’s campaign encouraged the neighboring state of Iowa to have the delegates that were chosen at precinct level party caucuses to attend county conventions that would choose delegates to the state convention to be chosen at all these levels expressing a candidate preference. McGovern then won the preferences and used that to catapult himself into more serious contention in the following primaries. In 1976 Jimmy Carter a relatively unknown former Governor Georgia started in 1975 to campaign in Iowa to win these preferences at the precinct caucuses and did so which grabbed media attention - vaulted Carter into the first rank of Democratic Presidential candidates that year and the Iowa caucuses became the first in the nation expression of popular support for Presidential candidates.
And that was of course true last week when on Feb.1 Iowa held their precinct caucuses. The system, first designed in 1972, has become more complex in fact one could call it a mathematical nightmare. Democrats require viability thresholds, regrouping without necessarily full recounting, selection of county convention delegates proportionally allocated to the candidate groups, a rounding off system to determine the exact allocation of county delegates and even a coin toss to decide who gets the delegate if the candidate groups are equal in number. The state party then reports to the media not the number of Democrats in each precinct who supported each candidate; no, nor the number of delegates by candidate chosen in each precinct to attend the county convention. The state using a mathematical formula that seems to defy explanation translates this data into “delegate equivalencies” which I can only assume means how many delegates each candidate will have at the state convention after the county conventions meet and select other delegate. These delegate equivalencies both raw number and percentage are what the public and the media are given as the Iowa caucus results e.g. on Feb 1 Clinton had 701 delegate equivalencies and Sanders 697 -- “a virtual tie”.
The complexities of the Democratic caucuses in Iowa really do reduce the value of the exercise which is unfortunate because hundreds of thousands of Iowa voters come out to participate. The Democrats have evolved a system that is too complex, so complex in fact that state party workers and group leaders of both candidates often had trouble understanding what the next step or the next mathematical computation was. Even the Republican caucus system which is much simpler and is basically a paper ballot vote for President so distorted the reported results in 1980 and in 2012 in such a way as to impact on the subsequent Republican nominating process.
Andrew Jackson wouldn’t refer to this as King Caucus he’d probably call it Rotten Caucus. And he’d be right. The candidates for one national public office in the United States of America chosen by the entire national electorate should be chosen in a manner that reflects direct democracy. There should be a national primary, with a run off if no candidate gets at least 40% of the vote the first round (40% because that’s what Lincoln got in 1860 and he turned out pretty good). If the political establishments can’t handle the democracy of a national direct primary then let there be four regional primaries over say a two month period allowing for the candidates to campaign in all the states. And assuming our political leaders find that approach too radical than at the very least we should abolish the caucus system for selection of Presidential candidates and require every sate to hold a direct primary. And we should use the good features of the Iowa system - allowing same day registration and party selection; allowing 17 years old who will be 18 by the general election to vote; essentially making every citizen’s vote of equal weight.
Al Smith, Democratic Presidential candidate in 1928 is reputed to have said “The only cure for the ills of democracy is more democracy”. The caucus system used in Iowa and variations used in a large number of states is broken and unrepresentative of the population at large. We don’t need to fix it or tweak it we need to Abolish it. Let the People decide who their President will be at every step of the process - and that includes abolishing the Electoral College and voting directly for President in November (but that’s a subject for another post).
4 February 2016