Wednesday, February 20, 2008

US elections: The strange case of Washington State

“I am not a member of any organized political party. I am a Democrat.” – Will Rogers

Its one of the great quotes about American politics. Sadly its also one that the 2008 presidential primary season is proving to be true. You would think that a political party would have a set of rules for picking its candidates. But the Democrats don’t have one system; they have 50 - each with its own set of rules. Some states hold primary elections, others hold caucuses, and if you’re Washington State, you hold both.

But a strange thing happened in Washington, their primary and caucus yielded quite different results. In the caucus held two weeks ago Barack Obama won a resounding victory over Hillary Clinton, beating her by a margin of 2-1. Yet in last night’s primary Obama squeaked out a slim 50%-47% over Clinton.

A look inside the numbers is even more revealing. In the caucus a total of approximately 30,000 votes were cast, but in last night’s primary, more than 580,000 votes were cast – 19 times as many than were cast in the caucus! And Clinton, who lost basically everywhere in the state during the caucus, won parts of the state in the primary, including in Washington’s second-largest city Spokane.

I may not remember much from my high school chemistry class, but I do recall that if you conduct the same experiment with the same set of variables, you should get the same results. So what gives here?

Part of the difference is the exclusionary nature of the caucus system. In a caucus you have to go to a meeting held at a specific place at a specific time (its not an all-day event like a primary election) and spend a few hours “caucusing.” That’s fine if you don’t have to work, or if you’re not away at school, or if you can get a babysitter, or if you have transportation, or if you’re physically well enough to get yourself to the caucus site, or…well you get the point. There are a lot of reasons why people can’t caucus, but are able to vote in a primary.

Turnout levels prove this point. Look not only at the numbers for Washington, but compare any of the states that have held a caucus and compare the number of votes cast to the number cast in the most recent general election. You’ll see that the number of people casting their votes in a caucus is a fraction (a small fraction) of those cast in the election.

After the Washington primary results though, you have to wonder if the caucuses are giving an accurate picture of the will of the voters. It becomes important when you look at the tight battle between Clinton and Obama. So far Obama has had a huge advantage in caucuses (winning 8 of 10 according to my count), but Clinton (with the exception of Obama’s home state of Illinois) has won in all of the “big” states (California, New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, and Florida).

Perhaps in the end it means nothing. Obama did still win in Washington’s primary, even if it was by a much tighter margin than in the caucus. But still, its an odd set or results so far - one that is open to a lot of interpretations. And that’s the problem. The voters deserve a system that gives a clear result. Maybe its time for the Democrats to step beyond Will Rogers quote and organize a better system.
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