Should New Jersey have a Presidential Caucus? Comparing and Contrasting Caucuses and Primaries in a Political Machine State

Bertin Lefkovic

     When Barack Obama began to build his delegate lead over Hillary Clinton in 2008 and Bernie Sanders performed much better than expected, a significant amount of the coverage focused on Obama and Sanders doing much better than Clinton in states that held caucuses and less so in states that held primary elections, and the prevailing wisdom (also known as spin) made by Clinton supporters was that caucuses were inherently less (small-d) democratic than primary elections, because they presented prospective caucusgoers significantly higher barriers to participation than primary elections.

     After the contentious and controversial nomination process in 2016 that led to Clinton winning the Democratic presidential nomination amidst recriminations over the Democratic National Committee creating an unfair playing field for the insurgent candidacy of Sanders and her eventual loss in the general election to the Republican nominee, Donald Trump, which some observers attributed to feelings of disillusionment and disenfranchisement by Sanders supporters, even though exit polls showed that Sanders primary election voters voted for Clinton in the 2016 general election at a higher rate than Clinton primary election voters voted in the 2008 general election, representatives from both camps within the Democratic National Committee met to reform the Presidential nomination process for 2020. One of the two of the most potentially impactful reforms that were instituted focused on the role of caucuses versus primary elections. It was agreed that states that historically held caucuses would be encouraged to instead hold primary elections. The other was banning superdelegates from voting on the first ballot at the Democratic National Convention (Seitz-Wald, 2019).

    Clearly, reducing the role of elected officials and party leaders, who historically have been free to vote for any Presidential candidate of their choosing at the Democratic National Convention, regardless of the outcome of the nominating contest in their state, which effectively nullified many of the contests in many states that Sanders won by significant margins while only marginally winning or in some cases losing the total delegate count from those states, makes the nominating process more democratic, although it remains to be seen if that will be the actual outcome in 2020, as an exceedingly large field of over 20 presidential candidates with a significant number of them possessing the fundraising prowess to remain in the race much longer than candidates have been able to do so in the past raises the question as to whether or not any single candidate can win enough pledged delegates in the caucuses and primary elections to reach the 50% plus one delegate required to win the nomination on the first ballot. If not, all pledged delegates will be unbound and superdelegates will be allowed to vote on the second ballot, rendering the will of the people moot and replacing it with backroom machinations in an effort to cobble together a compromise if not a consensus ticket (Klein, 2019).

     It is unclear, though, if caucuses are truly less democratic than primary elections or if they are just differently democratic. One lesson that is taught in nearly every social studies class is the difference between participatory democracy and representative democracy with participatory democracy requiring the active involvement of citizens in government decision-making processes and representative democracy requiring citizens to elect representatives who make all of the decisions.

     However, as modern society has become more technologically advanced and lives have become more active and complicated, people have become far less politically engaged the opportunities to participate in how they are governed have become fewer and further over time, leaving most, if not all, of the decisions in the hands of elected representatives, who over time have become more representative of the interests of their donors and pollsters than the needs and will of their constituents.

     Even as the internet age has increased the quantity of information dramatically and made that information far more accessible than ever before, the quality of that information has decreased even more dramatically as the credibility and integrity of mainstream information sources like newspapers, radio, and television have become compromised to varying degrees by corporate interests and outside information sources, utilizing questionable and unreliable editorial and reporting methodologies, have proliferated.

     Thus, as our governments have become almost exclusively representative in nature, while representing external interests (donors and pollsters) more than internal interests (their constituents), the electorates being represented have become less informed than they ever were in the past. Recognizing these trends, can an argument be made that more rather than less should be demanded from electorates in how they are governed and that participatory democracy should have an increased role in governance?

     Some have argued that the 2016 election was already a step in that direction as a populist response to dissatisfaction with both the Democratic and Republican establishments fueled both the Sanders surge and the Trump victory and it was only because the Democratic Party had a President in power at the time and a Democratic National Committee that was loyal to him putting the brakes on the former while the latter had no concentrated institutional opposition that led to their disparate outcomes.

     If populism continues to fuel our politics, it would make sense that reintroducing opportunities for participatory democracy would be a better way to manage the conflict between establishment and insurgent elements than simply allowing the conflict to consume them. Nowhere else is this more true than New Jersey where powerful political machines have enabled party establishments to dominate the political landscape for decades and where the lack of competitive primary elections due to the utilization of the ballot to influence the outcome of elections have produced record levels of voter apathy and disengagement (O’Dea, 2019).

