April 28th, 2010

In Defense of Utah’s Caucus System


photo credit: RichardJackson

As Senator Bennett’s non-existent chances for re-election make themselves more apparent, one question is increasingly taking shape: does Utah’s caucus system produce delegates who actually represent the base of voters?

A variety of polls have been produced in the past few days portraying delegates as a radically differentiated group when compared against the voting base of their party—Republicans especially. These results are being used to plant the idea that elected Republican delegates are out of touch with the base, and by voting on candidates and altering outcomes that the general voting public does not have the opportunity to participate in, these few activists are hijacking the democratic process and producing outcomes that the base would not themselves approve of.

In a segment devoted to this topic on Sunday, KSL anchor Bruce Lindsay posed a question as to whether Utah’s caucus system was “good for democracy”. The question is a poor one on many levels, not the least of which is the glaring fact that this country is (or once was) a Republic. That journalists, political commentators, and the public at large do not understand this key point does not make it any less true. The answer to Mr. Lindsay’s question is a simple one: no, the caucus system is not good for democracy—but neither is a bicameral legislature with 535 individuals claiming to represent the will of 300 million. Democracy, once widely understood to be the “tyranny of the majority”, is a system we should neither be promoting nor idealizing.

With regards to the apparent difference between the voting base and the delegates, the plain fact is that anybody can affiliate with any party, and participate in their caucus system. Subsequently, anybody can run to become a delegate in said caucus meeting, and thus be entrusted by those in attendance with a position of representation. Thus, the elected delegates are chosen by a body of voters who have overcome the first (albeit very minor) level of battling apathy by setting aside two to three hours on one evening during a two-year cycle. In so doing, caucus attendees have already distinguished themselves from the voting base.

As this very low standard of participation is open for all, the masses supposedly not being represented have nobody to blame but themselves; those who claim they are not being represented have failed to take the most basic of steps in pursuit of that alleged goal. One cannot demand representation without affirming on what issues he or she would like to be represented, and so claiming that the 3,500 GOP state delegates do not represent the Republican base is not an indictment on the caucus system or the delegates themselves, but on the hundreds of thousands who either are unaware of what a precinct caucus is, or chose not to attend theirs.

When viewed through the perspective of what a representative Republic is, the caucus system is a state-based implementation of the same principles. Primaries, whether open or closed, are subject first to a process that helps ensure that candidates seeking the party’s nomination adhere to its ideals. As candidates only have to initially appeal to such a (relatively) small group, it increases the opportunity for citizens with not-so-deep pockets to compete with those whose access to cash seemingly knows no bounds. It increases the opportunity for candidates to be vetted more thoroughly by in-depth questions in cottage meetings, debates, and one-on-one conversations, whereas a primary reduces the political dialogue to mostly sound bytes and limited debate.

Perhaps the most important aspect of the caucus system, however, is the trust it places in the delegates themselves to help create a favorable outcome in harmony with the party’s platform. I was elected in my precinct and given the responsibility of representing those in attendance, and by extension, all registered Republican voters in my precinct. I field phone calls, read literature, study the issues, and in total, invest at least 30-40 hours per week researching, discussing, and acting on political issues. Chances are extremely high that the entertainment-addicted Republicans on the other end of the spectrum have nowhere near the understanding of issues that can only be gained through such an investment of time and energy.

This is not to say that such individuals do not deserve representation, nor that I, as their elected delegate, should pay them no heed. Just as I should keep my state and federal representatives in check by communicating with them, offering my insights, asking questions, etc., so too should the Republican voters in my precinct seek to inform or persuade me on issues that matter to them over which I have control through my vote.

The system is not broken—our general commitment to civic duty is. Republican state delegates are not extremist activists out of step with their base—the base is out of step with the party’s platform. Having such a small group influence or determine the outcome of nominations does not create an imbalance—it tempers the passions and deception which can so easily influence the masses.

A specific example is in order.

Among likely GOP primary voters in Utah, Senator Bennett polls fairly well. A recent Rasmussen poll found that when pitted against his top four challengers (Mike Lee, Tim Bridgewater, Cherilyn Eagar, and Merrill Cook), Bennett led the pack with 37% support. However, when the polling is done amongst state delegates who will be deciding his political fate at the May 8 convention, the tables turn. Delegates are far more hostile to Bennett, ranking him either third or fourth in most polls behind his main challengers.

