How a Caucus is Not a Primary and Why It Matters

In addition to whom to support for public office, it’s important to consider how we select candidates for public office.

I wrote previously that in 2008 I voted for Mitt Romney but now I prefer Ron Paul. I believe there are strong principle-based reasons to support someone like Ron Paul.

Now that Romney is the GOP nominee, I want to share some observations about the nomination process itself. The nomination process has implications for whether we operate like a republic or like a pure democracy.

The 17th Amendment shifted the selection of U.S. Senators to a more direct democracy

Prior to the 17th Amendment, U.S. senators were selected by state legislatures, not by the direct vote of the people themselves. The House represented the people; the Senate represented the states. The 17th Amendment made Senate selection equivalent to House selection: by direct vote of the people.

Before the 17th Amendment:
Citizens —> State legislature —> U.S. Senate

After the 17th Amendment:
Citizens —> U.S. Senate

Arguably, this change has crippled states’ power and damaged the notions of federalism (power shared between national and state governments) and bicameralism (a Congress with two chambers):

“Let the state legislatures appoint the Senate,” Virginia’s George Mason urged at the Philadelphia Convention of 1787, lest a newly empowered federal government “swallow up the state legislatures.” The motion carried unanimously after Mason’s remarks.

So it’s probably fitting that it’s a George Mason University law professor, Todd Zywicki, who has done the best work on the 17th Amendment’s pernicious effects.

Zywicki shows that selection by state legislatures was a key pillar of the Constitution’s architecture, ensuring that the Senate would be a bulwark for decentralized government. It’s “inconceivable,” Zywicki writes, “that a Senator during the pre-17th Amendment era would vote for an ‘unfunded federal mandate.'”

Source: Repeal the 17th Amendment? by Gene Healy

According to Professor Zywicki, prior to the 17th Amendment U.S. Senators were called “ambassadors of the state governments to the U.S. government”, which highlights their role in representing the interests of the states. (Source: Repeal the 17th Amendment?)

When Judge Andrew Napolitano was asked what might be the most important major political transformation, he stated:

I would repeal the 17th Amendment…. If you read Madison’s notes from the constitutional convention, they spent more time arguing over the make-up of the federal government and they came up with the federal table. There would be three entities at the federal table. There would be the nation as a nation, there would be the people, and there would be the states. The nation as a nation is the president, the people is the House of Representatives, and the states is the Senate, because states sent senators. Not the people in the states, but the state government. When the progressives, in the Theodore Roosevelt/Woodrow Wilson era, abolished this it abolished bicameralism, the notion of two houses. It effectively just gave us another house like the House of Representatives where they didn’t have to run as frequently, and the states lost their place at the federal table.

That was an assault, an invasion on the infrastructure of constitutional government. Even kings in Europe had to satisfy the princes and barons around them. And that’s how…their power was tempered.

Source: Injustice System

(Interestingly, while most states ratified the 17th Amendment a century ago, between 1912-1913, Maryland ratified it earlier this year on April 1, 2012. Utah rejected the 17th Amendment and has never ratified it.)

The selection of Presidential nominees has shifted to more direct democracy over time

In a primary system, a party nominee for President is selected by direct vote of the people. In a caucus system, citizens select delegates from their precinct, who go on to select delegates from the county, who go on to select delegates from the state, who select a nominee. The caucus system is multi-tier, while the primary system is single-tier. (For more information, see Khan Academy’s Primaries and Caucuses.)

Historically, most states used a caucus system. Over time, many states have shifted to a primary system. Now, only 10 states rely entirely on a caucus.

Most states, in the past:
Citizens —> Precinct delegate —> County delegate —> State delegate —> Nominee

Most states, now:
Citizens —> Nominee

The primary system allows you to express preference. The caucus system allows you to express preference and intensity.

I live in Colorado, which is a caucus state. On February 8, 2012, I attended my local precinct meeting at a nearby elementary school. There were 12 people present and we voted as follows:

  • 7 for Ron Paul
  • 2 for Romney
  • 2 for Santorum
  • 1 for Gingrich

We elected 3 of 3 precinct delegates (and 2 of 3 alternates) to support Ron Paul. My bias speaking: Ron Paul supporters in my precinct were far more enthusiastic about their candidate than the others were for their candidates.

While the fraction 7/12 represents our collective preference for Ron Paul, the fraction 3/3 represents the intensity of our preference for Ron Paul. (None of the 5 citizens supporting other candidates objected to the voting; they didn’t appear to feel strongly about their candidates.)

On March 24, I attended the Boulder County Assembly as a delegate from my precinct. Among other things, we elected delegates to represent our county at the State and Congressional District assemblies.

On April 13-14, I attended the Congressional District and State assemblies as a representative of my county. My perception was that the delegates were among the most informed and most passionate supporters of their candidates.

A caucus system causes a bubbling up of informed citizens. Not to say these delegates were perfectly informed, or that any one candidates’ delegates were more informed than any others’, but these were the most informed of the Mitt Romney supporters, the most informed of the Gingrich supporters, the most informed of the Ron Paul supporters, etc. To some degree the caucus system filters for indifference and ignorance.

The United States is a republic, not a democracy. Pure democracy can be dangerous.

Pure democracy is majority rule, for better or worse. Benjamin Franklin said democracy is like “two wolves and a sheep voting on what’s for dinner”. A republic, on the other hand, is that sovereignty rests with the people, governed by the rule of law. The majority doesn’t rule the minorities. At the conclusion of the Constitutional Convention in 1787, Benjamin Franklin was asked what form of government they had created. He said, “A Republic, if you can keep it.”

LearnLiberty has an excellent video on how democracy can lead to tyranny: Democracy, Tyranny, and Liberty

The caucus system more closely resembles a republican form of government while a direct primary more closely resembles pure democracy

Thomas Mullen writes that “…caucuses do not let the majority rule unchecked. Instead of merely pulling a few levers behind a curtain, caucus participants must complete a multi-tiered process that occurs for months after the popular vote before being chosen for the national convention. Who can doubt that these delegates are more informed than the typical primary voter? The essence of republicanism is for reason to triumph over the transient passion of the majority.” (Source: Ron Paul’s caucus strategy is authentic republicanism)


I’m not implying that the 2012 GOP primary necessarily would have been different with some other system. However, my perception is that the caucus system provides several benefits:

  • Caucuses filter for indifference and ignorance, to some degree
  • Caucuses filter for the “transient passions of the majority”
  • Caucuses filter the influence of mass media. If you’re worried that such-and-such network is a puppet of such-and-such political party, which system makes it easier to influence the masses? Which system makes it harder? (Similarly, if you’re worried about corporate lobbying, which system makes it easier to influence senators? Which system makes it harder?)

Our selection of candidates either by primary or by caucus has implications for “what we get” through our political system.

Other Reading:
Wikipedia: Seventeenth Amendment to the United States Constitution

Huffington Post: Repealing The 17th Amendment ‘Would Be A Positive Thing’

An early draft of this post was accidentally published and retracted earlier this week.

1 thought on “How a Caucus is Not a Primary and Why It Matters”

  1. Excellent article Richard. I’m somewhat new to the political process. There is so much to learn, but you really nailed an important concept in this article.

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