     This is especially true when it comes to presidential primary elections in New Jersey. With the exception of 2008 when legislation was passed to move the date of the state’s presidential primary election to an earlier date in the calendar with the hope that it would be more relevant to the outcome of the nomination process, it has historically been one of the last to vote and has only been impactful on the outcome of the most closely contested of elections. In the past, it has also usually shared the date on the calendar with California, drawing even more attention away from New Jersey.

     The party establishments with their parochial interests at the local, county, and state level fueling its political machines have relished this dynamic, which enables party leaders and their donor base to leverage their influence with presidential campaigns as one of the most significant sources of fundraising without having to spend a significant amount of capital getting the vote out for a presidential primary election whose outcome has already been determined in most cases.

     Primary elections in New Jersey are already as undemocratic as any in the country, because of the way that the party establishments use the ballot to influence the outcome of elections. The party line ballot, where all of the candidates from President down to committeeperson (a local party office that is involved to varying degrees in the endorsement of candidates) that are endorsed by county party organizations appear on a single line of candidates and receive a preferential ballot position and any other candidates that are not bracketed together under the same slogan are placed elsewhere on the ballot at the discretion of county clerks, who are more often than not party loyalists, provides these endorsed candidates with a nearly insurmountable advantage over any opposition that they rarely ever have.

     This advantage becomes even greater during presidential election cycles, because of the presence of a presidential candidate at the top of the party establishment line, increasing turnout and ensuring that downticket candidates on that line get the lion’s share of those additional voters, particularly since by the time that New Jersey votes, there are almost never any other presidential candidates on the ballot that might anchor an opposition line. 2016 was the first time since 1984 that there was a June presidential primary election in New Jersey and the nomination had not yet been clinched.

     An argument could be made to do what was done in 2008 and move the state’s presidential primary election to a stand-alone date earlier in the calendar such as April 28, the same date that other northeastern states like Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, New York, Pennsylvania, and Rhode Island will hold their primary elections. In addition to ensuring the state’s relevance to the nomination process, it would not be impacted by or have an impact on downticket primary elections. However, elections in New Jersey are very expensive, costing taxpayers tens of millions of dollars, which is one of many reasons why, historically, presidential primary elections have been done on the same day as other downticket races. There is also the matter of some New Jersey school districts holding board elections on the third Tuesday of April, although this could be addressed by moving them to the November general election ballot as many school districts have already done or having the school board elections on the same April 28 ballot as the standalone Presidential primary election.

     That said, a caucus, similar to what occurs in Iowa and other states like Maine and Nevada, would be significantly cheaper to operate than a stand-alone presidential primary election. Opponents to this idea will inevitably argue that caucuses, which require participants to arrive at a specific time and stay until the end, which could be an hour or two or even three, are less (small-d) democratic than primary elections, which allow a voter to arrive on the day of the election at a time that is convenient for them, cast their vote, and leave. In most parts of New Jersey, it doesn’t take more than five minutes to cast a vote. At worst, it might require a 30-minute wait, but that is rare. While it is fair to argue that it is harder for people who work more than one job or work irregular hours to participate in a caucus than a primary election, it would be possible to do things to mitigate these concerns. A ranked choice voteby-mail ballot could be created to allow someone who cannot be physically present for a caucus to participate virtually with the actions that they might have taken if they were present represented by the ranked choices on their ballot. 

     Another solution could be to do what a few other states like Texas and Washington do, which is to hold both a caucus and a primary election and allocate some of the state’s pledged delegates based on the outcome of the caucus and the rest based on the outcome of the primary election. It has been argued in the past that spreading out the caucuses and primary elections over several months disenfranchises some states and enfranchises others and that there should be a national primary election on a single day just like there is a national general election on a single day.

     Maybe the appropriate compromise would be to hold caucuses in several states every weekend from the beginning of February until the end of April and a national primary election in early June. The outcome of the caucuses could distribute a quarter to a third of the pledged delegates and the outcome of the national primary election could distribute the remaining two-thirds to three-quarters of pledged delegates.

