Caucus vs. primary: Finding the right persons to govern

Dr. Harold Pease - Contributing Columnist

Voters might be confused by the difference between a caucus and a primary, each state offering one or the other to find the right contenders for the general election in November. So let us treat both.

In a primary the overriding principle is that everyone should vote regardless of how informed or ill-informed one is. Television is the primary — often the only — source of information for older voters and social media for younger voters. Neither source by itself is enough. Candidates can submit a word statement, often a paragraph, promoting themselves on the ballot, but rarely is enough given for voters to make an intelligent choice. This is the only free coverage allowed a candidate. Candidates seeking the office of judge rarely leave any information on the ballot from which to evaluate them. Many voters just guess.

In a primary voting choice may be but a whim. There exists nothing to protect us from the non-informed. One giving only 10 seconds of forethought may erase the vote of someone spending six months studying an issue or candidate. The whole system is an ignorance paradise. Voting may take 20 minutes.

In a primary the candidate “buys” the office. Successful candidates know that they must hire a campaign manager who develops campaign strategies, never gives specifics (if the campaign slogan cannot fit on postage stamp it is too complex) and spends tens of thousands of dollars on media ads mostly defining the opponent as evil. Of course, those who give large contributions expect access to the winner after the election so he/she mostly represents them. The poor, outside being used on occasion for street demonstrations or envy politics, have no real representation in either major political party.

In primary elections it is not a matter of how well informed, experienced or qualified one is. What is absolutely critical to winning is whom you hire to promote you. Money, not knowledge, is second. The rest of the campaign you become a professional beggar asking everyone, always and endlessly to contribute to your campaign. Running for office is not the model of Abraham Lincoln riding the caboose of a train from town to town giving speeches to those gathered at each stop. Today candidates give their messages to special interest groups who can deliver votes and money. Far more time is spent asking for money than explaining views. Regular voters only know of a candidate by way of television, print or social media.

The following is representative. In the greater Bakersfield, California, area campaign manager Mark Abernathy is the “king maker.” Those in the know realize this. In a conversation with him he named virtually everyone holding public office in the area as his and boasted of his winning at least 90 percent of all elections the previous ten years. He often ran several candidates for different offices simultaneously. Those he brought to power were expected to endorse his future candidates. Rarely did anyone beat the “Abernathy machine.” He is certainly a pleasant fellow, dedicated to his philosophy, and skilled and ruthless in the art of getting someone elected but at a hefty price. In a phone conversation with me he said, “I perceive that you do not have money.” I agreed and he selected his own candidate to run. Thus in 2010, I failed to secure a seat in the California State Legislature before a single vote was cast.

In a caucus there is protection from the “drive-by” voter. Some precincts in the Utah caucus, as our example state, allow the presidential vote to take place first, thus voters wishing to participate only in selecting the president can choose to leave. In others they are not allowed to vote for president until the end of the evening thus they also influence county and state offices.

Beyond this everything changes for all other offices in a caucus state. Those more interested remain and nominate from their neighbors those they view as better qualified to differentiate between the candidates. They want their most qualified to choose for them. They accept that all voters are not equal. Each of 2,235 precincts in Utah choose from one to five delegates to differentiate between state candidates and a larger number to do the same for all county candidates. Thousands of State delegates meet in the Salt Lake City area and county delegates somewhere in their county the following month. In that 30-day time period candidates seek to impress these selected delegates with their credentials for the office wanted and delegates can meet with and ask probing questions. This is a far better vetting process than voting based on sound-bytes and hunches.

With respect to issues, caucus delegate voters are far more informed than the general public because the public selected them for this quality. There exists no public acclaim for delegates. They have to take off work with no compensation for meals and/or travel for a weekend. They do it for love of country.

In a caucus no one “buys” the office as in primaries. Since candidates do not have to appeal to the less informed, only to delegates, much more interested in details over generalities, they normally do not have the vast expenditures of money needed in a primary election. A poor candidate can compete for any state or federal office, which is far more democratic than in a state utilizing the primary system for selecting candidates. The representatives of the people choose their leaders rather than “king makers” as in primaries. Candidates can put priority on sharing what they might wish to do rather than on fund raising and appealing to the moneyed class ignoring the poor.

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Dr. Harold Pease

Contributing Columnist

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