Pundits are shocked, and thus we have the caucus system being questioned to analyze why something like this could be happening. Few such talking heads ever raise the most obvious point, namely, that when people take the time to study Bennett’s record as the delegates have done, they will also become convinced that he should be removed from office. Instead, we get pathetic questions speculating as to why the delegates are not simply regurgitating the uninformed opinions and will of the Republican base.

Placing the party’s nomination process in the hands of elected representatives who dedicate a great deal of time and energy to fulfill their duty is a wise move. It is not without its problems, and the caucus process itself could be improved. But at the end of the day, those crying foul about a group of delegates who do not represent the voting base are focusing their ire in the wrong direction.

Had the actions of a limited few been always subjected to the will of the majority, this country would have never asserted its independence, let alone had the audacity to begin to form a new Constitution. To say, then, that Utah’s caucus system should be made more “democratic” to more accurately reflect the will of the base is to infuse the political process with ignorance and inertia to such a degree that the eventual outcome is a byproduct of opinions shaped mostly by propaganda, sound bytes, and well-funded individuals.

31 Responses to “In Defense of Utah’s Caucus System”

  1. David
    April 28, 2010 at 9:44 am #

    I find it disappointingly predictable that the news media have turned the question on it’s head. As you point out, delegates are (or should be in some cases) doing their homework to get truly informed in casting their votes. Many people sought delegate positions precisely because they had already been doing the necessary homework and wished to have the opportunity to apply that effort with a vote.

    The media looks at that exact active participation and, especially in the case of those who became informed even before caucus night, declares that starting to get informed before the caucuses is an indication of radicalism and we should not be allowed undue influence in the political process. Apparently anyone who forms their opinions by doing their own research is an activist unless there is a media company paying them to voice their opinions.

  2. Candace Salima
    April 28, 2010 at 9:54 am #

    Excellent post, Connor. Excellent job of explaining what should be so obvious to anyone.

  3. JHP
    April 28, 2010 at 10:09 am #

    Amen, Mr. Boyack.

    I’m a state delegate, too, and I sympathize with what you’ve written. I’m still undecided for the senate seat, but I’m definitely doing all the research I can, and a lot more than I might do if I were only voting in a primary. I think the caucus system is great.

  4. Doug Bayless
    April 28, 2010 at 10:55 am #

    As a state delegate I was fascinated to suddenly find myself in the position of possibly being ‘a representative completely out of sync with his constituency’ (a condition I’ve sometimes found distasteful in my own representatives in national Congress for instance!).

    I heartily agree with the context you’ve given this discussion. When discussing the election of U.S. Presidents, the bicameral legislature, the 17th amendment, or any other aspect of our U.S. system (current or past), it is important to remember those passionate debates that resulted in Benjamin Franklin emerging from the Philadelphia State House and [upon being asked what form of government was the studied result of that work] responding simply:

    “A Republic, if you can keep it.”

    I have two further comments though.

    One, is that I don’t think the feeling of the delegates actually differs so much from their constituents. That idea makes for good news copy but it isn’t a fair assessment of what’s going on. The most captivating difference, it seems, is the U.S. Senate race. But when you look closer at poll findings on that – for instance – most of the general polls show a willingness [or even enthusiasm!] to replace the incumbent — the only real differences between non-delegates and delegates is basically a “name recognition lag” on which candidates might be good choices for replacing the incumbent — and that is markedly less interesting than how it is being portrayed.

    Secondly, at least in my caucus, we discussed the ideas of transparency in my votes and communications. Apathy has often prevented this at such local levels.

    These days email lists and/or a social network presence can go a long way towards reaching that ideal of ‘accountable delegates’. I don’t feel any birthright in wielding my weighted vote, but I do feel an obligation to let my neighbors know which way I am leaning on each issue and why. I feel like part of my job is education. If I communicate what I’ve researched well then, in my precinct at least, the disconnect between delegates and non-delgates is much less. If I can’t do that part well (either because I am a poor researcher or a poor communicator) then my constituents can (and should!) vote me out next caucus. [That’s what I suggested to my neighbors at our caucus.]

  5. Brandon
    April 28, 2010 at 5:11 pm #

    Great post, Connor! I especially like the link to thirty-thousand.org. I wish everyone would study that site thoroughly.

  6. Lynn
    April 28, 2010 at 6:49 pm #

    Good one! Keep plugging thirty-thousand.org, too. Hopefully that idea will catch on.

