What's the Best Way to Measure Votes?

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Via hello@, reader Pavan J. provides a solid but measured defense of the caucus system:

I would like to comment briefly on Prof. Bauer’s trashing of caucuses only because it seems to be a repeated line of attack from certain quarters for being undemocratic. Yes, it is regrettable that caucuses demand more from their participants and this hurts people who have to work for a living. However, caucuses also hew closer to the Tocquevillian ideal of American democracy as being a deliberative exchange of ideas. They attract more passionate participants, but these also tend to be more committed and informed participants.

Primaries, in contrast, disproportionately favor candidates with name recognition, tilting the scales in favor of established players, celebrity politicians, people with deep enough pockets to run expansive advertising campaigns, and the favor and patronage of machine-style political bosses. The larger the state, the more true this becomes and the more pronounced this advantage gets.

If a Berner wanted to be as sour about formats that disfavor their candidate, they could as easily write-off primary participants as low-information sheep, manipulated by party bosses and savvy marketing the way Prof. Bauer writes off caucus-goers as ignorant fanatics.

The truth is, any nominating process involves numerous trade-offs on things like convenience, representation of people, and representation of ideas. Neither caucuses nor primaries are inherently better or worse than each other; they just negotiate these trade-offs differently.

The hybrid system we have makes an attempt at balancing the goods and bads of both contests. Arguably the outcomes are not only far more just and representative than the brute majoritarianism being argued for by Prof. Bauer, but more conducive to fostering a vigorous debate and exchange of ideas. This may frustrate those for whom the chief priority is the elevation of their chosen candidate by any means necessary, but it is certainly better for the country to have these debates, even if things become acrimonious and feelings get hurt.  

Update from a dissenting reader:

Pavan’s comments on primaries and caucuses first assume we agree with his idea about what our ideal model of democracy is. But then, I have to ask: Has he been to a caucus? To call them a “deliberative exchange of ideas” by “informed participants” is malarkey.

Caucuses, like primaries, suffer from what we might call less-that-ideal forms of persuasion. Admittedly, primaries rely on some of the factors he mentions, but at least the voting is done by secret ballot. When you are actually in the voting booth, there’s no group chanting at you, no peer pressure, and no need for social skills or worries about social anxieties. Even if caucuses were some calm deliberative body, the fact that they only happen at one fixed time makes it difficult for people to attend even if they want to.

A better defense of caucuses is that they reward campaign organization skills, which is an important aspect of campaigning. Getting people together to use those tools of social suasion to get results is necessary in a campaign, but it’s far from some ideal.

Pavan replies:

I have to admit, I’m a little envious of my detractor if I can say “exchange of ideas” and their mental image is one of calm discussion rather than peer pressure and raucous people yelling at you. I would like to spend Thanksgiving with their family; it seems pleasant. 

Here’s a new reader with two cents:

I would buy the argument that the deliberative style of a caucus have real advantages if I thought that caucuses were actually deliberative. But let’s be honest here. Most folks do not go into a caucus carefully listening to reasoned arguments from surrogates, and then decide who to vote for. They go to a caucus knowing who they are going to vote for, and then do it.

The point that caucuses have the most informed voters is a true one, but it actually undermines their point. The most informed voters are the ones least likely to change their minds, and are the ones who are going to be most dedicated to their particular candidate. Thus the main difference between a primary and a caucus is the length of time it takes to vote.