“All Colorado Republicans [registered more than a month] could vote in precinct caucuses, which chose delegates to congressional and state conventions, who voted for national delegates.” That’s my (unabbreviated) Tweet summarizing the way that Colorado Republicans chose delegates to the national Republican Convention. I should know; as a Colorado Republican I participated in the caucuses.
But apparently, for some Trump supporters, my experience participating in the caucus process is no match for a Drudge headline claiming it never happened. As of the evening of April 10, Drudge claimed on its main page, “Fury as Colorado has no primary or caucus; Cruz celebrates voterless victory.”
So let’s set the facts straight, beginning with my own experiences with the caucus system.
After long being an unaffiliated voter, I registered as a Republican voter late last year, in part so that I could participate in Colorado’s Republican caucus system this year. (I plan to remain a Republican, barring an unforeseen major shift in the political scene.) I looked up how to participate in my precinct caucus on March 1, showed up, participated in the meeting, and successfully ran as an alternate delegate to the county convention on March 19 and to the state convention on April 9.
Interestingly, in my precinct, I’m pretty sure that not a single person had participated in the caucus system before. We were all “outsiders.” We even had to ask one of the party organizers to step in for a while to help us figure out the process. But we worked it out and got along fine. We even had a very civil discussion about the presidential candidates; one fellow was strongly for Trump, while several of us were strongly against him. (I only know the views of those who expressed them.)
At the precinct caucus, a number of people—both Cruz supporters and Trump supporters—complained that Colorado did not have a “straw poll” for president this year. Indeed, my precinct voted on a resolution saying we want a binding vote by all members in the future. I’m pretty sure I’m the only person who voted against that resolution, on the grounds that we should further evaluate the pros and cons of the caucus system versus a primary or other system. I’m still not sure which is better (and frankly I don’t think it matters very much). I think the caucus system works pretty well and that there are some good reasons to keep it. (For what it’s worth, Justin Everett, a state legislator, favors it.)
That said, a lot of people seem to have some pretty wild misundertandings about what happened with the straw poll. So I’ll do my best to summarize what happened. In previous years, Colorado Republicans held a non-binding straw poll at the precinct caucuses. This had nothing to do with the selection of delegates to the national Republican convention, but it expressed the preference of those Republicans who attended their caucuses.
But, for this year, the national party (for reasons unknown to me) said that we could not have a non-binding poll; if we had a poll it had to be binding. So the state party decided not to have a poll at all. People are welcome to read the explanation for all this by Steve House, the state chair of the GOP (who, incidentally, won his position as an “outsider” who unseated the prior “establishment” chair). For what it’s worth, I think House’s reasons for dropping the poll are pretty good ones.
Anyway, without the non-binding poll—which didn’t actually select any delegates—Colorado Republicans selected delegates to the national convention the same way they have before, through the caucus system. Incidentally, according to Wikipedia, Colorado’s caucus system was first instituted in 1912 “as a way to limit the power of party bosses and to attract more grassroots involvement,” then replaced by a primary in 1992, then restored in 2002 through 2004.
Unsurprisingly, John Frank’s articles about all this for the Denver Post are sensationalistic, designed more to inflame people and to draw eyes to the paper’s web site than to enlighten readers with the relevant facts put in context. (I think it’s a little humorous how many of Trump’s supporters totally mistrust the media—except when it spins things their way.)
A completely fair headline of what happened this year would have been, “Colorado Republicans Select Presidential Delegates the Same Way They Did Last Time.” But the reality of the situation is so much more boring than the trumped up version of it.
To return to my experiences with the caucuses: The woman elected in my precinct as a delegate to the state convention ran on an explicitly anti-Trump platform. She made this very clear, and she was elected by the rest of us with this understanding. Claims that the rest of us were somehow “disenfranchised” are ridiculous; we all got to vote for delegates, and everyone in the room had a chance to run to become a delegate (most didn’t want to). It truly was a grass-roots process. I was elected as the alternate delegate to the state convention, also on an explicitly anti-Trump platform.
The simple fact is that the Republicans at my precinct caucus mostly disfavored Trump, and evidently that is true of most other precincts as well. Trump lost in Colorado because he’s just not very popular here.
Indeed, some Cruz supporters I talked with wanted a binding poll precisely so that Coloradans could send the strongest possible anti-Trump message. I strongly suspect that a primary would have resulted in a Cruz victory, but I’m not aware of good polling data on this.
Should Colorado give up the caucuses in the future? As noted, I’m not totally sure, but I’d like to rebut one reason for saying we should. The claim basically is that, because people have to attend a meeting and then select delegates to conventions, who then select national delegates, the caucuses are not sufficiently democratic.
