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Reflections on Washington State Caucuses

By February 14, 2008

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In the run-up to Washington State's caucuses last Saturday, Seattle was bombarded with candidate visits. We got a very (very!) small glimpse of what life in Iowa and New Hampshire must have been like.

Barack Obama was in town on Friday, as was John McCain; I couldn't see Obama due to work conflicts, but I had a friend who was going. I opted not to try to get a press pass to see McCain -- I knew his venue was very very small and I'd sprained my ankle Thursday night after the Hillary Clinton event. Ron Paul had been on the University of Washington Seattle campus the prior week, and I heard part of his remarks.

Clinton Rally
I attended the Clinton rally in Seattle Thursday night (there was another in Tacoma on Friday). The advance team located the event in a remote part of the city (the docks, so to speak), accessible via only one street which was bordered on the west by Puget Sound and on the east by a US highway and what seemed like acres of railroad tracks. No bus service. Thus, the only way to get to the rally -- for most people -- was to park (often illegally) a mile or more away and walk.

Organizers did not expect such crowds when they picked the venue. It was initially selected for Bill, not Hillary, according to the advance team member I spoke to, once I was inside. (Estimated attendance: 5,000.) But the organizers wasted more than an hour of their audience's time: a teeming mass of people (fortunately, no fire marshals in attendance) awaited Hillary's arrival, with no announcements (aka transparency) about the delay and no attempts to use the time for anything other than "entertaining us" with piped-in music. And the milling folks outside? No external speakers or PA system.

Clinton's performance (sadly, that's what these events are, see The Candidate) was much better than I expected: in how well she connected with the crowd, in how few times she resorted to cheap rhetoric (like Bushisms) to get the crowd up in arms, in how much substance she managed to convey in a speech that (I had to continually remind myself) was far more about turning up the emotional heat (get out and vote on Saturday!) than it was about positions.

This need to move the audience into an emotional frenzy is one of the parts of the primary (or electoral) process that I find distasteful. As I rode my motorcycle down to the event (easier to park), I reflected on the only primary campaign that I have worked: Jim Waldo's unsuccessful bid for the Republican nomination for governor of Washington in 1996. (He lost to evangelical candidate Ellen Craswell.) One of the things that Jim's advisers lamented was his insistence on running a "general" campaign during the primary: primaries, by their nature (look at how few voters participate), need to attend to the more extreme elements of the party. Jim a moderate, was unwilling to play that game. Clinton did not seem totally comfortable with it, either.

The Saturday Debacle
In 2004, my area caucuses were held less than a mile from my house, at the local community college. We queued up (I ran into a business associate in line), signed in at a master table, and then proceeded to our precincts (with clear directions). It was crowded but relatively well-organized.

This year, we drove 17 miles (or so) to the caucus location, a venue (high school) which had many of the characteristics of the Clinton rally: accessible only by one narrow road, this time lined with apartments and housing developments. (It took us about 30 minutes to drive about 2 miles, but there was no public parking area.) No bus service. No central location; no central sign-in; no map. Instead, many smallish buildings with poster board taped to doors to announce the geography represented within.

So, we were late. We signed in as uncommitted and left shortly afterwards, both of us too uncomfortable in the hot and claustrophobic gym, packed even more tightly than the Clinton rally, to stay for the 30 or more minutes needed to actually vote. Maybe if we had been committed to a candidate...

This experience has caused me to rethink my opposition to the open primary in favor of the political caucus. If our precinct (less than 40 people) had been able to caucus at a local school or church, that would have been both pleasant and productive. I'll be interested to hear how Texas does with its dual primary/caucus procedure.

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February 14, 2008 at 10:38 am
(1) Susan says:

How different my caucus experience was in Northeast Seattle. The caucus was in the same location as the 2004 caucus, a local elementary school with plenty of neighborhood parking though most neighbors chose to walk. The caucus was packed! In 2004, we all fit in the gym. This year, we occupied the gym, the cafeteria, the library and 2 precincts met at either end of the hallway. It was very well organized and it was a wonderful experience. I so prefer caucuses to primaries. In a caucus, it is only those who really care about the candidates and the process who vote. You are also less likely to have cross-overs trying to sabotage the other party. I think caucuses are the way to go for selecting presidental nominees.

February 14, 2008 at 2:43 pm
(2) uspolitics says:

Hello, Susan- thank you! That’s good to hear. It sounds like King Co knew better than Snohomish how to organize the event. Why people in Lynnwood and Mountlake Terrace were driving to Mulkiteo is beyond my understanding.

Your point about “caring” is the reason many people think the caucus method is the better — you actually need to know something about the candidates to participate. But, as I alluded to in my reflection, this “passion” can lead to candidates being nominated who are too “fringe” to be elected in a general election — which is one reason primary advocates prefer that system. (Although they usually say it’s because primaries are more “democratic.” depends on your definition of “democratic” IMO.)

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