Act Locally » November 25, 2003
Several states opt for caucuses
The primary system needs repair: Front-runners are selected by the media and voters in the first few state primaries.
Republicans in Arizona and Missouri also tried calling off their primaries, but Democratic governors either vetoed the measure or restored funding.
These actions have some Democrats complaining that the GOP is playing politics with the electoral process, given that President Bush has no early challenger. But members of their side are bagging primaries, too.
Maine dropped its presidential primary, formerly scheduled for February 8. Washington Gov. Gary Locke, chair of the Democratic Governors Association, also hopes to scrap his state’s primary next year. In most cases, states that skip primaries will use party-run caucuses to choose delegates to the national conventions.
These actions, coupled with candidates Joe Lieberman and Wesley Clark opting out of the January 19 Iowa caucuses, have fueled criticism that the primary system needs repair: Front-runners are selected by the media and voters in the first few state primaries, the argument goes, relegating the remainder to mere formality.
Democratic Party Chairman Terry McAuliffe is hopeful that a single candidate will emerge by mid-March—months before Nevada wraps up the primary process on September 7—to offset obvious benefits the unchallenged Bush enjoys.
But this compressed schedule has terrific downsides, including historically lower turnout that can increase the success of candidates backed by state and national party leaders.
“This year there are only two weeks between Iowa and the last set of significant primaries before the mega-primaries,” says Curtis Gans of the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate. “Selecting a front-running candidate in a five-week period leaves no way to find out if the candidate has feet of clay and renders the national convention meaningless.”
It also elevates the import of successful early fund-raising given candidates have so little time to raise money.
“In this schedule candidates have to raise most of their money early in the year before, and front-runners are created by ersatz events and the media before one vote is actually cast,” Gans says.
All indications are that Lieberman and Clark are concentrating on the February 3 primaries in such states as South Carolina, Arizona and Delaware—the last opportunity for candidates to gain momentum before the mother lode of primaries, Super Tuesday, this year on March 2—and likely are betting that coming out ahead there will put them on equal footing to those who score well in Iowa and New Hampshire.
Jano Cabrera, a spokesman for the Lieberman campaign, said the decision to withdraw from Iowa had nothing to do with the candidate being too conservative for the state’s caucus-goers. “The new lay of the land is that of a nine-state early process,” Cabrera said. “Unlike previous years, the landscape has changed dramatically and our campaign thinks we have found a successful strategy by concentrating on other states.”
The Clark campaign also has stated that the general isn’t well served by concentrating on Iowa given his late entry into the race. Skipping Iowa has never proved a particularly successful campaign strategy, but in the recent past state caucus-goers have been out of step with national voters. Ronald Reagan, the elder Bush, Michael Dukakis and Bill Clinton all lost in Iowa but went on to win their parties’ nomination. (The more progressive Richard Gephardt and Tom Harkin won in 1988 and 1992, respectively.)
But that same contrarianism likely isn’t true of states that switch up and hold the occasional caucus. Nationwide about 20 percent of voters turn out for primaries, but that number plummets for caucuses. During the 2000 Missouri primary, for example, 725,000 voters went to the polls; only 20,000, however, participated in caucuses four years earlier.
“Fewer voters will participate because [caucuses] are more complex,” Gans recently told the Associated Press, which means that average voters are frozen out of the process. Caucuses, he goes on to say, give the advantage “to whoever’s organized.”
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Williams Cole is a contributing editor of the Brooklyn Rail and a former Fulbright scholar in media at the London School of Economics. He also is a documentary filmmaker currently producing a film about New York under Rudy Giuliani.