Words such as “insane” and “incompetent” have been used to describe the caucus portion of Texas’ two-part delegate selection process.
Yet the system that left Hillary Clinton proclaiming victory, even though Barack Obama likely will end up with more Texas delegates at the Democratic Party’s National Convention, intrigues Brian Melendez, the chairman of Minnesota’s DFL.
When the tumult and shouting of the Clinton-Obama race finally is over, Melendez said he thinks Minnesota DFLers may want to take a look at installing a process similar to the Texas two-step by 2012.
“Before we decide anything, we all need to settle down and take a deep breath,” Melendez said.
But what’s to like about the Texas system?
The Lone Star state’s caucuses, by almost all accounts, were chaotic even by the standards of the frenzied mess that Minnesotans encountered at their Feb. 5 caucuses. Police had to be called into at least four precincts in Houston to calm the fighting spirits of Obama versus Clinton supporters. The lines were long; the waits, longer. We still don’t even know the outcome of about half the caucuses, and likely won’t until the end of this month.
Two-step process may provide best of both worlds
Still, Melendez is intrigued because a two-step system allows the best of both worlds. There’s a primary for people who want only to cast a vote and go home. And there’s a caucus for those willing to invest some time in the business of political parties.
Political parties gain mightily from caucuses.
For all the complaints about the traffic jams, long lines, ballot shortages and general confusion of Minnesota’s caucuses last month, Melendez said those record-shattering caucuses have led to record-breaking participation in the DFL this year.
“We have more activity at every level,” said Melendez, noting that the district conventions, where delegates are chosen for the state convention, are drawing more than two times as many people as ever before. “In a caucus, you have a chance for direct, personal contact with the participants. That doesn’t happen in a primary.”
In addition, caucuses are far less expensive to run than primaries.
“We held our caucuses on a shoestring,” said Melendez. “They cost about $40,000. A primary would cost about $3 million.”
Still, Melendez is the first to acknowledge that the huge turnouts in Minnesota, and other caucus states, overwhelmed the whole caucus philosophy, which is neighbors gathering in small groups to discuss the issues of the day.
Mass turnouts can subvert meaningful discussions
“You can have a meaningful caucus with up to about 100 people,” Melendez said. “After that, you don’t have a caucus, you have a mass meeting.”
Or, mass chaos, as has been the case in many caucus states, including Texas and, to a lesser extent, Minnesota, where turnouts were three times previous record turnouts. Even Iowa, which holds the first of the presidential selection processes, the caucuses were out of control, according to former U.S. Sen. Mark Dayton, who was an observer in Iowa and Texas and a participant in Minnesota. On a 10-point scale, Dayton rated Minnesota a 9, Iowa a 5 — and Texas a minus-5.
Rick Stafford, a former DFL Party chairman and a current member of the Democratic National Committee, is a longtime supporter of the caucus system, but he’s starting to have doubts about the viability of caucuses. He fears that the sheer numbers of people have overwhelmed the “let’s-talk-about-things” sytem. In addition, he’s concerned that too many people are being disenfranchised because of the growing numbers who hold night jobs, or are single heads of household or are aging and reluctant to go out at night.
But, like Melendez, he very much likes the party-building aspect of caucuses. In addition, Stafford points out that caucuses should be a place where Senate, congressional and local officials build support toward party endorsement.
“The intent of a two-step system is good,” said Stafford. “It offers the best of both worlds.”
Republicans seem happy with current system
It should be noted that Republican Party chair Ron Carey has shown no inclination to move his party away from a caucus system. But then, Carey’s party was not overwhelmed by the huge numbers of participants that the DFL was.
Unlike DFLers, the state’s Republicans didn’t even have a binding vote for president at their caucuses. Instead, they offered a straw poll, which was to serve as an advisory to the state convention delegates. Recall that, on caucus night, the state’s Republicans supported Mitt Romney, now a nonfactor.
Given the parties’ current control of how the state presidential selection process works, it’s possible that in 2012, DFLers could have a primary and Republicans a caucus. But there is federal legislation afoot that might require the parties to hold national, regional primaries.
First, there will be a sorting-out process, the “deep breath” that Melendez advises.
The big question at the root of all discussions will be whether this year, when both parties were staging wide-open races, is an anomaly that won’t be seen again.
Stafford foresees the possibility of a presidential primary, plus caucuses on a separate date to handle more routine party business.
But Melendez fears that such a split might reduce caucus participation from record highs to record lows. The beauty of the Texas system, he notes, is that there is “a carrot” involved in the caucus portion of the system. The carrot, of course, is selection of delegates in the presidential race.
“For now, we should just focus on the race and sleep on what we do in the future,” said Melendez.
But it may be hard to sleep amid all the noise.