Super Tuesday, with its mix of primaries and caucuses, has led to some interesting discussions about the merits (or lack thereof) of the latter. Rick Hasen argues that Congress should ban caucuses outright. Jonathan Bernstein has a response defending caucuses. Is Bernstein's defense of caucuses—which he concedes are on some level exclusionary and unfair—convincing?
Bernstein's first argument is based on the principle that "the parties should be trusted to know what works best for themselves." Parties, argues Bernstein, should be regulated less, not more, and their candidate selection should not be expected to conform to the norms of access that would govern general elections. On this point, I'm definitely with Hasen rather than Bernstein. Primaries, as the Supreme Court noted when it struck down the Texas Democratic Party's all-white primary, have always been subject to state regulation and intertwined with the general election process. Given that we have an electoral structure that limits voters to at most two viable choices in most elections, primary and general elections cannot be neatly separated. Barring a greatly accelerated economic recovery, any nominee chosen by the Republican Party has a reasonable chance of being president of the United States. For many House and some Senate elections, the process of candidate selection is the only practically meaningful election given the ideological makeup of some states. Thus, the government has an interest in ensuring some level of fairness in the candidate selection process, and, in general, the electoral system would benefit from more uniform federal regulations rather than more decentralization.
Bernstein's pragmatic argument I find more convincing. The mix of primaries and caucuses both parties use, Bernstein argues, doesn't produce results terribly different than an all-primary section process would, and placing a little more weight on the sentiments of a party's most committed supporters by having caucuses isn't unreasonable. While an all-primary process would be fine with me, I don't disagree with this. While I might be prepared to endorse federal intervention if parties chose candidates through a process consisting entirely or even predominantly of caucuses, the current system strikes a balance between access and ensuring the support of committed partisans that works well enough. Creating a uniform process is probably unnecessary at this point, although I think concerns about access and fairness should be taken very seriously.