Surprisingly, even with the overwhelming news coverage of the last six months, few Americans really know much about how a presidential candidate is chosen. They've got some rough ideas and may even have familiarity with some of the terms but when it comes down to details they are blissfully unaware...and that may be exactly the way the political parties like to keep it.
The US is a two-party system. That isn't mandated anywhere. You won't find it in the Constitution. In fact you won't even find political parties mentioned in the fundamental document. If we look at other republics around the world we find most are multi-party systems and upon examination we can find enabling formats that support such ideological diversity. France is multi-party because they have a system of two-stage elections which allow for lesser parties to aggregate voters in the second phase and gain some voice in the parliamentary legislature. Germany is a multi-party system because they allow for both district seats and at-large candidates to serve in the Bundestag. Coalitions of similar parties are required to form governments and there is considerable ideological mobility in response to political demands of the electorate.
In the US we have single-member winner-take-all elections. There is no silver medal for second place. Win by one vote and you get the whole prize. Be a member of one of the two major parties or be voiceless in the legislature, be ignored by the media and be spurned by the voters/contributors. Our two parties choose candidates by processes defined in each state and often differing between the two parties in the same state.
When it comes to the Presidential candidate of the party, the choice is made by delegates voting at the party convention. Delegates are gained by each state through primary election or caucus. Iowa, as we all should know by now, is having a caucus tonight.
Fourteen states have some form of caucus for either or both of the parties. As we watch events unfold we may form an opinion of whether or not a caucus is an attractive method of choosing delegates for the state to send to the national convention. In Iowa it looks pretty intelligent. But is it?
A caucus is simply a meeting of people with some affinity connection. We've got the Congressional Black Caucus--African-Americans in Congress. We've caucuses of Republicans and Democrats in each chamber of the legislature. And we've got party caucuses in states.
In Iowa we've watched "retail" politics. Baby-kissing and pressing the flesh prevail. Candidates show up at coffee shops and American Legion halls. They meet folks from down the block in the living room of a neighborhood leader. It's face-to-face, get to ask your question and watch for the sincerity factor. It should result in a smarter decision-maker at choice time.
Tonight they will gather by precinct across Iowa. Supporters of the candidates will present brief speeches explaining why their candidate is superior. Those in favor of candidates will gather in like-minded groups and a period of time will be allowed for "courting" by other candidates. Then a final division will take place, the heads will be counted and the result will be recorded. No secret ballots.
But think about your friends and family. Do you really have any understanding about what a President can really do? Do you know about the priorities of foreign policy? Can you really explain a means of "fairly" assessing taxes to run the government? Do you know what the Constitution enumerates as a power of government and how far that reaches? Naahhhh, not really.
Can Ron Paul cut a trillion dollars from the budget in one year? What would Michelle Bachmann do to eliminate earmarks that wouldn't give incredible power to bureaucrats? How would Romney deal with Obamacare that wouldn't resemble the Massachusetts program he built? Would Gingrich be able to corral Iran and get them cooperating? Does anybody challenge the actual possibility of the promises? And how does negative mud-slinging impact the decision process?
From my perspective, I don't like caucuses. Iowa probably does it better than most and I'll acknowledge that the Iowa caucus attendee is probably better informed. For most of the other thirteen caucus states, the system is largely biased for entrenched party power-brokers. It gives an inordinate voice to a few.
Is there a bottom line on delegate selection processes? Is there something that has greater impact than caucus or primary method?
I think there is one factor which has greater impact. That is whether the process is "open" or "closed".
A caucus or primary is for the purpose of choosing the nominees of a party. That would imply that the party itself should be in control of the process. Letting outsiders choose your representatives simply doesn't make sense.
A "closed" primary or caucus process in which one must be registered as a member of the party prior to participating makes sense. An "open" system in which members of the other party can become Republican or Democrat instantly for the event is subject to disruption and outside influence.
Keep that in mind as we start to go through the next couple of months. When you view a caucus or primary notice whether the system in use is open or closed. See who is choosing the nominees for a party.
Oh, and inform yourself on the candidates and the issues and play the game yourself.