It is true that, to participate in the caucuses, you have to do more than mark an “x” on a piece of paper. You actually have to (gasp!) go to a meeting. If you want to become a delegate to a congressional or state convention, where national delegates are picked, you actually have to stand up and make your case to your fellow Republican voters (and pay a convention fee). I’m not convinced this is a problem. Arguably, it is a feature, not a bug.
Many Trump supporters seem shocked to learn that American government is primarily representative in nature, not a direct democracy. Have they never heard of the electoral college? The Founders were very careful to create levels of representation; indeed, it is part of the checks and balances of constitutionalism. All we do in Colorado is keep an extra layer of representation in the process; we choose state delegates who then chose national delegates. One can argue that the caucus system is not ideal for whatever reason, but the fact that it is based on the representative model of government isn’t by itself a very good reason to oppose it.
For pointing out some of the basic facts about Colorado’s caucus system on Twitter, I was deluged by comments from Trump’s supporters, consisting mostly of insults, threats, and wild conspiracies. (For example, some people blamed me personally for the lack of a straw poll, even though I wasn’t even a Republican when that decision was made.) It turns out that such tactics don’t actually improve my opinion of Trump as a presidential candidate.
I’m glad I participated in Colorado’s Republican caucus system. From what I saw, it worked well. I’ll take this opportunity to thank the many volunteers who worked tirelessly to help organize and run the caucuses and conventions and the many thousands of Colorado voters who participated in the process. They are everyday heroes who take seriously their responsibility to participate in American governance.
Update 1: A fellow named Larry Lindsey claims that he was not allowed to vote at the state GOP convention because he was a Trump supporter. His claims seem to be fabricated in whole or in part. I was there, and I saw a number of Trump supporters in attendance. They participated just like everyone else did. They just didn’t have enough support to win delegates. Also see a media release from Douglas County Republicans about Lindsey. On further review: I’ve read the Douglas County rules, and apparently delegates to the state assembly are “nominated” at the precinct caucuses but elected at county assemblies. Lindsey did not attend the county assembly, so he was not elected as a delegate. Different counties have different rules; for example, in my county, Jefferson, we elected delegates to state directly from precinct caucuses. See also Mollie Hemingway’s write-up about Lindsey in the Federalist.
Update 2: I went on CNN for a few minutes to explain the basics of Colorado’s caucus process. I want to clarify one point: Moving from a non-binding preference poll to no poll did not affect how national delegates are selected. Obviously moving to a hypothetical binding poll would affect that. At this point I lean in favor of keeping the caucus system but adding a binding poll to it (as opposed to moving to a primary system). There are pros and cons to caucuses and to primaries; to me the biggest advantage of caucuses is that Republicans in a neighborhood actually have a chance to meet and talk about the direction they want their party to take. That is totally lost with a primary system. April 16 Update: Now I think I actually favor a non-binding poll so that people take the selection process of delegates seriously.
Update 3: For more discussion about this issue, I suggest articles at the Federalist and Conservative Review and Mark Levin’s interview with Ken Buck and further discussion (which mentions this article). See also Peter Blake’s interesting article about the history of the caucuses and arguments for changing them.
Update 6: It is true that one of Trump’s alternate delegates was left off of the ballot at the state convention. I believe this was an unintentional typo, and at any rate it did not affect the outcome in the slightest. NBC reports, “One Trump alternate, Jerome Parks, was not on the numbers-only ballot at #379 — instead the ballot listed #378 twice.” Trump’s own campaign team made more significant errors in publishing its slate of delegates, as NBC relates.
Update 7: In an email, State Senator Laura Woods (who represents my area), aptly summarized the essential value of the caucus system: “My biggest concern about switching away from the caucus system is this: when voters show up at caucus, they engage with the county party, and they become block workers, volunteers, precinct committee people, district captains, etc. They also are voted on to represent their precinct at the County, Congressional and State Assemblies.”
Update 8: It’s pretty amazing to me how many Trump supporters call Colorado’s system unfair because it’s not perfectly representative of voters, even as they ignore the many ways that Trump benefits from other states’ systems because they are not perfectly representative. As I Tweeted, “Isn’t it funny how Trump never complained about the ‘undemocratic’ result when he got 100% of Florida’s delegates with 46% of the votes?” FiveThirtyEight has more on this.
Update 9: See also my follow-up pieces,”Get Government Out of Political Parties: How to Resolve the Primary-Caucus Debate” and “Jim Hoft Flubs Story about ‘Deny Trump’ Flyer.”
Update 10 (April 27): On April 23 Dave Levine had me on his radio show (1490 KMET) to further discuss Colorado’s Republican caucus.
Update 11 (May 30, 2017): The comments that originally appeared below have been moved to a new post.
Image: Ari’s photo of the Colorado Republican Convention, April 9, 2016