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(Brigitte Bouvier/Brigitte Bouvier)
(Brigitte Bouvier/Brigitte Bouvier)

NEIL REYNOLDS

Oh, for U.S.-style caucuses in Canada Add to ...

The federal NDP acquired, from the U.S. example in the presidential primaries, a pragmatic appreciation for multiple televised debates as a way to compare leadership contenders – even holding “watch parties” where partisans meet in front of TVs to debate the various candidates’ attributes. These parties cost nothing and restore a faint sense of the 19th-century New England town hall meeting to the race. With only modest further adaptation, Canadian politics could benefit from having its own U.S.-style caucuses, the peculiar candidate-selection gatherings that turn political races into community discussions.

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Take last week’s Republican caucuses in Iowa, all 1,700 of them, as an example. Organized as separate decision-making events in every precinct (or ward) in the state, Iowa’s caucuses are the very essence of grassroots politics. Anyone can participate, merely by registering at the door – and independent Iowa voters did so last week, helping to set an attendance record. A single caucus typically attracts 60 or 70 voters who are able, in the course of an evening, to explain their choice of candidate. In the end, voters gather into groups and vote publicly – no secret ballots here – in a counting of raised hands.

The theoretical flaw in the caucuses is that they slightly modify the principle of “one man, one vote” – by favouring partisans and other knowledgeable, articulate voters. This is also the primary benefit of the caucuses. Recall Winston Churchill’s dictum: “The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.”

Although marginally elitist, 19 states still use the caucuses in one form or another; and 15 per cent of the delegates eventually chosen to attend the national conventions are determined by them. In Texas, for example, Democrats select 70 per cent of their delegates by a primary election, 30 per cent by caucuses – specifically to preserve the influence of party members who are more politically involved than the “average voter.”

At the same time, the caucuses preserve a grassroots populism that frightens some candidates. “They pick corn in Iowa,” Jon Huntsman, the former governor of Utah and former ambassador to China who aspires to the White House, said dismissively before the Iowa caucuses. “They pick presidents in New Hampshire.” Well, perhaps. But his explanation for blowing off Iowa sounds dubious. Since the 1970s, this farm state has served as a good, low-budget way for improbable presidential candidates to get noticed – which nicely balances whatever theoretical defects the caucuses may have.

The Iowa caucuses propelled Jimmy Carter, an obscure Democratic governor from Georgia, in 1976. (His second-place finish, behind “uncommitted voters,” made him look like a winner.) They propelled Barack Obama, an inexperienced Democratic senator from Illinois, in 2008. They propelled Republican Mike Huckabee, an unknown governor from Arkansas, in 2008; although he wasn’t able to convert his first-place finish into a presidential nomination, he did get his own TV show on Fox. And they propelled Rick Santorum, a former senator from Pennsylvania – at least as far as Tuesday’s primary in New Hampshire.

Iowa perpetuates other candidate-selection traditions. Last August, in Iowa’s famous “straw poll” – the country’s first popularity contest for Republican candidates in an election that doesn’t count – former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty finished a distant third and abandoned his candidacy the next day. In an age of scientific polling, the straw poll might seem antiquated. In fact, it activates people months before real elections take place.

The American pursuit of the presidency, in a presidential election year, is perhaps the world’s most mesmerizing democratic spectacle – a process that manages to produce a national consensus on presidential candidates within four months of New Year’s Day. Or earlier. The great party conventions that will be staged this summer to nominate the Democratic and Republican candidates for the presidency will be held to affirm this consensus, not to form it.

The paradox is that the Iowa caucuses, like Iowa’s straw poll, decide nothing. They exist only as an advisory service to the state’s summer convention delegates, all 25 of them (amongst 2,200 for the country), who’ll be selected in elections in the coming months. Yet, though meaning nothing, they decide a lot. And they’re great fun. Canadian caucuses, please.

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