The Maine Republican Party’s caucus debacle rightly raises the question of the value of the caucus compared to the better-understood and more widely used primary.
Democrats hold their one-day caucus Sunday, Feb. 26. At least part of the measure of their success will be how many people attend. Even though the GOP caucus lasted a week and then was amended to allow another day for Washington and Hancock counties to host the meetings, statewide turnout failed to crack 6,000.
In contrast, some 45,000 Maine Democrats attended the 2008 caucus. That February, Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama were battling for front-runner status when the Maine event approached on the calendar. In 2008, Republicans drew about 5,200 participants.
This year, it would seem Maine Republicans would be as inspired as Dems were in 2008. Anti-Obama sentiments ran high after the economy continue to tank through 2009. Federal deficits soared, in part because of the $800-billion-plus stimulus package. The Affordable Care Act was seen as a sweeping incursion by the federal government into health care.
So where’s the passion?
Even setting aside the steep rise and fall of candidates Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry and Herman Cain, Republicans still should be engaged. They still face important questions about their standard bearer. Should they choose a more moderate candidate such as former Gov. Mitt Romney, whose private sector experience might be a formidable challenge to Mr. Obama? Should they choose a more experienced conservative insider such as Newt Gingrich? A libertarian and constitutional purist such as Ron Paul? A moral conservative such as Rick Santorum?
Part of the Maine GOP’s problem may have been that its caucus does not lead to a direct election of delegates corresponding with the local meetings. The process is truly a straw poll, and state delegates elected at the caucus are uncommitted to any candidate when they elect national delegates at the state convention in the spring. Democrats elect state delegates who reflect caucus results.
Primary elections typically draw far more voters. It’s easier to stop by the town office, pick up the ballot, check off a name and drop it into a box or machine than to attend a meeting. And what a meeting. Participants listen to speeches by legislative candidates, hear pitches from local committee members to get more involved, and when the presidential process finally gets under way, they may have to defend their choice of candidate in the give-and-take.
It’s no wonder many stay home.
And if fewer people participate, aren’t they less likely to get out to vote in November? If a voter casts his primary ballot for Mr. Romney and the former governor wins the nomination, isn’t that voter more likely to be invested in that candidate and so more likely to get out to vote in the fall?
Perhaps, says Mary-Erin Casale, executive director of Maine’s Democratic Party. But the core voters who attend caucuses have cleared a kind of commitment threshold, she believes. They then are more likely to agree to host a house party for a candidate, make phone calls, drive people to the polls and so on.
“For us, it’s a huge organization tool,” she said.
Both Maine’s parties are required by state law to host a caucus every two years to remain as parties. If they decide to institute a primary, they may consider allowing unenrolled voters to participate. As long as obstacles exist to block one party’s members from influencing the nomination of the other party by unenrolling briefly and voting, their participation could help select a candidate with broader appeal.
If they stick to the caucuses, both parties should work to boost participation.
An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated the date of the Democratic caucuses. They are Sunday, Feb. 26, not Saturday, Feb. 25.