  7. Larry
    April 28, 2010 at 9:06 pm #

    That IS a great summary of the situation. One additional thought. Republican Delegates ARE in step with our party’s carefully crafted platform. If some other rank and file Republicans are out of step with that platform they should probably find another support group. With that said, I do not believe most Utah Republicans or even conservative Independents disagree in principle with the planks of our platform. In fact, if I were king of the state, I would compel all Utah property owners to take a standardized political identity test based on Utah’s political party platforms. I suspect there would be many people who think of themselves as Democrats who would find they allign more with Republican ideals.

  8. Oak Norton
    April 29, 2010 at 6:27 am #

    Connor, you just saved me a lot of typing and did a way better job than I could have done. :)

  9. Peter
    April 29, 2010 at 8:49 am #

    Great post, I admit I have been in the apathetic base portion of the population in the past. I didn’t even fully understand how the caucus system worked until this year – and i’ve lived in Utah all my life. Tons of people in my precinct are in the same boat – they had 3 times the participation at our precinct caucus this year as last, many who were there because like me they wanted to be more involved.

    I was elected a county delegate and gained a whole new appreciation for the way the system works. I really tried to get an in depth knowledge about the individuals who were running for office. Participating in this way gave me a whole new understanding of what it means to be a part of a republic, or representative democracy.

    In short I think the process we have is great, I should have gotten more involved a long time ago – and I agree with you, I wish everyone else would wake up and participate in the awesome system we have here in Utah as I have done this year.

  10. Democracy is the God That Failed
    April 29, 2010 at 3:44 pm #

    … and that goes for democratic republics, even those that employ a caucus-delegate system.

    “One-man-one-vote combined with ‘free entry’ into government – democracy – implies that every person and his personal property comes within reach of – and is up for grabs by – everyone else.”
    –Hans_Hermann Hoppe

    “Every election is a sort of advance auction of stolen goods.”
    –H.L. Mencken

  11. Michelle
    April 29, 2010 at 7:56 pm #

    Thank you for addressing this issue. I first heard it brought up on the Doug Wright Show. I was a bit troubled when someone from the Hinckley Institute drew the conclusion that because about 50% of Republican voters are women, yet a much smaller percentage of delegates are women, delegates are not representative of the voters. To me, demographic representation is irrelevant; I’d much prefer someone who would represent me philosophically.

    As a first-time county delegate, I have come to appreciate our caucus system too. I have been very impressed by the dedication and effort of other delegates I’ve talked to. I’ve tried to do my homework on the candidates as well and have learned so much. Before I was elected, I couldn’t tell you the names of those running for county offices, much less some of the offices we vote for. (County surveyor??) I agree with Doug Bayless, the name recognition lag is most likely the key reason delegates’ preferences don’t correspond with those of the general voter. In our caucus meeting, the consensus was to oust Bennett, but when question whom they were leaning towards for replacing him, many didn’t know the names the opposing candidates.

  12. Darcy
    April 29, 2010 at 10:40 pm #

    Great piece! Its funny I had this very argument with someone last night, its very difficult to educate people when they lack the basic understanding that we are a republic and what that entails. You need to submit this to the papers!

  13. SpecKK
    April 30, 2010 at 10:02 am #

    Our two party system virtually requires us to join one party or the other, and I avoided joining until this cycle because the leaders of both parties appear pretty corrupt to me.

    While I agree with most of the Utah Republican party platform, I am not a fan of the narrow Party Politics “take it or leave it” approach. The party writes the platform, and both the party and the platform change over time. Neither of the parties produce many politicians who follow the platforms anyway, so party purity has considerably less value than integrity and a problem solving approach and philosophy that you agree with. I think ideological purity increases feelings of disenfranchisement and turns people off from essential democratic participation.

    Party members should choose a delegate who will do the best job of representing them. A delegate has little power in and of themselves, so the candidates (and their allies), are the only special interest who find it worth the trouble to influence them. Free food (my tax dollars already paid for Bennett’s lunch) seems to be the most popular way to buy convention votes, but that’s all it can buy.

    It is true that the delegate system encourages individuals to participate by giving them a responsibility or calling, as it were, to choose good candidates. Yes, it will select for the politically active, but I see no reason for them to be crazy extremists when their neighbors approve of their actions. I see the process of culling the primary field to 2 or 3 candidates quite preferable to an open primary where the candidate with deep pockets and name recognition gets all the votes. This is especially important in a Senate race with 8 candidates whose policies are essentially quite similar.

