15-Percent Rule at Party Caucuses

February 28, 2014


Over the past few weeks, party members from around the state have been engaged in the process of choosing delegates to the state party conventions.  Once there, candidates for statewide office must secure 15% of the delegate vote in order to advance to the primary ballot.  Some argue this threshold requirement is an undemocratic insider’s game that is a disservice to voters.

We disagree.

The system of caucuses electing delegates to a party convention with real teeth helps achieve four important goals: it makes parties accountable, it builds vibrant local parties as civic organizations, provides a counterweight to big money influence; and bolsters grass roots organizing for candidates.

First, political parties should have some element of control over their nominations.  Choosing candidates for a party ballot is one important way in which parties can maintain their identity as organizations with different views on the role of government and public policy.  Why have parties with different approaches if they cannot control their own nominations? If a candidate can’t attract the votes of 15% of those activists who care most about the party excluding that individual from the primary ballot is no great injustice.

Second, the caucus system contributes to a system in which local voices matter. To better understand the important role local parties play in civic life, visit a local organization before, during or after its caucus. The people who join these local organizations do so for a variety of reasons. There is camaraderie, conversation, friendship, and networking.  Local parties are part of a larger constellation of organizations—churches, the American Legion, chambers of commerce, sports leagues, Masons, parent-teacher associations, and other groups—that make up civil society. Local parties sponsor debates, organize policy forums, sponsor college scholarships.  They encourage participation in politics, attention to public policy, and voting in elections.

Local parties provide the connective tissue between citizens and government, public officials, and policymakers. Part of the reason why local parties in Massachusetts are strong is they have a modicum of power: they get to choose who has the opportunity to run on their party’s statewide ballot.

Third, the process of courting delegates doesn’t necessarily repay the candidate with the largest bankroll – Deval Patrick is some evidence of that. It does reward the candidate who pays detailed attention to organization and is willing to take lengthy night time drives through crummy weather – day after day, week after week – in order to meet small numbers of people who really care about their party and the state.  That makes those ordinary citizens important.

On the other hand, consider the long list of self-financed candidates who have been cast aside. A November 2006 Globe story reported that Kerry Healey spent $12.8 million of her own money in her race against Patrick. Democratic primary candidate Chris Gabrieli wrote himself checks in the amount of $10.1 million. Republican Christy Mihos dipped into the family piggy bank for $3.4 million. One-time Democratic frontrunner Tom Reilly had vigorous fund raising and statewide support but he was surpassed by the army Patrick built in the convention process.

Back to 2014, candidates Don Berwick, Juliette Kayyem, Joe Avellone, Martha Coakley, and Steve Grossman tweet a steady stream of how honored they are to attend this caucus, flattered to visit with that selectman or school committee woman, privileged to attend a coffee at one or another ward committee treasurer’s lovely home, etc. Independent candidates Jeffrey S. McCormick and Evan Falchuk are trying to figure out how to build any sort of ground game out of the tiny number of non-party affiliated activists in the state, while writing sizeable checks to their own campaigns.

Thousands of delegates will attend the Democratic and Republican conventions, and thousands more attended the caucuses that elected them. Yes they’re a small sliver of the eventual primary electorates, but those activists (not a dirty word) are the building blocks who can provide a counterweight to big money.

Fourth, building that citizens army pays off. In recent years a tide of political science research has proven the efficacy of good old fashioned political organization – neighbors canvassing neighbors door-to-door, robust Election Day get out the vote operations. Old fashioned shoe leather married to modern technology produces success at the polls. Organization works – and it is relatively inexpensive.

The 15% rule contributes to a stronger democracy.

Maurice Cunningham is an associate professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts, Boston and Peter Ubertaccio is the Director of the Martin Institute at Stonehill College in Easton, MA.  They blog at masspoliticsprofs.com