A time to kill (the caucus)

By Matthew Gagnon,
Posted Feb. 16, 2012, at 7:59 p.m.

I suppose it seemed like a good idea at the time.

When Maine did away with its presidential primary and switched to a caucus, there were a number of reasons cited. Some felt Maine as a primary state was simply irrelevant compared to neighboring New Hampshire, which holds the “first in the nation” primary.

Some felt Maine needed a more unique system of selecting its nominees for president as a way to attract candidates and media to the state. By having a system that allows for well-organized candidates to win the state regardless of national polling trends, it was believed Maine might get more attention from candidates looking to muscle out a much needed win.

Some felt that the smaller — and more enthusiastic — number of participants involved in a caucus would make better decisions.

None of these things were true, of course. New Hampshire having a primary really means nothing to Maine. Having a caucus has failed repeatedly to bring any real candidate attention to the state, beyond the occasional California rolling-stop-through by a candidate who senses a cheap win. And as for better decisions, well, never mind.

It should be clear by now that Maine’s national relevance isn’t driven by the method it uses to select its preference for president. A state’s importance has to do with timing and competitiveness.

If Maine is early enough in the calendar, it is in a position to hold its selection before the race settles itself, and thus matter. If it is too late in the calendar, its selection is meaningless. If the national race is volatile — such as it is this year — around the time Maine makes its choice, and the state itself is in a competitive spot, then it will matter. If it isn’t, it won’t.

In short, having a caucus rather than a primary really offers Maine no appreciable benefit. The state’s relevance to the national contest is about other things.

But beyond not helping Maine get more notice, it saps energy out of the state. Participation has cratered, going from the tens of thousands of voters that we saw in the primaries to only a handful in the caucuses. In 1996, more than 67,000 Republicans voted in their primary. In 2000, more than 64,000 Democrats and 96,000 Republicans voted.

This year, a little over 5,000 Mainers participated in the much ballyhooed and now very much disputed Romney vs. Paul death match.

And speaking of being disputed, has anyone else noticed that virtually every caucus held this year has been an unmitigated disaster?

Iowa gave Mitt Romney a laughably small lead of eight votes on election night, then the caucus was recounted, and eight precincts were lost and could not be certified. Yet by some unholy mix of recounted and unrecounted results, a winner was declared and the election night results overturned.

Nevada saw wholesale allegations of voter fraud, with several caucus sites reporting more ballots cast than people signed in, coupled with the odd decision to hold a late caucus for Clark County that would be actually be held after many of the results were already known.

And then of course, Maine, where the tally still reads 84 percent of precincts reporting, and Ron Paul activists believe (incorrectly) that had Washington County caucused on election night, their candidate would have won. Now some are calling for some kind of post-hoc inclusion of caucus results that occurred after the main results were announced, which completely changes the calculus of an election in an unfair way.

A messy situation, indeed.

This is all just a very long way of saying that caucuses are a lousy way to select a presidential nominee, and should be avoided at all costs. Holding one is an invitation for the very problems we have seen this year in multiple states, and Maine should strongly consider going back to a presidential primary system for future elections.

Matthew Gagnon, a Hampden native, is a Republican political strategist. He previously worked for the National Republican Senatorial Committee. You can reach him at matthew.o.gagnon@gmail.com and read his blog at www.pinetreepolitics.com.

http://bangordailynews.com/2012/02/16/opinion/contributors/a-time-to-kill-the-caucus/ printed on September 23, 2014