for PDF format
Summary of Meeting
with Barry Casselman
Civic Caucus, 8301 Creekside Circle, Bloomington, MN 55437
Friday, June 8, 2007
Guest speaker--Barry Casselman, syndicated columnist on national
Present: Verne Johnson, chair (by
phone); Chuck Clay, Paul Gilje, Jim Hetland (by phone), John Mooty (by
phone), and Jim Olson (by phone)
A. Context of the meeting --As part of
a continuing set of meetings on the state's elections process, today the
Civic Caucus looks at the precinct caucuses, the biennial, local
gatherings of political party adherents that elect convention delegates
leading to party endorsement of candidates.
B. Introduction of Barry Casselman --Paul
introduced Casselman, a resident of Minneapolis, and author, journalist
and lecturer who has reported and analyzed American presidential and
national politics since 1972. He founded, edited and published his first
newspaper when he was 29. He has been a contributor to many national
publications. His regular op ed columns, distributed through the Preludium
News Service, appear in Real
Clear Politics and The Washington Times, and are nationally- and
internationally-syndicated by them.
He has covered national presidential primaries, caucus and straw polls
since 1976, and the Democratic and Republican national conventions since
1988. Since 1990, he has been the executive director of the non-profit
International Conference Foundation, and has hosted more than 500 world
leaders, foreign journalists and other international visitors. At the
non-partisan Foundation, he organized a conference on “Locating the New
Political Center in America” with Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich and
leading spokespersons of the Clinton administration as well as
newly-emerged independent groups.
C. Remarks by Casselman and discussion --During
Casselman's remarks and in discussion with the Civic Caucus the following
points were raised:
1. Discontinue use of precinct caucuses in the
system of party endorsement --Casselman said his main
point--outlined in an article in the Citizens League publication, the
Minnesota Journal, in January 2007--is that endorsement of candidates by
political parties should be replaced by the primary election. He
recommends that the official political party endorsement for candidates in
Minnesota no longer occur at party conventions. Instead the result of the
primary election in each political party would solely determine the
nomination. Thereby, he said, every member
of the party participates directly in the process via the primary election
voting booth, not just the small numbers who attend precinct caucuses.
Precinct caucuses are dominated by activists for special interests of the
far left and far right, he said. Consequently, persons elected as
convention delegates by precinct caucuses tend to represent more extreme
views. Particularly in the DFL, with its sub-caucus approach, the system
was designed to give a small number of persons more political power than
their numbers justified, he said.
Moreover, he said, considerable pressure is placed on other candidates to
pledge not to challenge the party endorsee in the primary election.
2. Future of precinct caucuses --Casselman
has no objection to continuing precinct caucus gatherings as vehicles for
discussion of issues. He believes the precinct caucuses--because of who
attends and because of rules at the caucuses--should not be used as the
legal, legitimate democratic vehicles for selecting candidates. Instead a
candidate who wins an open party primary election clearly is entitled to
official party nomination. The vast majority of states use the primary,
not the caucuses, he said.
3. Estimates of attendance at precinct caucuses
are usually inflated --We never have had accurate records of
how many people have voted at precinct caucuses, Casselman said. He
believes that with few exceptions only about 1-3 percent of eligible
voters show up for caucuses. He usually discounts published reports
quoting party officials who give estimates of how many attend caucuses.
4. Pre-primary endorsement inevitable --An
open primary doesn't preclude individuals from making endorsements. All
sorts of interest groups will also endorse candidates before the primary,
he said. He acknowledged that endorsements probably would also occur by
groups within a party. But official party nomination would result from the
primary election, where voters make the choice.
Casselman and members of the Civic Caucus discussed at some length what
kind of pre-primary endorsements occur in other states where official
party endorsement comes with the results of the primary. Some kind of
indication of preference for certain primary candidates by leaders of a
party would seem inevitable. Jim Olson said that in Illinois the county
chairs of the party make some endorsements.
Asked after the meeting to clarify his thoughts on the future of
endorsements if precinct caucuses no longer are required by statute,
Casselman wrote: "If the legislature eliminated the precinct caucuses as a
formal part of the election process, they will soon if not immediately
disappear. Technically, any political party could keep the precinct caucus
mechanism. But as I and others have pointed out, they are EXTREMELY
unpopular as evidenced by their chronic low turnout. They exist now
because the legislature says they must. Take away their legal mandate, and
there is no motivation to keep them. As I also pointed out, endorsements
are a natural matter and will continue, but mostly by interest groups.
District conventions might continue, and regular state party conventions
almost certainly will continue. These conventions might have an endorsing
component, but any resulting endorsement would be informal and have much
less impact on the party primary. However, considering the recent history
of party endorsements, I think the major parties would choose NOT to make
5. Disconnect between party endorsees and voter
preference --In his Minnesota Journal article, Casselman noted
that by 2010 the DFL will have been shut out of the governorship for 20
years "because it has turned away its traditional center-left liberal base
for a more radical populist base."
