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If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought — George Orwell

Archive for January 21st, 2008

The point of a caucus is to win delegates (no, really). Part II

Posted by metaphorical on 21 January 2008

[This post is a continuation of the previous one. Longtime reader K.G.S.’s comment made me appreciate that some of the sordid details would be useful here.]

As a grad student at the University of Iowa in 1980, a presidential election year, I seized the chance to go to the nation’s first contest. It was my first and only time at a party caucus, and it gave me an appreciation for all the things that the news media don’t tell you about it — stuff that’s needed to understand the results. Almost 30 years later, the reporting is, if possible, worse.

For example, in Iowa, at that time, you could vote in either party’s caucus, regardless of registration. The media never reports this. In fact, you didn’t even have to be 18 at the time, so long as you would be 18 at the time of the general election. The media never reports this.

Because, that year, Carter’s renomination was pretty much assured (despite a challenge by Ted Kennedy), I went to where the action was, the Johnson County courthouse, where the Republicans were caucusing. There, along with a bunch of other people, some of whom were surely registered Democrats like me, John Anderson picked up a bunch of delegates. As he did elsewhere; his second-place finish in the state was a shock to the media, who didn’t understand who was voting.

In Nevada today, you have to be registered to the party you’re going to vote for (17-year-olds who will be 18 on Election Day can make a party registration in advance), but otherwise the rules seem to be a lot like Iowa’s. There’s one in particular that’s very important. Here’s the rule, for the Democratic caucus, from a web page at the office of the Nevada Secretary of State:

Basic Caucus Process: Caucus participants will indicate which candidate they support. The precinct caucus chair will then announce which candidates have the most support and which candidates do not have enough support to meet the “viability” threshold. Caucus participants who support a candidate who is not viable and has not met the threshold of support to continue will then realign themselves with their second choice candidate. Based on the size of the presidential preference groups in support of one candidate or another, the delegates to the county convention are apportioned.

Here’s how it worked in Iowa in 1980. Say there were 80 attendees at the caucus, 10 delegates to be chosen, and 8 candidates. We voted by standing in one part of the room or another. It basically took 8 votes to get a delegate. Let’s say candidates A, D, and F got only 5, 3, and 2 votes respectively. Everyone else got at least close to 10, say 8 or 9 at a minimum. Then A, D, and F, were dropped out, and those people chose their favorite candidate among the remaining ones, and moved to that part of the room. Now we counted again, and tried to apportion delegates fairly. You can see there are times when you might get 2 delegates with only, say, 14 votes, or only get 2 delegates with, say, 19 votes. That’s a 5-vote swing. Similarly, in round 1, candidate A got 5 votes, but by the end, ended up with 0, also a 5-vote swing.

The Nevada Republicans, by the way, hold a beauty contest by secret-ballot, where you really do just straight-up vote for the candidate you want. For them, at least, the “popular vote” has some meaning. But you can see why, as the Democrats do things, the popular vote is meaningless. As the Secretary of State website explicitly says,

Caucus systems are not set up to be a one person one vote system. Rather, they are designed to allocate delegates to only those candidates with a threshold of support that is based on the number of people participating in a caucus.

In other words, as my previous post said in its title, the point of a caucus is to win delegates. And “popular vote” total is meaningless, because it’s fungible, because it’s messed around with to get a fair awarding of delegates. Because (everyone, say it with me this time): The point of a caucus is to win delegates. No. Really.

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The point of a caucus is to win delegates (no, really)

Posted by metaphorical on 21 January 2008

It seems obvious, but it apparently needs to be said: The point of a caucus is to win delegates. Primaries where winning the popular vote doesn’t result in getting the most delegates are called “beauty contests,” and the term is a pejorative.

I only mention this because Reuters, the New York Times, NPR, and who knows how many other news outlets reported the results of Saturday’s Democratic caucuses in Nevada wrong.

The Times headline was

McCain and Clinton Capture Tough Wins

yet the subhead said:

Obama 2nd, but Takes 1 More Delegate

And you thought the statements that started this post were so obvious as to be not worth mentioning. The winner, according to the Times, is the candidate who wins the beauty contest aspect; the person who wins the most delegates is said to have come in 2nd.

Here’s Reuters:

McCain and Clinton look to next battle

By John Whitesides, Sun Jan 20, 8:06 AM ET

COLUMBIA, South Carolina (Reuters) – Republican John McCain and Democrat Hillary Clinton looked on Sunday toward the next battles in a chaotic White House race after scoring tough wins in the first presidential voting in the U.S. South and West.

[…]

In Nevada’s Democratic race, Clinton beat Barack Obama in a close struggle…

Caucuses are funny things, and big national publications based in states that don’t do them seem to be missing vital clues about how they work and what they mean. They don’t report whether you have to be a member of the party to vote in the party’s caucus, which frankly is the most important fact there is to know. They don’t report whether delegates are locked to a candidate, or free to vote as they choose in the later rounds of delegate selection (yes, there are later rounds, in some states).

They sometimes don’t report, in fact, how many delegates a candidate won at all — we should count ourselves lucky that we even got told enough that we could suss out that Obama won. Maybe they thought that having one candidate win one thing, but another candidate win another, was too complicated. And it would upset their later tallies of how many primaries and caucuses each candidate won. Roger Maris-like asterisks are messy.

How did the news media come to decide, en masse, that the popular vote was the important one in Nevada? I have no idea. Had they made a similar determination in November 2000, perhaps we’d have had a different president for the past 7 years. Would that they had. Or, better, would that they just report the news fairly, evenly, and without stripping it of its complexity and nuance.

[This post has a Part II, here]

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