Column: Primaries are expensive; parties pay caucuses

Published 12:00 am Thursday, February 21, 2008

By Kent Kaiser, Guest Column

On Feb. 5, Minnesota experienced its most vibrant precinct caucuses in many years. Between the Republicans and Democrats, about 300,000 people participated in the presidential straw ballot that was conducted at the caucuses.

The caucus system is a great tradition in Minnesota and in many other states. Believed to be derived from Algonquin tradition and nomenclature, a caucus is a gathering of leaders to make decisions. This time-honored process of community leaders coming forth publicly to discuss issues and to choose leaders &8212; including presidential candidates &8212; puts the political process right out in the open, as it should be.

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The caucus system is very popular in the Midwest, and it seems to be part of an overall societal context that encourages greater civic engagement.

It is probably no coincidence that in general elections, the caucus states on average out-perform non-caucus states in voter turnout.

While fewer people participated in Minnesota&8217;s caucuses than had participated in Iowa&8217;s caucuses a month earlier, the participation rate nevertheless was enough to spur a few legislators to call for changes.

Some have called for reverting to a primary system in Minnesota.

Yet there are several reasons why, besides maintaining tradition and fostering higher general election turnout, a caucus is superior to a primary and why our state discarded the primary system several years ago.

One is that primaries are expensive.

The last presidential primary conducted in Minnesota cost local governments over $2 million, and it had no bearing on the political parties&8217; selection of a candidate.

In other words, it amounted to nothing more than a taxpayer-funded, state-run &8220;beauty&8221; contest.

It is estimated that the cost of a primary today would be about $3.5 million.

When Minnesota&8217;s presidential primary was repealed, the secretary of state suggested conducting a presidential straw ballot simply in order to make caucuses seem more attractive and to shift the burden of conducting the &8220;beauty&8221; contest to the political parties, where it belonged.

To some extent, it worked.

Roughly the same number of people &8220;voted&8221; in the straw ballot conducted at this year&8217;s caucuses as participated in the last presidential primary we held in Minnesota in 1992.

Unfortunately, it seems that many people have afforded greater importance to the straw ballot than is warranted or than was intended, probably misunderstanding its purpose.

In a departure from past practice, on the Democratic side this year, the party has decided to commit its national convention delegates (who ultimately choose their presidential candidate) to the results of the presidential straw ballot held at the caucuses.

The Republicans, on the other hand, are maintaining tradition in not binding their delegates to the results of this informal straw ballot.

At my own precinct caucus, on the Republican side, I saw over half of the participants come to vote in the presidential straw ballot&8212;as if it somehow mattered&8212;and then leave without participating in the rest of the business.

In other words, they left the rest of us behind to choose the delegates who might eventually choose our presidential candidate at the national convention!

Now, I do believe that the political parties should adapt to their success by running the straw ballot more smoothly.

Still, this is no reason to change to a taxpayer-funded, state-run system&8212;the parties should be allowed their continued autonomy in choosing their own candidates for president, and the parties should be responsible for bearing the expense of that process.

The state has no business taking over (or paying for) the parties&8217; candidate-selection process like it does for overseeing general elections.

If Iowa can make a caucus system work&8212;with tens of thousands more participants&8212;then so can we.

Kent Kaiser, St. Paul, is a professor of communication at Northwestern College in Roseville and a former communications and voter outreach director for the Minnesota secretary of state.