Expert Commentary

Are state caucuses for candidates bad for democracy?

2010 study in Political Science Quarterly on qualities and representative nature of U.S. primary election caucuses.

In the absence of a constitutional mandate, the political parties in the United States have had to invent their own methods for selecting presidential candidates. States such as Iowa rely on caucuses — party-specific gatherings where participants publicly declare their candidate preference. Questions remain, however, about the fairness and representative nature of that particular electoral process.

A 2010 Fordham University study published in Political Science Quarterly, “Are Caucuses Bad for Democracy?” examines whether or not the caucus voters adequately mirror the voting public at large. Drawing on nationwide data from the 2008 election, the study analyzes how caucus and primary participants compare to one another and to the U.S. voting population overall.

The study’s findings include:

  • Consistent with previous election cycles, the 2008 caucuses attracted lower turnout than primaries did. However, caucuses did attract more young voters and Latinos in 2008 compared to primaries.
  • As judged through surveys of self-reported attitudes, the overall degree of ideological extremism among primary voters, caucus voters and the general public was roughly the same.
  • Caucus voters do sometimes hold stronger, more polarized views on specific issues than primary voters and the general population: in 2008 they were significantly more likely to believe the war in Iraq was a mistake, support affirmative action and mandatory health care, and show less support for privatizing Social Security.
  • Primary voters were significantly more conservative, on average, than caucus voters: 54.9% compared to 47.2%, respectively. However, primary voter views better resemble those of the general public.
  • Caucus participants were more male, more educated and less religious than primary voters.

The author concludes that “the evidence suggests that alarmist claims about the nature of caucuses, compared to primaries, are generally exaggerated.” However, he also notes that “replacing caucuses with primaries may result in some marginal improvements in terms of demographic and attitudinal representation.”

Tags: Hispanic, Latino, Iowa, New Hampshire, Social Security

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