Politics, Technology, and Language

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

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]

2 Responses to “The point of a caucus is to win delegates (no, really)”

  1. Thanks for making this point. You know, I *don’t* know how these caucuses work, state to state, and it is important.

  2. jonolan said

    Please don’t forget the Dem’s superdelegates and the Rep’s slightly less important “unpledged” delegates.

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