    P.S. I haven’t seen much good information on people running for governor. Is there any way a delegate like me can learn more about the challengers?

  14. Quincy
    May 2, 2010 at 10:06 am #

    At heart, the grumbling about Utah’s caucus system is just like the uproar over the Citizens United v. FEC case.

    Mass-media outlets guard their power jealously, and a republican system of government diminishes mass-media power. Delegates in the Utah caucus system get involved because they are concerned about their state and their nation. Their concern makes them much less likely to thoughtlessly accept media spin.

    The Citizens United case similarly threatened mass-media power because it took away the media corporations’ unique privilege of being able to speak about politics during election season when all other corporations were banned from doing so.

    Take note. Whenever the political playing field disallows mass-media control, either by moving away from mobocracy or by permitting robust free speech by other powerful, interested organizations, the mass-media complains.

  15. Clumpy
    May 3, 2010 at 3:01 pm #

    I think one VERY significant problem with Utah’s caucus system is the same as the problem of false positives from surveys. If people are allowed to do a “call in” survey, the results will likely be highly polarized. “Scientific” surveys often reveal more accurate representation of the survey population.

    Likewise, people taking the effort to participate in the caucases are likely to be particularly extreme in their political opinions, albeit informed. I think the (very legitimate) question is whether or not this is a good system – a “business as usual” politician may be better than an elected politician who represents a comparatively radical political constituency that doesn’t really represent those under his/her stewardship.

  16. Connor
    May 3, 2010 at 3:04 pm #

    Likewise, people taking the effort to participate in the caucases are likely to be particularly extreme in their political opinions, albeit informed.

    How do you define extreme?

    A followup for consideration, on an idea in the original article: did the Founding Fathers represent all Americans?

  17. Clumpy
    May 3, 2010 at 5:14 pm #

    I tried to use “extreme” rather than “extremist” – I really do just mean people who are passionate in their beliefs. We need people who are like this in our political system, but they will definitely fulfill a distinct political agenda, so your tolerance for their particular projects will depend on how in sync you are with their beliefs.

    Naturally this will mean that conservative areas will have very conservative (read: true conservative, pretty radical in this climate) politicians, while more progressive areas will likely have more radical leftist politicians with this type of system. I think most of America is pretty moderate (red states aren’t as red as most people think and blue states not nearly so blue), and that if everybody really was as political as delegates (or bloggers ;) ) we wouldn’t be one nation for long.

    The representation question is less interesting – as politicians are constrained by law rather than political opinion, I subscribe to the steward model anyway rather than one of direct representation. I like the feel of some abstract form of “representation” of the beliefs and priorities of a state’s population, but my ideal doesn’t go much beyond that.

  18. M
    May 4, 2010 at 6:05 pm #

    I joined the Republican Party for the sole purpose of participating in the selection of delegates. I may unaffiliated myself at a later time, but I find nothing in the Utah Republican Party Platform that is repulsive or against my views.

    A record number of people showed up to select delegates and it was an awesome experience to meet like-minded people looking to make sure that we were represented well. The process was open and honest. In my precinct we had a lot of good conversation before voting for delegates. There had to be a super majority in order for a delegate to be selected. The process worked well and we chose those that represented our precinct’s interests.

    If the Republican Party wants to disallow me for joining their party then so be it. In any case, Bennett can always run as an independent if he so chooses, but that will only confirm what we already know that he does not represent the principles and values of the Utah Republican Party Platform.

  19. John C.
    May 5, 2010 at 10:32 pm #

    I think that this post and the comments are an excellent example of the echo-chamber effect of internet discussion. Certainly delegates are more committed to the party platform that most folk. But the majority of people (Dem, Republican, or Independent) aren’t deeply committed to a platform; they will pick and choose amongst candidates and topics based on experience, personality, whim, or whatever. That the masses aren’t entirely sheep is a good thing, I think.

    I think that it is unfortunate that caucuses and primaries in both parties have turned into purity tests (and based on fairly random and arbitrary notions of purity, too). It certainly stalls work in Congress once someone is elected and, in the meantime, it tends to make survivors of the process demagogues rather than reasonable leaders.

    Now I understand that you all aren’t that thrilled with Congress anyhoo, so maybe filling it with blowhards and gasbags is your ultimate design. Certainly, an abundance of these types will tend to make Congress seem even more like a dog and pony show than it already does. I just don’t think it is good for our country to elect leaders who are more likely to polarize for the sake of polarizing.