     The argument for every state having both caucuses and primary elections is that they measure support for a candidate very differently. Candidates like Obama and Sanders performed as well as they did in caucuses, because they measure the level of passion that a candidate’s supporters have for their chosen candidate, while Clinton performed better in primary elections, because they measure the organizational strength of her candidacy.

     In both 2008 and 2016, Clinton tended to perform better in states that had stronger Democratic party organizations (aka blue states), while Obama and Sanders tended to perform better in states that had weaker Democratic party organizations (aka red states). This ability to perform better in caucus states and red states might have been part of what enabled Obama to win his general elections in 2008 and 2012 and what cost Clinton the general election in 2016 (Prokop, 2015). Even though she received more than three million more votes than Trump, she narrowly lost several “purple” states that gave Trump his Electoral College margin of victory. In 2020 and beyond, using both caucuses and primary elections to measure both the breadth and depth of a candidate’s support as well as the passion that their supporters have might possibly be the best way to identify a candidate that will win both the Electoral College and national popular vote.

     By providing students (and possibly their parents if done as a community event rather than a school event) with an opportunity to experience something akin to the Iowa caucuses, the following simulation will give them the opportunity to decide for themselves if they are less or more democratic than primary elections as well as whether or not they provide a valuable measure for the purpose of awarding delegates to national party conventions. Most primary election voters (and their children who have joined them in voting booths) in New Jersey may have heard or read about the Iowa caucuses in the news every four years, but very few know how different they are from their familiar experience of walking into a voting booth, pulling a lever, and casting their vote.

     Some participants would play the role of candidate advocates, who will each make a brief (35 minutes) speech on behalf of their candidate and also be responsible for herding caucusgoers into their respective camps once the caucusing begins, while the other participants would play the role of caucusgoers, who may or may not already know who they intend to support at the beginning of the caucus. After the speeches have been completed, the caucusgoers will be instructed to go to a designated place where their presence will support their chosen candidate.

     Candidate advocates and caucusgoers can engage each other during this process to try and convince one another to support their chosen candidate. If the participants consist of both students and their parents, the parents should be instructed to allow their children to take the lead during this process and only provide guidance that helps them make these decisions on their own, not for them. Once all of the caucusgoers have chosen a candidate, the number of caucusgoers supporting each candidate are counted. In order to be considered viable, a candidate must have the support of at least 15% of the participating caucusgoers.

     After viability has been determined, caucusgoers for inviable candidates are free to join with the caucusgoers of viable candidates or unite with the caucusgoers of other inviable candidates to achieve viability for one candidate. Caucusgoers for viable candidates are also free to leave their originally chosen candidate for another candidate to strategically enable another candidate to be viable. Once all of the caucusgoers have chosen a candidate, the number of caucusgoers supporting each candidate are counted again to determine viability. Once a candidate has been determined to be inviable in two consecutive rounds, that candidate is officially eliminated from being able to be considered by caucusgoers. This process is repeated until every caucusgoer is associated with a viable candidate.

     If these simulations can take place in enough communities/schools, each community could be approximate an individual precinct. Depending on the number of participating communities/schools and an estimated number of participants at each “precinct”, each “caucus” can be assigned a different number of pledged delegates to be distributed amongst the viable candidates based on their final percentage of caucusgoers, which would be communicated to all of the participating communities/schools.

References:

Seitz-Wald, A. (2018, August 2018). Democrats strip superdelegates of power and reform caucuse in “historic” move. NBC News. Retrieved from https://www.nbcnews.com/storyline/democrats-vstrump/democrats-strip-super-delegates-powerreform-caucuses-historic-move-n903866

Klein, P. (2019, August 25). Why a contested Democratic convention is a real possibility in 2020. Washington Examiner. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonexaminer.com/opinion/why -a-contested-democratic-convention-is-a-realpossibility-in-2020.

O’Dea, C. (2018, May 14). Some NJ congressional primary candidates argue party-line politics are unfair. NJSpotlight.com. Retrieved from https://www.njspotlight.com/stories/18/05/13/somenj-congressional-primary-candidates-argue-partyline-politics-are-unfair/

Prokop, A. (2015). 7 charts that explain why Hillary Clinton lost in 2008 — and why she’s winning in 2016. Vox Retrieved from https://www.vox.com/2015/2/20/8062125/hillaryclinton-lost-2008

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