Open Season on Caucuses

Which is fine, by my lights, because there’s no conclusive or even really compelling argument to make about why caucuses should be kept. Yes, they make nominating a party’s candidate harder work, which incentivizes/valorizes dutiful, detail-immersed citizens. But that also advantages fanatical, ideology-immersed people for whom their identity as citizens probably trails behind their identity as Americans, members of a particular affinity or pressure group, or, indeed, members of the party holding the relevant caucus.

But the flipside of this logic runs counter to Josh Patashnik’s better angels, who argue thus at The Plank:

even if one accepts (as I do) that parties have the right to select their nominees however they like, the question remains whether they’re better served by opting for caucuses. (Often it’s a question of saving money, but set that aside.) After all, there’s a pretty direct trade-off: one can empower a relatively small group of ideologically motivated activists (see, for instance, my colleague Barron YoungSmith’s report on the hilariously undemocratic Montana Republican caucus), but only at the cost of excluding more casual, lower-income, and independent voters who might develop an affinity for the party by participating. It’s not a coincidence that in California the Democrats welcomed all comers in their primary, while the increasingly extreme and marginalized state GOP decided to exclude independents. Even if caucuses aren’t the oppressive bastions of elitism that Hillary Clinton seems to think they are (except for Nevada, of course), it’s still reasonable to believe that parties stand to gain more than they lose by facilitating broader participation in their nominating processes.

I can’t figure any way to operationalize what ‘gaining’ or ‘losing’ in this context means. Yes, kamp krazies that take the despotic approach to small caucuses might inflate support for ‘bad’ candidates, thereby punishing the party in the general, but you’d think if this were really a problem then Ron Paul would be the Republican nominee and Barack Obama would have lost a lot of caucuses. But in fact the reverse happened. Maybe some Lawnmower Man-like statistician can throw some figures in my face here, but it sure seems like there is no correlation between primary votes — especially open primary votes — and election results that are ‘good’ for either party. McCain, after all, the electable RINO of the race, sealed the fate of his opponents in a closed primary. And California’s open Democratic primary resulted in a Clinton victory.

To back up out of the weeds, it’s eminently reasonable for a state party official to argue that, under the state party’s particular circumstances, it should ditch caucusing and go with a primary system. But the terms of that argument are likely to reflect how any attempt to reason toward the ‘right’ answer is headed for indeterminacy. If there’s any logical argument to be made, it’s the worst one possible — that, because public opinion constantly violates the rules of logical thinking, people will ‘feel like’ a state party which excludes independents is ‘extreme and marginalized’ because only an extreme and marginalized party would ‘feel like’ independents should be excluded; ergo, the force of public relations analysis dictates that the party will ‘look bad’ unless it abandons caucusing.

Which would pretty much count in my book as one of the more egregious and lamentable failures in democratic politics of any kind.