He noted that the rise of the Independence Party--as a new home for
disaffected DFLers--has split the DFL vote, thereby helping to elect
Republicans. "Traditional center-right conservative Republicans have been
similarly shut out of their party for most of the past three decades,"
Casselman wrote in the Minnesota Journal. He noted that in 1994 Arne
Carlson, a moderate Republican, failed to win endorsement because GOP
caucuses were controlled by the right wing of the party, but Carlson went
on to victory in the primary and the general election.
Casselman said he is a strong advocate for a two-party system in
Minnesota. But third parties arise, he said, when you create a frustrated
6. Potential of concentrating party power in a
few people --It was noted that Republicans in Minnesota didn't
officially endorse candidates a few decades ago. But the party still
needed a vehicle for endorsement. What happened is that a few people on
party's finance committee ended up making the endorsement. Later, when the
Republican Party moved to public endorsement, it became possible for
moderate candidates such as Elmer Andersen to be nominated. The question
arose whether the power of sub-groups within the party would again
increase if official party endorsement didn't occur until the primary
7. Advancing the date of the primary --Casselman
said Minnesota should move its primary to a much earlier date, from
September to May. He noted that the primary occurs in April in
8. Most Americans, Democrats and Republicans,
tend toward the center --Most Americans, he said, are Democrats
who are slightly to the left of center and Republicans who are slightly to
the right. Unfortunately, he said, the precinct caucus system produces
candidates who are far more to the left or right. As part of a movement to
support center-oriented voters, he cited the Internet-based Unity 08
campaign that is seeking to nominate and elect a bipartisan team for
President in 2008.
9. Possibility of multiple endorsements --It
was noted that some proposals are being advanced to provide that if a
candidate receives a certain percentage of votes at the endorsing
convention--say, 20 percent--that all candidates receiving that percentage
or higher, would be able to run in the primary and claim party
endorsement. Casselman said he doesn't advocate such an approach.
10. Summary of Casselman's recommendations --He
summarized that he is advocating the following approach: (a) eliminate the
role of the precinct caucus in endorsing candidates for office. Precinct
caucuses as statutory vehicles would be eliminated, he said, but the
parties still could hold such meetings for discussions to take place. (b)
move up the primary date. He doesn't envision that the political parties
would make official endorsements of candidates before the primary. He
acknowledged that leaders within the party might endorse unofficially. The
party nominee would be the winner of the primary election.
Casselman was asked what the purpose of the political party would be if
his recommendations are adopted. The party would still be the place where
policies and platforms are determined, he said.
11. Opposition to instant runoff voting (IRV) --Casselman
said he doesn't support having voters rank candidates in their order of
preference, as is provided in IRV. A person ought to go into the voting
booth and not have to worry about casting second, third or fourth choice
votes, he said.
In discussion it was noted that the IRV process guarantees the winner will
receive at least 50 percent of the vote, but Casselman called that an
artificial majority. If the two-party system is functioning in a healthy
way, with open primaries, there should be no need for IRV for helping
third parties, he said.
Continuing the discussion, it was noted that Casselman strongly favors
giving more influence to moderate voters. It was pointed out that IRV
seems to have the effect of encouraging candidates to appeal to moderates,
not just the far left or the far right, because candidates would need
second and third choice votes, not just first choice votes.
He repeated his conviction that the election system now is direct and
simple and shouldn't be changed. Third-party candidates would seem to
receive undue benefit, he said. However, it was noted that in a three-way
race, the top two candidates remain eligible, with only the second choices
reallocated from voters who backed the third-place candidate in initial
balloting. Thus the only way a third-party candidate would survive is if
that candidate were among the top two in the initial balloting.
12. Statutory term limits opposed --Casselman
likes the way Congress finally decided to limit the terms of committee
chairs, but he doesn't like further tampering with the elections system.
13. Preserve independence of judges --He
hasn't thought a great deal about changing the system for selecting
judges, except that he likes the fact that direct election, not
appointment, helps keep judges independent.
14. Repeal the electoral college directly, not
indirectly --Casselman said he is open to a constitutional
amendment that would provide for direct election of the President. He
doesn't favor an alternative--being led by Maryland--for individual states
to pledge that their electors will support the winner of the popular vote
nationally. You either keep the electoral college or your abolish it, he
15. Thanks --On behalf of the Civic
Caucus, Verne and others thanked Casselman for meeting with us this
The Civic Caucus
is a non-partisan,
tax-exempt educational organization. Core participants
include persons of varying political persuasions, reflecting
years of leadership in politics and business.
A working group meets face-to-face to
provide leadership. They are Verne C. Johnson, chair; Lee
Canning, Charles Clay, Bill Frenzel,
Paul Gilje, Jim Hetland,
John Mooty, Jim Olson, Wayne Popham and John Rollwagen.