The Strange Logic of the Great American Caucus

If you’re a registered Republican, chances are your phone has jingled or buzzed a few times over your party’s caucus on Feb. 4, and you’re excited or unexcited about a candidate. If you’re a registered Democrat, you’re wondering why anybody would call you about a caucus on Jan. 21 when you know who your party’s candidate will be. Welcome to Caucusland.

The caucus is the first step in choosing delegates to the national convention. Nevada will have 28 of the 2,286 Republican delegates, and 44 of the 5,555 Democratic delegates. Not many, obviously. But the process actually means something.

First, they are important to party organization and activism. To get everybody to show up at an appointed neighborhood location at the same time is easier than herding cats but tougher than talking voters into showing up on voting day or for early voting, or sending in an absentee ballot. So caucuses provide parties with a way to figure out who they can count on and where they need to work on encouraging involvement—all of which makes the caucus good practice for a future campaign.

Second, they should remind us that we live in a republic, not a democracy. Not everybody can vote, and not everything is put to a vote. The caucuses remind us of this in arcane and unusual ways.

In Nevada, the 2008 Democratic caucuses remain the gold standard for how a caucus should function and how strange they can be. Neighbors who often have nothing to do with one another met in the vicinity of their homes. Some discussed issues, others stuck to personalities, and still others hid in a corner. They aligned themselves with candidates and voted.

The winner of that caucus was … Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama. Clinton won five percent more votes statewide. But while the caucus was Democratic, it wasn’t democratic. The distribution of delegates gave rural counties an extra say in the matter, so Obama won more votes where it counted, outpacing her in the race for national convention delegates by the grand sum of 13-12.

More than that, since Nevada’s caucus was held so early, it enabled state Democrats to organize early and maintain a drumbeat. Sen. Harry Reid predicted that 100,000 Democrats would turn out, prompting several pundits (including this one) to pooh-pooh his abilities as a seer. Well, he was wrong, all right—about 116,000 attended. Did that help Democrats that fall? Considering they unseated a three-term Republican incumbent congressman (Jon Porter) and took over the state Senate for the first time in two decades, yes. Republicans hope for the same boost this year.

The caucuses aren’t quite democracy in action, but they are politics in action. But if you go, be careful: You just might get into a debate or chosen to be a delegate or an officer. The recovery time could be lengthy.