Saturday, February 04, 2006

Caucus Causes

A caucus abecedarian no longer, I went through the three and one-half hour Ward 19 version this afternoon. I have a much better sense of what happens at a caucus, but no clearer certainty of what it means.

Etymological note: Caucus is of vague origin. The American Heritage does take a gamble – "After the Caucus Club of Boston (in the 1760s), possibly from Medieval Latin caucus, drinking vessel."

Massachusetts' Ward 19 includes Jamaica Plain and Roslindale neighborhoods of Boston, which comprise 13 precincts. All of the commonwealth Democratic Party's caucuses were today.

The business of the caucus is to elect delegates in proportion to the number registered Democrats in a ward or town. The delegates typically pledge themselves to a specific candidate, but that is non-binding and they can vote for any qualified candidate at the party convention, which is in June.

That's all simple enough, except:
  • What does a non-binding allegiance at a caucus really mean?
  • Who is electable at a caucus?
  • What's important is first, who gets on the primary ballot and second, who gets on the general-election ballot.
There's a good chance that Deval Patrick will be the big winner in terms of pledged delegates today. Yet, despite Tom Reilly's obvious incompetence so far, Patrick could well go into the convention in second place.

Even at the convention, the rule is that a candidate has to come away with 15% of the vote to get on the primary ballot. That makes the selection much easier. The candidates who have enough financial and volunteer support are the ones who will do that and get to the primary.

This year surely does not look like one in which a single candidate will sweep the convention and get an acclamation. At Ward 19, delegate candidates competed to praise Patrick. A single one offered an endorsement of Reilly and only in terms of what she said where his previous good, liberal political deeds. In contrast, Patrick has put forth a solid and detailed platform, filled with achievable reforms and progressive aims.

So, if the caucuses are only rough guides toward the convention, which likewise decided only the primary candidates, what's the point? Consider:
  • Fill the seats. there must be delegates at the convention and democratically electing them from Democrats makes sense. This is a reward for attending meetings, making calls, stuffing envelopes....
  • Feel-good value. The worker bees in the local party committees have a huge leg up on becoming delegates. The voters likely to attend the caucus know these people as a party activists as well as neighbors.
  • Bragging rights. Most important may be perception shifts. Even before the caucuses, Reilly's people were doing damage control, admitting that he would like lose these and was shooting for what counts, the convention.
  • Bankable laurels. Candidates who do best in caucuses attract bucks and voters.
The next post will have a few vignettes of caucus events and folk, for the other newbies.

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