The Curious Caucus Experience 2

Yesterday was the Collin County Democratic caucus — ours was held a day after most Texas counties held their caucuses as Collin County, without exaggeration, did not contain a venue large enough for the expected turnout on the scheduled March 29th date. And turn out we did: about 4000 people packed into the convention hall at the Embassy Suites in Frisco, Texas.

It was an incredibly drawn out process, made worse by the unprecedented turn-out: 1660 delegates compared with the previous county record of about 400, plus nearly that many alternates and observers. Starting yesterday morning, simply signing everyone in took upwards of 4 hours and the caucus itself stretched on to midnight. The process itself was comprised of twenty steps, conducted in parliamentary fashion (if you can imagine a parliament of 1660 members). Process was explained; preliminary delegate counts tabulated; delegate challenges resolved; rules reviewed; chairpersons and vice chairpersons at multiple levels nominated, elected, and confirmed; objections were raised, considered, and resolved; and finally district caucuses selected their delegates before a number of other bookkeeping steps were attended to, which I somewhat ashamedly did not stay for.

The final count was 1078 delegates for Obama, 582 for Hillary. After 12 hours of waiting, the announcement of this, the preliminary tabulation, was met with rock concert-level applause. I don’t know how many actual national delegates this will lead to for Obama, but it’s certainly a resounding victory for Obama from this county and the numbers are similar in others.

I’m left with a weird mix of emotions after the experience — even more than the “watching the sausage get made” ambivalence I expected. The curious thing about caucuses is that they take a normally anonymous election process and make it very personal. When an election is as highly-pitched as this one, putting that much exposed personal sentiment in one room is, for good or ill, revealing. My doubts about the utility of the caucus process are even greater now, but it was a fascinating process to take part in.

The most exciting part of participating for me was of a personal kind. I went into this caucus as as one of a few alternate delegates, there only as backups for the 11 Obama delegates from our precinct. As it happened, 2 delegates failed to show, and I and another man were the only alternates who came. We were both “elevated” to full delegate status, and so I had the pleasure to cast a meaningful vote to ensure my precinct’s single delegate to the state caucus would be for Obama. This really was a bit of a thrill for me (well, maybe less so after around 11pm) and a happy bit of closure to my whole experience.

My personal victory aside, I have to say that a lot of what I saw yesterday — taking my first step inside the outermost ring of insider politics — was pretty ugly. I’ve never been a big fan of the Democratic Party, but I think recently the glow of Obama has burnished the party’s image in my mind. The caucus reminded me of what I dislike: videos instructing supporters how to play Republicans’ own word games against them to make the Democratic platform more appealing (they’re not taxes, they’re “investments”); lobbying by slimy local politicians appealing for a “new blue majority”; and being surrounded by simple-minded trust in the government to solve all problems all made me a bit ill. In-fighting ran throughout the proceedings. Delegates engaged in childish wranglings on the floor to subvert process for slight political advantage, and more disappointingly my own precinct was nearly split by internal suspicion of a type that was so disgusting that I don’t think I can write about it.

Do I still have faith in the process? Although Texas’ particular process is flawed to say the least, absolutely I do. Gathering and distilling the will of millions of people with as many opinions is a messy business and our system does it as well as any. I’m not sure I want to put my hands so deeply into the mess next time, but I’ll consider it a bargain if it helps launch a presidency that is as historic as I hope it will be.

9 Responses to “The Curious Caucus Experience 2”

  1. Steve Says:

    What you got to observe with all the wrangling for advantage is the system the founders intended. They knew well what human nature was like, how we’ll take such terrible actions when power is on the line.

    I don’t think there’s any such utopia where strangers can get along with peace an harmony. It seems the best we can hope for is to set up all these inane rules to channel our sin natures into a process that can yield a result that everyone can agree is legitimate.

    I share your concern about the caucus system. I can see how it might be useful for a small, tight-knit community. However, most places don’t have that anymore.

