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The numbers game: team caucus vs. team primary

Have a hard time following conversations about the American primaries? Have no fear. Sean and Nick discuss and debate American politics for the everyman, so even your cat can follow along! Soon you, too, will be able to name-drop in drunken conversations with PoliSci students. Stay smart, stay informed.



By Nick Ubels and Sean Evans (The Cascade) – Email

Print Edition: February 22, 2012

Have a hard time following conversations about the American primaries? Have no fear. Sean and Nick discuss and debate American politics for the everyman, so even your cat can follow along! Soon you, too, will be able to name-drop in drunken conversations with PoliSci students. Stay smart, stay informed. It might be States politics but it affects us Canadian kids too.

Nick: Despite cries of “Make it stop!” and “Just pick one, already!” from increasingly impatient onlookers, it seems as though the fight is far from over. It’s almost two months into the primary and caucus season and we’re barely any closer to deciding on a Republican candidate for President. As of February 21, CNN estimates  place Mitt Romney in the lead with 127 delegates, 23 of them unpledged. This may seem like a lot of delegates until you consider the following: a nominee requires 1144 to get their name on the ticket. That’s almost 10 times what Romney has so far! At his current pace, it would take Romney another year-and-a-half to win the nomination. But there is a finite number of available delegates, meaning that we are clearly headed to a buzzer beater decision at the GOP convention in August. This should change the way we look at the relationship between exit poll numbers and pledged delegates.

Believe it or not, delegates represent individual people selected by each state’s convention to represent the voters at the national convention in Florida. “With great power…” or something. In order to make sense of the delegate numbers reported thus far, an explanation of the important differences between primaries and caucuses is in order. Sean, why don’t you start by tackling the caucuses?

Sean: Yes, Nick, never say never. Just a few weeks ago many of us (who are still paying attention to the GOP race for the nomination) concluded that Mitt Romney had all but sealed the deal. He won Florida, for crying out loud. But the realization soon came that there actually 50 states in the Union. In the span of just a few days, the race has essentially been flipped upside down. Rick Santorum is riding a wave of fresh enthusiasm after three popular-vote victories in the caucus states of Minnesota, Colorado and Missouri.

In a caucus state, delegates are not awarded to a candidate by popular vote like in a primary. Instead, individual delegates are selected in private party meetings. In these meetings, delegates are nominated and voted on by any party members who are in attendance. All of this happens after the popular vote is taken, but the popular vote has absolutely no affect on the outcome of the nomination. So, in the caucus system, the elected delegates are free to support whomever they want after they have been elected.

Nick: But why wouldn’t voters in private party meetings simply select the candidates that represent the popular vote?

Sean: Well, it all depends on who shows up to the meetings. Candidates with less popular support, but a strong organization and committed supporters can overwhelm the caucus meetings – which many don’t bother to stick around for. It’s also common for delegates to simply state their beliefs in a general sense, making it impossible to differentiate between delegates in support of Romney and Paul, for example. Although it seems sneaky, it’s how the system works.

So, in his victories, Rick Santorum didn’t win delegates, but simply the popular vote – otherwise known as straw-polls. Although the 76 delegates in Minnesota and Colorado have yet to declare their affiliation, many in the media (CNN, Fox News, etc.) are claiming they are in full support of Rick Santorum by stating that Santorum has 76 delegates, as a matter of fact. This is, in fact, impossible to know and will be until the GOP National Convention this August. A great deal remains to be seen about how the caucus system will pan out for candidates like Rick Santorum and Ron Paul who are counting on the caucus states.

Nick, perhaps you could further explain the difference between the caucus and primary states. How does this favour some candidates?

Nick: Thanks for that lucid explanation, Sean. There are a number of key differences between primaries and caucuses, although no two states follow the exact same procedure: rules for Presidential primaries are determined at the state level with little federal intervention. This can make it a little difficult to explain how the whole system works, but here goes nothing:

First, primaries are more tightly bound by state election laws; they are more akin to a general election than the caucuses. Delegates to the national convention are determined by the popular vote itself and in most primary states, the popular vote is legally binding: delegates who have pledged support for a particular candidate must vote for them at the national convention regardless of personal affiliation.

The primary states fall into two categories: open and closed. Open states (including Alabama, Indiana, and Tennessee) allow any legally entitled American citizen to cast a vote in the primary election. That means that Republicans, Independents, even Democrats can participate. This can have a huge impact on the way candidates campaign and who receives the most votes. It tends to favour moderates, or those with some cross-party appeal. In this year’s nomination process, these states have seen greater numbers pledge their support for Mitt Romney and Ron Paul.

Closed primary states, on the other hand, only allow registered party members to cast a ballot. These systems are a boon to party die-hards; traditionally conservative candidates like Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum have seen a major boost in these states in 2012. Republican closed primaries include Iowa, Florida and Arizona.

Sean: Gee Nick, who would have thought being elected president of the United States would have been so complicated.

Nick: I know, right? The road to becoming “the leader of the free world” is long and, indeed, winding. Finally (finally), primaries can award delegates proportionally or in a winner-take-all fashion.

Phew. So what does this all add up to? There’s still plenty of room for things to change leading up to, and at, the national convention in August. And we haven’t even touched on superdelegates yet.

I wanted to return to what you said about caucuses and sneakiness. While Paul and Santorum’s strategies of claiming delegates in caucus states without supporters declaring their affiliation may be perfectly legal, it doesn’t seem totally, I don’t know, democratic. Shouldn’t the popular vote be better represented at the national convention? And how will this strategy carry over to the general election? If a candidate can’t win the support of their own party, how can they be expected to fare in November.

Sean: As for the idea that the caucus system is not democratic, I’m not too sure I agree, Nick. What is more democratic than encouraging the participation of party members in the hands-on selection of delegates. The caucus system allows for party members to go into meetings with one another and actually talk through the issues. It actually encourages people who are not merely voting on the basis of what Glenn Beck and the crack team at Fox News told them to get their voices heard in a party that has long been dominated by the elderly. In my opinion, it adds a much needed sense of possibility in an election system that is dominated by the mainstream. Just think, Mitt Romney would pretty much have this election sealed up if it weren’t for the caucus states.

Secondly, the popular vote isn’t even represented in the primary states, because it is the popular vote of those who are already registered Republicans (for the most part). So, I think that in a general election, if a candidate were to be nominated from the support of only the primaries he/she might be lacking in support from moderates and independents–who are able to have their voices heard in the caucus states.

Finally, if a candidate is nominated by the Republican party, they will have the support of Republicans. To a Republican, Obama is a commie. Whoever is nominated will have the support of card-carrying Republicans, the question is whether the nominee will have the support of the independents and fringe supporters.

Nick: That’s a great point about encouraging discussion between party members. I like the idea of party members hashing ideas out in person, somewhat unmediated. In many ways, these sort of opportunities better capture the spirit of democracy. It gives candidates that fall outside of the mainstream media an opportunity to make an impact and get noticed. The problem for me is the idea that certain supporters would try to conceal their affiliation in order to get elected as a delegate. It seems disingenuous: taking advantage of a loophole in an otherwise valuable system.

In terms of the popular vote and primaries, it’s hardly perfect. But in many ways, it’s a lot more transparent, especially open primaries. Maybe delegates shouldn’t be bound by the popular vote, but caucus voters should at least know which candidate their delegate intends to support at the convention.

Stay tuned next week, when Sean and Nick tackle more American politics and issues that you don’t understand! (But don’t worry – you will. And so will your cat.

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