Friday, June 20, 2008

Popular Caucuses

[This is Old News. Chronistic Date is April 24, 2008.]

Writing at Slate about Clinton’s attempt to claim she is winning, has won, or can win the popular vote, Christopher Beam says:
Lastly, there’s the fundamental problem with the popular vote: It’s wrong. As we’ve pointed out before, the popular-vote tally includes only the roughest estimates of caucus turnout, since many caucus states only report delegates, not individuals. Moreover, because caucus turnout is low relative to primaries, the popular vote ends up underestimating the candidates’ popularity in those states. So whoever does better in caucuses—in this case, Obama—ends up getting underrepresented. (You could argue that this is divine retribution for Obama’s skewed performance in caucuses, but hey, that’s the system the states chose—and the candidates agreed to.) So the “popular vote”—an authoritative-sounding phrase—is really just a shoddy estimate that underrepresents Obama’s caucus performance and therefore favors Clinton.

There is no reason to be sure that whoever does better in caucuses is underrepresented in the popular vote. That may be the case but we can’t know that. Certainly in the case of Obama, I would argue that his supporters are incredibly highly motivated (actually I’d argue they’re verging on the fanatic) and are therefore more likely to show up at caucuses and, once there, more likely to vehemently argue for their candidate thereby convincing other caucus attenders who might have come in undecided or only mildly Clinton-leaning.

A couple of versions of this argument circulated after New Hampshire. One claim was that closet racists were afraid to come out in the open in the Iowa caucus but happy to vote against Obama in the secret ballot New Hampshire primary. The other was that Obama supporters in the caucuses had practically strong-armed Clinton supporters into voting for Obama but couldn’t exert that kind of inappropriate pressure in New Hampshire.

This gives us three plausible scenarios under which Obama’s caucus performance actually overstates his true popular vote support. So Beam’s flat statement that a caucus winner gets shorted in the popular vote count simply can’t be known to be true.

Oh, and for the record. No way do I think Florida or Michigan should count when it comes to delegates. I’m real big on playing by the rules. As for popular vote, Florida and Michigan can't count because we simply don’t know how Clinton would have done in those states if there had been an actual contest.


Observer said...

This is just a gut reaction for me but I am not a big fan of the caucus. Yes, it does require one to be able to make a case for one's candidate but I believe the right to vote by secret ballot is one of the rocks upon which the church of democracy is built. A secret ballot is not necessarily racist or sexist or any other "ist" - it is, however, free of any pressure from any other person or entity.

Also, while I do not think (you reason, Elise, which I admire so much, I react and then reason back from my reactions) the current FL and MI delegations should be seated, there should have been a second vote. Most of the voters in these states had no say in how their primaries were set up. I agree that we should play by the rules; for instance, I'm not fond of the outcome of the primaries but Senator Obama won, it's over. The average Joe/Josephine voters in FL and MI, however, were not the ones who didn't follow the dictates of the party, they were just the ones who had their votes taken away because of the actions of those who didn't play by the rules.

Elise said...

Observer -

I suspect caucuses work best in the small towns of yesteryear (or what we think those small towns were like). Then you had a group of neighbors who all knew each other well and had strong ties getting together to argue politics. Now I'm not so sure - I'd love to attend one and see what it's like.

I would have had no problem with do-overs in Florida and Michigan. I think that idea was floated at some point and dismissed. Although I have a generally positive feeling about Howard Dean, he does seem to have made a terrible mess of this issue.

I realize there's a lot I don't know about how the primaries were scheduled. Did the Florida Democrats do it? Was it the states? (I thought other non-primary issues were also on the ballot.) Who pays for it? Who would have paid for a repeat? It's amazing to me how little I know about so much of our political system.

S said...

E, I had a giggle at your professed lack of knowledge about our political system. I would imagine that you are light years ahead knowledgewise of most people who will cast votes in the election - and that includes me, should I decide to vote.