Thursday, August 2, 2007

Musings on the Montana Presidential caucus question

Note: MH was out of commission yesterday due to technical difficulties beyond our control. Thanks to all of you who were concerned that perhaps someone had died here. Only the network had, thankfully.

In our last episode, readers were referred to the brief discussion going on over at Wulfgar's site about the proposed GOP caucus. Amazingly enough, the tentative Montana Headlines opinion that the proposed caucus is a good idea appears to be a minority one in this tiny unscientific sampling of Montana bloggers. MH holding a position assailed by colleagues both on the left and on the right? Who would have guessed it ?

But there were a couple of questions of interest that Colby Natale and Moorcat raised in the comments that are worth addressing in a little detail. And since technical difficulties have put things behind around here, we'll make a post out of it.

Here was Colby's excellent question/comment:

Forgive my ignorance, but whose decision is this? It seems like it cannot just be the Montana GOP's decision to make, because (as Sam points out) non-Republicans can choose to take part in their current primary. I don't see how they have the authority to change a voter-centric system on their own.

And then this from Moorcat:

Exclusionary tactics are simply wrong and they infringe on our Constitutional right to express our opinion by voting. Personally, I can't even see how this would be constitutional...

Taking the latter first, party organization and the like are not mentioned in the Montana Constitution, nor are they mentioned in the U.S. Constitution. There is no federal "right" to participate in a party's nominating process. Party organization has elements that are prescribed by Montana's Statutory Code, which is determined by the state legislature, but parties have a lot of leeway under those laws.

According to Montana law, our primaries are open primaries -- that is true. If either the GOP or the Dems wanted to change that, they would have to go to the legislature.

But, according to the basic text We the People of Montana, a Presidential primary's results are "only advisory to state party conventions which choose delegates to national party conventions" under Montana law. Both parties officially choose their delegates at the party convention in a presidential election year, and not in the primary itself.

The authors go on to state that (as of the writing of the book in 1983) the Montana GOP did not require that national delegates vote in accordance with the results of the Presidential primary, whereas as of that writing, the Montana Democratic party did (but see below.) GOP rules haven't changed on that score, as Erik Iverson has pointed out, and Montana's delegates to the GOP national convention aren't bound.

There are advantages to that, by the way, since it allows a state delegation to change with shifting circumstances in a way that reflects the interests of the state party. For instance, if a nomination was close between Guiliani and Fred Thompson -- but most of Montana's delegates were bound to Mike Huckabee, who had no chance of getting the nomination, then those delegates could shift their votes to Fred Thompson, who more closely fits what the party voted for.

Both the Democratic and Republican parties recognize the importance of having delegates who are party regulars and who can vote how they like -- the numbers of so-called "Superdelegates" has only continued to expand in the Democratic party as the years have gone by.

However, going back to the Montana Democratic party, it was noted that their policy of committing delegates based on an open primary placed the Montana Democratic Party in conflict with national Democratic rules as of that writing -- since the national Democratic party did not allow non-Democrats to bind how delegates voted for a presidential nominee, and since the Supreme Court in 1981 upheld the constitutionality of the Democratic party's rule not to allow non-Democrats to participate in its presidential selection process, this was a problem. (The national party changed that rule in 1988 to accommodate Montana and Wisconsin.)

So apparently, Montana Republicans could today cross over in large numbers and write in a Republican name in a Democratic presidential primary, forcing many of the Democratic stalwarts headed for the Democratic national convention to vote, say, for Dick Cheney on the first ballot. Hm -- now that could get interesting. And Democrats wouldn't be able to retaliate by crossing over to vote for Michael Moore -- the GOP could just ignore any votes cast for him to be the Republican nominee for President.

One interesting question is whether the Montana GOP would still be required under Montana law to hold the same non-binding primary in June that it currently does, even if it holds a binding caucus in February.

But one thing that is certain -- how the Montana GOP ultimately decides to select and bind (or not bind) its delegates to the GOP national convention is completely its own business under Montana law. And of course, they need the blessing of the national GOP -- which decides whether a state's delegates are valid or not.

While the MH opinion remains that this would be a good idea -- replacing a non-binding after-the-fact primary with a binding caucus that would motivate Republicans to get involved as precinct people -- there are potential pitfalls. For instance, a "Goldwater takeover" such as happened in Montana in 1964 could theoretically happen, with a committed posse interested more in promoting a particular candidate than in promoting the GOP in general moving to fill all of those open spots. Was this a part of the reason that Mitt Romney paid a visit to Montana's GOP state convention?

In general, weak parties are not good for the political process, since they can be and are displaced or controlled by special interest groups, demagogues, and personality cults -- leaving chaos in their wake. The question that has to be answered by Republican leaders in Montana and nationally is whether an early caucus of party stalwarts would serve to attract and energize a broader base of politically active grassroots Republicans -- or not.

And part and parcel of answering that question has to be the determination not of whether the Montana GOP is weak or not (there is no doubt that right now, it is) -- but what the nature of that weakness is, and how that would interact with the institution of a caucus. And that is a long-term matter that requires careful thought and consideration.

One final note: the Democratic party in Montana has been exploring the possibility of an early caucus, as well. Their desired plan would be to allow all "self-identified Democrats" to participate. This, for the record, would also be a "disenfranchisement" of a lot of Montanans, since under the current system, one doesn't have to identify oneself as a Democrat to vote in a Democratic presidential primary.

In addition, a caucus (again, contemplated by Democrats no less than by Republicans in Montana) is participatory, but it is very different from going into a voting booth -- at a caucus, as traditionally done, participants have to declare publicly who they are supporting. What does this do? It puts more power into the hands of (you guessed it) party regulars and activists, and it would keep Republicans from participating in a way that the relative anonymity of of a polling-place doesn't. Our neighbors generally didn't know if we crossed over to try to influence the Tester/Morrison race -- but in a caucus, they would be looking us in the eye, knowing that this is exactly what we would probably doing were we to show up at a Montana Democratic caucus en masse to caucus for Zell Miller.

So if Montana Democrats want to throw stones at the Montana GOP for its proposed caucus, they really ought to abandon their own caucus plans, since the difference is one of degree, not of kind. And as MH has pointed out before, it is highly unlikely that a GOP caucus would do anything but continue to expand criteria for participation as the years go by and as experience is gained in how to "do caucuses."

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