Caucuses Hold Republican Party Hostage to Ron Paul and Party Insiders, Time for Electoral Reform


The discussion of Republican Party rules reform is beginning in the aftermath of the catastrophe of the new rules that were created by the RNC leadership in 2010. Many people attribute the lengthening process to just the new rules, but I would argue that there are several other factors. Some of the obvious ones are the weakness of the candidate field and new campaign finance structures. It is hard to imagine how Newt Gingrich would have been able to compete in South Carolina or Rick Santorum pretty much anywhere without Super PAC support. Their campaigns would have run out of money in previous years. Blaming the “proportional” rules misses the point somewhat, as none of primary states to date other than Florida previously operated under proportional rules.

The real disaster of this cycle has been the presidential preference caucus. In Iowa, Nevada, and Maine, we have had disastrous voting procedures, with results unknown or in flux for days. In Iowa, this led to the resignation of the state party chair Matt Strawn. In Nevada, the state party’s failed efforts to run a caucus have been widely panned, although the state party chair had already announced that she was stepping down, so there hasn’t been the same kind of accountability. In Maine, state party Chairman Charlie Webster, who I quite like personally, is coming under tremendous pressure from county party chairs, elected officials, and the party executive committee to step down.

The problem with caucuses is not that they are hard to run, although some party leaders have called for improving those processes. After all, they are run by political parties which are notoriously incompetent and corrupt. I suspect that they could be run well.

The reason that we shouldn’t have a caucus is that it gives voters the illusion of participation while transferring power to party insiders or hyper-activists. By contrast, binding presidential primaries subordinate the party insiders to the will of the voters. Do you want an illusion or accountability?

This is a process which makes Ron Paul a serious contender in states like Iowa, Minnesota, Nevada, and Maine, where he is not even relevant in any state with a primary. Only in a process that deliberately restricts the number of participants could someone like Ron Paul stand a chance or use the silly process as a basis to build a strategy on.

How bad is this restriction? Matt Gagnon reviewed the turnout in the last primary in Maine and compared it to the caucu and found: In 1996, more than 67,000 Republicans voted in their primary. In 2000, more than 64,000 Democrats and 96,000 Republicans voted. This year, a little over 5,000 Mainers participated in the much ballyhooed and now very much disputed Romney vs. Paul death match.

I would note that the 2010 gubernatorial primary attracted over 120,000 Republican voters and 110,000 Democratic voters. And this primary resulted in the election of Paul Le Page, the most conservative, serious candidate, who went on to win the general election in a blue-to-purple state. How can over a 95% drop in participation that results in “a death match” between Ron Paul activists and party insiders be good for our party?

The answer is that it is not. If you voted in a caucus, did you realize that to have your vote actually matter, you have to stay to become a delegate to a county, district, or state convention? If not, your vote doesn’t count at all. Just ask the Ron Paul campaign, which explained how they got all the delegates from three counties they actually lost. For example, in one precinct in Larimer County, the straw poll vote was 23 for Santorum, 13 for Paul, 5 for Romney, 2 for Gingrich. There were 13 delegate slots, and Ron Paul got all 13.

When there aren’t well-organized activists like the Ron Paul campaign, what happens? The actual Republican voters leave, and process is left to party insiders who give us people like Dede Scozzafava.

None of these states actually pick nominees for Governor or Senate or anything like that via caucuses. They only use the caucus to magnify their power when it comes to picking President. Is that right?

Participating in local party organizations gives an escape from these options, and can help fix the party by beating the establishment and stopping it from being captured by people like Ron Paul supporters. And we can force the party to accountable to the will of voters by using a primary.

There is another very serious problem with caucuses. It is very hard in a caucus system to create a method for allowing active duty, deployed soldiers to participate. Captain Sam Wright of the Service Members Law Center said, "Those who serve our nation in uniform ... should be given the opportunity to participate in the nomination as well as the election of candidates for president and other offices. After all, were it not for their sacrifices, none of us would have the opportunity to vote in free elections."

So why do we have a process that excludes soldiers and transfers power to party insiders when we could have one that includes everyone and forces the party insiders to be accountable? Because people don’t fight for it.

A version of this article originally appeared on

Photo Credit: earth2marsh