  2. ymatt Says:

    Oh definitely. If anything, I should be even more impressed now having seen how we make a system work for people with such differing, conflicting points of view. I just suppose it’s one thing to see an engine humming smoothly from the outside, and another to be inside the pistons where all the fiery, lurching combustion happens.

  3. shcb Says:

    Steve kind of touched on this, but what I have always found amazing is how our founding fathers designed a system that has lasted this long. In cases like caucuses and the electoral college there was a practicality in their time. But there is still the need for these processes even though the practicality has been outlived. Reading letters written by Hamilton and Adams and such and reading the Federalist and Anti-Federalist papers you come to realize this wasn’t by accident, they really tried to balance the need of the day with something that would last into the future. That’s not to say they got everything right, they were in large part pretty elitist, but they got a lot more right than wrong. Thanks for the report Matt, that was fun.

  4. jbc Says:

    Yeah: Fun to read about, even if it would have been like pulling teeth (for me at least) to actually experience it first hand.


  5. knarlyknight Says:

    Yes indeed, thanks.

  6. enkidu Says:

    thx for your inside scoop ymatt

    I am curious if anyone in Texas is talking about or trying to quantify the effect of Rush Limbaugh asking R voters to vote for Hillary? It would seem to me you wouldn’t need all that many crossover voters to tip the primary vote. Much harder to sway the caucus process with such chicanery. Hence the Hillary primary vote win vs the Obama caucus win in Texas.

    +5 to Obama overall right?

  7. Steve Says:

    This kind of post makes me wonder if blogs could be a viable source to replace lost local reporting. It strikes me that ymatt’s report of this process is way more readable than most of what you’d find in a newspaper. It’s short and sweet without any of the tired media storylines that clog up most articles.

  8. ymatt Says:

    enki the way the caucus process works in Texas, the ability of Republican agents to affect the outcome of the primary or caucus results is really only limited by their willingness to spend the time on pretending to be a Democrat. That said, I think that Republican cross-over is probably one of two factors that caused the difference in results between primary and caucuses. The primary voting is quick and non-personal, and requires no declaration of party affiliation. Caucusing only requires that you voted in the Democratic primary, but it’s very much *not* quick or non-personal, which I think is just enough discomfort to keep turncoats away.

    Also though, my guess is that the confusion and rigors of caucusing kept most older voters away, who clearly broke much more heavily in favor of Hillary in the primary. Even of those who did caucus, the age skew was very obvious.

    To Steve’s comment: setting aside the compliment, which is clearly undeserved, I also wonder about this. It seems like even in the popular blogosphere (as much as I hate that term), there is a skew toward the big, expected narratives in news reporting and commentary. The only difference is that there is a little more demographic splitting. It would be really interesting if a website or news organization could tap into a network of trusted local bloggers to cover events like this and raise those stories to better awareness as useful.

  9. shcb Says:

    I think you just hit on the problem with blogs as news sites. There needs to be a level of accountability. We trust Matt’s account of caucusing because he has proven to us to be reliable and, well, trustworthy. But this is very small community unless there are legions of silent readers that don’t contribute that I am unaware of. In the normal media credibility is easy to regulate since the reporter’s paycheck is on the line. None of us rely on all these hours we spend writing to put bread on the table. Growing up in a small town many of the “reporters” for the local paper were unpaid folks that liked the notoriety of having a column in the paper and it was a way to give back to the community. Their credibility was insured by everyone knowing them, embarrassment kept them honest. But in this brave new world of the internet and the anonymity it provides there are neither of these forces to let the reader believe the writer knows what he is talking about or is telling the truth if he does. The compromise would probably be a newspaper type entity acting as an editor and screener, finding a small but reliable army of writers to give local news new life. The biggest obstacle will be allowing some of the freedom and spontaneity of blogs with the credibility of a news organization. Then is there a market.

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