Monday, February 11, 2008

Notes from the Maine and Washington caucuses -- with reflections on the Montana GOP caucus

Correspondence with an interested MH reader from Maine sent some interesting observations about yesterday's Democratic caucuses in that state. He had earlier predicted a solid Obama victory based on his unscientific local observations, and his own precinct went 2 to 1 for Obama (as did he.)

He noted that national trends seemed to be reflected in his own precinct, with older women and blue-collar folks tending to go with Clinton, and with better educated and younger voters going for Obama. Another interesting observation was that while under 35's and over 55's were well-represented, there was a dearth of folks in the middle, age-wise.

When questioned about the Maine process, he confirmed that there is registration by party in Maine, making it easy to determine who is eligible to vote in the caucus. Only those registered to vote as a party member can vote in the caucus -- if independents want to participate in a caucus, they have to choose to give up their independent status and register as a member of the party.

Meanwhile, out in Washington, there are some potentially interesting mechanisms that Montana Republicans can consider for future caucuses.

First, the Washington GOP has both caucuses and a primary. Some of the delegates are awarded based on the early caucus, and others are awarded based on the primary.

Second, anyone can vote in the caucus, but there are two things that make this possible to be done with some safety for the party. For one thing, the caucuses do not appear to be strictly binding -- the party convention seems to be the place where that is finally determined. So if Mickey Mouse or John Kerry were to magically win the Republican caucuses through organized disruption, this could be remedied at the convention without changing any rules.

But more importantly, the Democrats and Republicans have caucuses at the same time, and voters in each party's caucuses have to sign a statement that they are a Democrat or Republican and that they pledge not to participate in the other party's delegate selection process in any way.

Unlike Montana, it seems that the parties were in agreement on moving up their Presidential primaries -- but what they couldn't agree on was the date of the primary. Republicans wanted February 5th, Democrats wanted March 18th. This likely reflects the realities of the way the two parties handle their primaries and caucuses.

The Democratic system is much more top-down than the Republican. Consider: the national party mandated proportionate distribution of delegates (part of why the race is so close in the delegate count this year.) State parties do not have the freedom in the Democratic Party to decide how to allocate delegates, as in a winner-take-all primary or some variant on that that Republicans often use in order to give their states more clout or to benefit a "favorite son" candidate.

Another example of this top-down approach is the different ways that the parties sanctioned states that went "too early." Republicans took half of the delegates away from those that jumped the gun, whereas Democrats took all representation away from Michigan and Florida. This is not necessarily a bad thing, as MH has written before (with some approval of the DNC on this point.) It is just a different approach.

The most top-down feature of the Democratic (here is a place where Democratic isn't very democratic) process is that a very large number of the total number of delegates are unelected "super-delegates" who can vote for whomever they want to. The party bosses thus get to have a lot of say. Which again isn't intrinsically bad at all -- it just flies in the face of Democratic rhetoric.

All of this together goes to make the Democratic nomination process one that is institutionally designed to be more likely to take a lot longer to be settled -- and thus a state's Democrats don't have the motivation that a state's Republicans do to have delegate selection processes occur earlier on the calendar.

Anyway, with all of the winner-take-all primaries on the Republican schedule and the greater tendency for GOP contests to be wrapped up quickly, it is understandable that the Washington GOP would want to go on Super Tuesday while the Dems wouldn't see the need to rush. In fact, they got more attention by not being in the glut of Super Tuesday -- but this was not the case for Washington's GOP, which was, unbelievable as it might seem, essentially irrelevant even though February wasn't half-over.

So, these states are interesting things for Montana's Republican and Democratic Parties to look at in deciding how to do things in the future. If Democrats and Republicans can cooperate with each other, they could agree to move up a primary date. Or they could jointly set up open caucuses held on the same day at the same time, with parallel statements for people to sign, agreeing not to participate in the other's delegate selection process at any time.

Or they could agree to instate registration by party in Montana, which would allow each party to do caucuses of their own on whatever date each felt was most advantageous -- as was done in Maine, with the Maine GOP caucuses being held earlier than the Dem caucuses.

And the GOP could consider allocating some delegates to the caucus winner, and some to the primary winner.

There are many options, but as we have stated before, this year's GOP caucuses can best be thought of as a trial balloon. Something needed to change if the GOP in particular here in Montana were to have a voice in the process, given the typical dynamics and timetable of Republican nomination contests.

Rather than lambast the Montana GOP for "disenfranchisment" (no such thing happened, but there's no point in rehashing all of that again,) interested Montana Republicans should give their input to the party with ideas about how we can be relevant, timely, and as inclusive as possible. We can see, by looking at the many ways that things are done around the country in other states, that Montana's June primary isn't the only way that things can be done here.

One would hope that we could be humble enough to acknowledge that we need to be open to change in Montana, and treat this year's caucus experiment in the GOP as an exciting first step toward improving how we select our delegates to national conventions.

It is gratifying, although not surprising, that GOP Chairman Erik Iverson and the GOP leadership had the courage to step out and try something different. They've started the ball rolling.

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