In United States politics, political candidates must go through a nominating process to become the official candidate for their party in the general election. National, state and local candidates compete against other potential candidates in either primaries or caucuses to become the nominee. In the 2012 election, 12 states exclusively held caucuses and 36 states held only primaries. While caucuses have a long history in American politics and hold some advantages over primaries, some critics believe they are not as democratic.
Caucus and Primary Formats
The format of primaries allows voters to select their candidates in a direct ballot. During a presidential election, these votes are given to delegates who vote to choose the nominee at the national party convention. A caucus is a meeting between the members of a political party rather than a popular vote. In this format, the candidates discuss their positions to the party members who then choose their delegates for the next round of party conventions.
Representation of the Public
In a 2010 Fordham University study titled "Are Caucuses Bad for Democracy," the researchers found that the views of primary voters "better resemble those of the general public" than do the views of caucus voters. Caucus participation is skewed in favor of males and people with higher levels of education, for example. The study concluded that replacing caucuses with primaries would result in slightly more accurate “demographic and attitudinal representation.”
Robert Spitzer, political science professor at the State University of New York at Cortland, blames low voter turnout at caucuses on how time consuming the process is for voters. Spitzer estimates that less than 10 percent of eligible voters actually participate in caucuses, with a couple of notable exceptions such as the Iowa caucus. It takes more time to meet and discuss potential candidates than it does to simply vote for one. But these additional hours spent looking at potential candidates can be seen as a benefit of the caucus system as well. While fewer voters spend the time to discuss the issues, the caucus system gives more power to those voters who are motivated to take the time.
Party Members Only
Caucus meetings are closed off to the general voting public. Individuals participating in caucuses have to already be registered party members to participate in the nominating process. This can be viewed as undemocratic because only a minority of voters can participate. The same criticism could be made, however, against closed primaries because they also require party membership. It is true that closed primaries sometimes allow independent voters to participate, but they typically require those voters to give up their independent status.
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