A caucus-goer’s community

By Eitan D. Hersh
January 3, 2012

We think of caucus-goers as unduly politically active. But the data suggests they care far more about something closer to home.

By Eitan D. Hersh

The views expressed are his own.


With its endless primetime debates, strange delegate rules, and state-by-state sequential elections, the Presidential nomination season stimulates both intrigue and dismay at the peculiarities of the U.S. election system. And for those of us who reside in states where casting a primary ballot is procedurally identical to casting a general-election ballot, the caucus system used in about a quarter of the states seems particularly odd. What kind of person, we primary-voters might ask, is willing to spend several hours on a winter night voting in a public setting and listening to neighbors bicker about politics?

Pundits (and supporters of candidates who lose caucuses) answer this question in a familiar refrain: extreme political activists dominate the caucuses, which makes them unfair, unrepresentative, and even undemocratic institutions.

But the evidence from past elections suggests otherwise. It turns out that caucus attendees are different from primary voters, but not because they have a stronger commitment to politics. Rather, caucus-goers are outliers because they tend to be more engaged in community endeavors, like in volunteering and school committee work, compared to primary voters. How is it that the design of these electoral institutions incentivizes some people to show up and others to stay home?

The conventional (and I think incorrect) theory about caucuses is that only the die-hards show up to vote. This idea stems from a simple cost-benefit rationalization: compared to the ten minutes it takes to cast a primary vote, the time and effort required to participate in a caucus makes this endeavor more costly. And as costs increase, only the most committed activists will take part. The trouble is that evidence in favor of this theory is mixed at best.

Following the 2008 nomination battles, I analyzed public opinion surveys to determine how politically extreme caucus-goers are as compared to primary voters. The 2008 election was a useful year to study because both parties held competitive contests in most states – a rare circumstance that enables us to study the nomination process using national survey data.

I scoured the surveys for questions that identify political activists – questions that ask whether individuals display political signs and bumper stickers; contribute money to candidates; participate in protests and sign online petitions; follow the news carefully; express an interest in campaigns; comment on political blogs; volunteer on campaigns; and identify as strong partisans or as very ideological. I then examined how caucus attendees compared to non-attendees and how primary voters compared to primary abstainers.

Unsurprisingly, caucus attendees and primary voters were both more engaged in politics than non-participants. But something else was evident. Quite at odds with the conventional view, caucus attendees did not stand out in their political activism compared to primary voters, a finding consistent with several earlier studies of nomination elections as well.

Though caucus attendees were not extreme political activists in 2008 compared to primary voters, they were extreme community activists. Consider a question from the National Election Study asking if individuals attended a school or community meeting in the last year. Primary voters were 16 percentage points more likely to attend a meeting than primary abstainers. But caucus-goers were 29 points more likely to attend a meeting than caucus abstainers. Questioned whether they did any community work in the last year, primary voters were 17 percentage points more likely to answer affirmatively than primary abstainers while caucus-goers were 33 points more likely to answer affirmatively than caucus abstainers.

The reason for this might be that an intense interest in politics is not the only reason why voters choose to participate in caucuses, whereas it is the predominant rationale for primary voters. Consider the logic. The only reason to participate in a primary is to cast a ballot. But caucuses offer ancillary benefits to participants. Compared to primaries, the public setting of the caucus attracts people who are not foremost concerned with expressing a political opinion, but voters who want to see the spectacle and be seen. The caucus is an event. Moreover, it’s a public event (often accompanied by potluck snacks!). Caucuses, remember, take place mostly in rural states in the dead of winter; they provide a rare opportunity in the calendar for neighbors to gather and reconnect. And there’s also a potential social cost for abstaining – if your neighbor is an activist who asks you to attend, and you’re a no-show, you’ll have to answer for it in the morning.

Take church as an analogy. Just as some people attend church for God’s sake, some attend caucuses for democracy’s sake. But as with church, a whole lot of people attend for the community and for the donuts that follow the main event.

It is actually quite difficult to systematically study the kinds of people who choose to participate in nomination contests. Even harder is predicting how people living in one type of state would behave if they were given the voting system of a different kind of state. And, of course, evidence from the past may not bear on 2012 or future elections.

But having noted these caveats, those of you who are unnerved by the caucus system might like to reevaluate. Different election rules can surely incentivize some citizens to show up and others to abstain, but from what we can tell, the time and burden of participating in caucuses is not disproportionately borne by extreme political activists. Rather, caucuses seem distinctive because social benefits and social costs inspire community-oriented citizens to attend in high numbers. Their participation might affect election outcomes, but hardly in ways that seem obviously extreme or undemocratic.

PHOTO: Republican presidential candidate and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney speaks at a campaign rally in Marion, Iowa January 2, 2012. REUTERS/Brian Snyder

One comment

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THis is so funny to me – wasn’t it Republicans who not once but twice during their ’08 convention thought it smart to mock community activists?

Posted by bigperm33 | Report as abusive

[...] as simply performing a civic duty, but also the excitement of engaging with the community. As Hersh writes: Caucuses, remember, take place mostly in rural states in the dead of winter; they provide a rare [...]