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.