    In any case, any of the candidates currently favored by the delegates is less likely to appeal to the public than Bennett would (as you note). Therefore, it seems to me, that preferring any of them over Bennett is opening yourself up to that rarest of phenomena: the election of a Democrat to statewide office, or perhaps Bennett could pull a Lieberman and run as an Independent. The possibilities are endless. Just don’t forget that once the masses take a look at your guys, they are as likely to be repelled as to be attracted (with some, much more likely). That was certainly the case with me when I took a look at the most prominent among them.

  20. M
    May 9, 2010 at 8:36 am #

    I desire to correct my comment (#18). I just learned that Utah State law bars Bob Bennett from running as an independent.

    He is out.

  21. Bradley Reneer
    May 10, 2010 at 11:36 am #

    I had the opportunity to talk to an LA Times reporter on Saturday. My 30 second comment on the caucus system was to explain that we once had a representative that claimed to be supporting a bill. The congressman pointed out that he was a co-sponsor, which was true. But the congressman would not sign the discharge petition. Few people know what a discharge petition is. But the people elected by their neighbors to represent them at the convention generally have the inclination and will take the time to find out. They will realize that the congressman is not being honest about his support for the bill. The caucus system is better at holding our representative accountable and rooting out misrepresentation.

  22. Bradley Reneer
    May 10, 2010 at 11:49 am #

    P.S. The claim that the delegates are extreme is countered in part by the result of the Cannon/Chaffetz primary. Many claimed that the Chaffetz supporters were extreme. Senator Bennett was quoted as calling us “archconservatives.” Yet in the primary Chaffetz got a slightly higher percentage of the vote than he did in the convention.

  23. John C.
    May 10, 2010 at 2:08 pm #

    Or it indicates that the mainstream in that particular district is very extreme. Or that Chaffetz was relatively unknown to the voters but Cannon was widely despised. After all, the sponsors of last session’s in-state-built-gun bill and next session’s AZ immigration bill are both from Orem.

  24. Jeffrey T
    May 11, 2010 at 10:47 pm #

    “Or it indicates that the mainstream … is very extreme.”

    I am amused. :)

  25. John C.
    May 12, 2010 at 10:07 am #

    Dude, you’ve no idea. I gave a student an assignment to choose an ethical problem and to propose a solution. He suggested that the way to solve illegal immigration is to brand them on the first offense, chop off a body part on the second, and kill them on the third. While I thought he was clearly crazy, I would say that immigration talk around here (Utah Valley) often sounds exactly the same to me as race talk did in Florida growing up (in the 70’s and 80’s). Utah Valley politics (I speak on the right side, because I’ve had little to no experience with the left side) is very, very extreme.

  26. Jeffrey T
    May 12, 2010 at 10:01 pm #

    John C.

    I personally believe much of the anger against illegal immigration is subtly racist, or at least xenophobic, in nature. I’m with you there.

    I was just amused to hear that the “mainstream” is “extreme,” since the two words are ordinarily used as opposites. :)

  27. John C.
    May 19, 2010 at 11:33 am #

    Connor,
    I just realized that you changed your self-description on the blog. Is there a particular reason you no longer self-describe as a paleo-con?

  28. Connor
    May 19, 2010 at 11:38 am #

    Is there a particular reason you no longer self-describe as a paleo-con?

    Nope. I lopped off several other things as well. Mostly changed it for brevity and to match by brief bio I’ve had on my Twitter profile.

  29. Doug Bayless
    June 17, 2010 at 11:52 am #

    This pretty much sums up why I’m still a fan of the Utah delegate convention system despite any unimproved imperfections:

    The NY Times discusses how Alvin Greene (an unknown with no campaign, no official platform, and even some current criminal proceedings) ended up facing Jim Demint as the official Democratic U.S. Senate Candidate in South Carolina this fall:

    http://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/12/us/politics/12greene.html

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Some Thoughts on Utah’s Delegate System | Utah Political Summary - May 5, 2011

    […] There is some force to this argument, which is well-articulated here. […]

  2. Perspectives: Tricking voters into giving up their voice | St. George News | STGnews.comSt. George News | STGnews.com - April 18, 2013

    […] Connor Boyack explains: “The system is not broken — our general commitment to civic duty is. Republican state delegates are not extremist activists out of step with their base — the base is out of step with the party’s platform. Having such a small group influence or determine the outcome of nominations does not create an imbalance — it tempers the passions and deception which can so easily influence the masses.” […]

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