Every system requires trade-offs between competing values. But we ought not to pretend that one set of filters has virtues that are simply not present.
In a previous post, I examined the relationship between attitudes in the public and support for the Count My Vote initiative. That post showed that support for the reform was strong across all groups except for one: those who are the most conservative and consider themselves active supporters of the Tea Party. Even half of all strong Republicans support the reform. Opposition is confined to a specific group within the Republican Party.
That kind of argument does not matter to some. They base their argument not on what large segments of the public want but on ideas about how the political system functions. That is fair. Arguments about the proper political system do not start and end with public opinion. Indeed, many of the arguments, such as the one promoted by Paul Mero, rest on the method by which public opinion gets filtered.
As he so eloquently states, “we have to find nonintrusive ways to filter the negative impact of irresponsible citizenship – irresponsible meaning single-issue voters, special-interest parasites, and uninformed citizens who think and vote based on selfish emotions. Utah’s caucus and convention system is that filter. And it works.”
Mero’s political system looks like Model 1. In this case delegates selected at the neighborhood caucuses provide the filter between public opinion and the nomination.
Model 2 is the system proposed by the Count My Vote initiative. In this case, those who participate in the primary system provide the filter between public opinion and the nomination.
The soundness of Mero’s argument rests on the quality of the filter. According to him, primary voters are “single-issue voters, special interest parasites, and uninformed citizens who think and vote on selfish emotions.”
These are empirical questions. One easily tested proposition is that those who are most likely to attend a caucus or convention are more informed than those who are less likely to attend. In the previous post, we showed that those who were most supportive of the neighborhood caucus system were strong conservatives who identified with the Republican party.
Just after the caucuses in 2012, my colleagues and I asked participants in the Utah Voter Poll whether or not they attended their neighborhood caucus meetings. This question allows us to examine whether self-reported caucus participants are better educated or more knowledgeable than non-participants. (The Utah Voter Poll is a sample of voters only, so those who do not participate in Utah politics in any way are excluded.)
With respect to education, in our sample both caucus attenders and non-attending voters are highly educated – on average, they have had some college-level schooling. To illustrate this point, below is a figure showing the average education levels of our two groups on a 6-point education scale ranging from some high school or less all the way to post-graduate education. There is essentially no difference between the two groups. The average education level for self-reported caucus attenders is 4.14 (which is the equivalent of having some college), and the average education for those who are less likely to attend caucuses is 3.92. The difference between those averages is not statistically significant in our sample.
But what about levels of knowledge about Utah or national politics? Do those who actually attend the caucuses know more about the political system? To answer that question, I took advantage of the fact that the Utah Voter Poll is a panel of voters, many of whom have answered our survey questions at several different points in time. In March of 2013, my colleagues and I asked respondents to our Utah Voter Poll a series of simple factual questions about state and national politics. (See my colleague Adam Brown’s discussion of the questions and the results here). We matched the survey responses from 2012 about caucus attendance with those same individuals’ 2013 responses to the knowledge questions. In all, we have over 200 Utah voters who answered both the caucus attendance question and the knowledge questions.
As the figure below shows, caucus attenders appear to be slightly more knowledgeable than non-attenders, but the differences are small and not statistically significant. (In other words, we cannot be sure that the difference between the two groups is greater than zero.) The figure below compares the average number of knowledge questions self-reported caucus attenders got right with the average for those who did not attend. The brackets show the 95% confidence interval for each average. Individuals who attend the caucus do not have all that much more political knowledge than individuals who do not attend.
The other thing to remember is that the primary electorate includes the caucus attenders, and when we account for that fact, the already small gap shown above narrows even more. In other words, it does not appear that one group is highly knowledgeable, while the other group is ignorant of Utah or national politics. In fact, the far more noticeable trend is that knowledge of Utah politics is low among both groups. Of the four questions about Utah politics we asked, both caucus attenders and non-attenders got about half right and half wrong, on average. Both groups did much better in answering the six questions about national politics, where the average was 70% to 80% correct.
Thus, it does not appear that education or political knowledge are the defining factors that separate caucus attenders from non-attenders. The difference between these two groups is not levels of information, but rather ideology: research from the Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy shows that caucus attenders and delegates are much more ideological, even after controlling for knowledge, gender, income, etc. This result is true in Utah and nationally.
The profound differences in ideology can be seen in the figure below, which shows the proportion of Republican caucus attenders and non-attenders in Utah who identify as strong conservatives. (This analysis also focuses on the UVP respondents who answered both the caucus and the knowledge questions, but this time, we zero in on Republicans because Democrats have a different ideological mix.) Fully 50 percent of Republican caucus attenders describe themselves as “strongly conservative,” compared to about 30 percent of non-attenders, who tend to be more moderate. And unlike the relatively small knowledge differences, this 20-point difference in ideology is statistically significant. (In other words, we are very confident that the difference is not zero.)
Some advocates of the caucus system would say that this ideological difference is a good thing: perhaps the strongest conservatives should choose the Republican nominee. But that is a very different argument than the one Paul Mero articulates above. And having a nomination system that privileges the most intense ideologues also has a downside: it essentially means that those who choose the candidates in a caucus system tend to wear thick ideological lenses as they view and assess the candidates. Such lenses often lead to what social scientists call “motivated reasoning,” a phenomenon where individuals’ choices are dictated primarily by their ideological dispositions.
I grant that no nomination system – no filter between public opinion and nominations – is perfect. Every system requires trade-offs between competing values. But we ought not to pretend that one set of filters has virtues that are simply not present. As Utahns make their choices about the process, they should be fully cognizant of what they specifically gain and lose when they make the nomination process dependent on this particular group of individuals.