Is it time to ditch Maine’s presidential caucuses?

Last weekend Maine saw yuuuge turnout in the Republican and Democratic presidential caucuses — a yuuuge turnout for caucuses, that is.

Sen. Ted Cruz scored a surprise win, as he beat Gov. Paul LePage’s preferred candidate, Donald Trump. With his very strong showing, Sen. Bernie Sanders added to his wins in mostly white states. This was an impressive victory, just behind Sanders’ percentages in the Kansas caucus and further behind his gigantic win in his home state of Vermont.

Sunday's Democratic presidential caucus at Ellsworth High School. Bill Trotter | BDN

Sunday’s Democratic presidential caucus at Ellsworth High School. Bill Trotter | BDN

Both parties broke records for caucus participants, as Republicans had about 18,000 caucus goers and Democrats about 47,000. But this was a lot less than the 62,000 Republicans and 65,000 Democrats who participated in primaries in June 2014.

The long lines and some disorganization provoked Portland state Sen. Justin Alfond to propose moving back to holding primaries rather than caucuses.

While some count themselves inspired by people waiting for hours in long lines to weigh in, this is not how it’s seen elsewhere. In November 2012 I visited Montenegro, a country with which Maine has a sister relationship, on behalf of the U.S. State Department. When I talked to people about American elections, questions always came up about long lines they saw on the news. Voting never involved such difficulties in their country, and Montenegrins thought it was absurd that Americans couldn’t figure out how to avoid big waits.

Let’s face it. Long lines and an extended process pose all sorts of difficulties that limit participation. If you walk with a cane, need a wheelchair or have an aversion to crowds, it may be impossible to be at a caucus site so long. And caucuses often leave out people who don’t want to bring young children or find babysitters, or have jobs that conflict with the caucus. Plenty of other folks just have other things they’d like to do for hours on a Saturday or Sunday.

Caucuses involve everyday people more than the presidential nominating process that existed for most of American history, when ordinary citizens had no role in picking party nominees. Party leaders and activists in proverbial smoke-filled rooms decided who got on general election ballots in those days. This changed during the Progressive Era when direct primaries were introduced.

History buffs may recall that, to assuage fears of West Virginia primary goers, in 1960 John F. Kennedy gave a speech about how his Catholic faith wouldn’t get in the way of governing. Kennedy went on to win that primary. Only 15 states and the District of Columbia had primaries at that time.

All means involving regular folks increased a great deal after the debacle of the 1968 Democratic National Convention. Democrats adopted rules proposed by the McGovern-Fraser Commission for the 1972 contest, which moved power to voters.

Maine has had both primaries and caucuses. Primaries were held in 1996 and 2000; the state returned to caucuses in 2004 and has held them ever since. For presidential campaigns, the caucuses pick delegates to the state convention. That body chooses the delegates to the national parties’ conventions, where state delegations cast their ballots, culminating in a nomination.

Caucuses have some advantages when it comes to hearing from candidates and their supporters, finding out about how to get involved with the local party committee and state political party, signing petitions to get people on the ballot, and providing the small donations needed in Maine’s Clean Elections system.

But this year there wasn’t very much interaction between people at the caucus I attended. Breaking up caucuses into precincts rather than municipalities would help promote citizen interaction. If Maine keeps caucuses, it should make groups smaller and decrease lines. More and easier absentee ballots would also help.

Besides possibly leading to changes in the presidential nomination process, Maine’s 2016 caucuses may foretell how our state’s political dynamics are changing.

The Maine caucuses don’t mean much for the national Democratic nominating process since Clinton’s delegate lead from caucuses and primaries comes from states that are much larger and more diverse than Maine. Unless Sanders can win those states, he can’t win the nomination. For Republicans, Maine’s results, along with shifting polls in some other states, suggest that Trump’s frontrunner status could be toppled by Cruz.

For Maine, the results show the power of libertarian and evangelical voters in the Republican Party and the heft of populist, class-oriented appeals among Democrats. Those reverberations will be felt in November’s legislative elections and referenda.

Amy Fried

About Amy Fried

Amy Fried loves Maine's sense of community and the wonderful mix of culture and outdoor recreation. She loves politics in three ways: as an analytical political scientist, a devoted political junkie and a citizen who believes politics matters for people's lives. Fried is Professor of Political Science at the University of Maine. Her views do not reflect those of her employer or any group to which she belongs.