Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Insider Perspective of the Utah Caucus System

Count My Vote Caucus Meeting Utah
There is a tremendous amount of debate in Utah about the "Count My Vote" initiative that seeks to eliminate the need for neighborhood caucus meetings and move towards direct primaries.  Supporters of the caucus system will argue this removes real choice and discussion from the voter because now "big name ID" and "big money" can buy the election from uninformed voters.  Count My Voter supports argue a small group of delegates can't represent their neighborhoods affectively.  I am here to give you personal experience as a delegate recruiter, trainer and converter and in my experience how big money is no different, if not worse in the caucus system.

For some quick background: I have been a state delegate, county delegate, and caucus chair.  I have believed in this system because I have seen it work in my favor in the past.  I am not a career political operative; however, I have worked or consulted on a number of political campaigns since 2000 in various roles from volunteer to full time staffer.  Two of these campaigns would be considered major political campaigns.  In the campaign I am about to share with you I was hired as the Statewide Advance Team Director.  Now I will preface my experience with the opinion that this candidate was and is an amazing person and I would say the most honest and hardworking candidate I have ever seen.  Needless to say, we played the delegate game like everyone else.

Dan Liljenquist State Delegate Training DocumentDuring this campaign I really had two jobs, one was to organize events for the candidate and prepare the venues before the candidate arrived.  My second job was related to delegates.  Every week for months prior to the neighborhood caucus meetings I would recruit as many people to attend delegate trainings.  Every candidate holds these trainings and it is considered Utah Politics 101.  Some of these meetings would be filled with food, drink and always printed instructions on how to go to your caucus meeting and get elected as a State Delegate.  Lots of time and money is spent in organizing these events.  Invitations are made, people are called, locations reserved, instructions printed, and food is often provided.  Each staffer on the campaign had a quota of delegates they needed to bring to the convention, but we all worked as a team to recruit and convert. 

You see the life of a delegate is fun.  One of the big selling points for us in our delegate recruitment was the power to make decisions in the political process, the second selling point was the royal treatment you would receive.  Candidates we will wine and dine you to get you to vote for them.  

As part of our recruitment process we often looked for the following type of people because of their ease in getting elected: young, college bound, first time caucus attendees and the innocence of no political agenda. In fact you were instructed to never give your full allegiance to any candidate in the meeting (though secretly you had been recruited and essentially paid off with glory and promises of free food, t-shirts galore) and make sure to tell them how you look forward to voting with what the neighborhood wants.  You were instructed to bring as many of your friends as you can to vote for you and if possible rehearse the nomination process.

This process is still in affect today as you can see from the previous senate races.  Interesting to note that Dan Liljenquist didn't even get elected as a state delegate in his own caucus meeting.  Why?  Senator Hatch has way more experience (and money) in recruiting delegates for caucus meetings.  They were well trained to take Dan out.  

Having attended dozens of these meetings, I can tell you these delegates rarely get out and talk to their neighbors.  Many never return and report, some will never return to another caucus meeting once their candidate has been elected.  Some delegates may return, but it is rare.  Of all the delegates I recruited none of them returned to their caucus meetings.  Most of these delegates would report to me after their election and tell me how their caucus meeting went and how they were able to get elected easily by following our simple instructions.

Once the caucus meetings were over, I then moved into Delegate Conversion mode.  Campaigns will then spend every penny possible visiting delegates and treating them to meetings, dinners, and speaking events.  Some events took place at nice restaurants others in the homes of delegate supporters.  Part of my job was to organize meals, t-shirts, invitations, and donations for all these delegates.  Essentially buying their vote through food and prizes mingled with education of the issues.  Seasoned delegates new this process well, they would milk it for every penny.  Some asked for extra food, additional drinks and would even hold you hostage if they didn't get the right t-shirt size or their steak cooked medium rare.

After a few months of delegate missionary work we moved our efforts to the convention.  The plans for the state convention go back all the way to delegate trainings.  Our booths are chosen and paid for with big bucks because one must pay to play in the world of politics.  Then marketing firms are hired to design and plan the perfect booth.  Our campaign spared no expense on food and brochures, since we were going up against people with bigger name ID and way more money.  Our plan was to have chocolate chip cookies baking while people came in so they would connect the smell of home baked cookies with our candidate.  However convention rules required us to use the food services of the convention center.  Being the Advance Team Director, I was tasked with the duty of solving this problem.  I called the food services director and asked them how much a cookie cost on their menu, we then agreed we would purchase a cookie for every cookie we gave away if they allowed me to bring my own (the same went for the milk that was donated by a local dairy).  They agreed to the deal since this wasn't about their food and more about big money. 

The day of convention delegates act like it is Black Friday.  They go booth to booth scooping up hats, t-shirts, bags, food and more.  People visit the candidates they hate simply to get their swag.  You can see them walking around like tourists returning from a hard day at Disneyland.  Covered in buttons, stickers and literature, many waddle around talking to candidates not even in their district to pick up their prizes.  Some will be in the main hall debating rules and procedures but the rest will play their candidate bingo card and get all they can.  Many campaigns will setup a private room for their staffers and candidate to sit and relax; in addition, special delegates and donors are invited to come and partake of the free food that will be in there.  This particular time we had a chocolate fountain (back when they were a novelty and not a household appliance) and we were told to invite special delegates who were 100% confirmed to swing by for a quick snack if needed (this usually meant they were donors as well).

Now this process may have changed a little, but having attended all my caucus meetings since this time and many before (note this will be the first I will miss in many years) I will say the process has not changed much.  Remember I had one of the more conservative and I would say the most honest candidate in this race.  So imagine what the rest were doing.  Currently special interest groups are now more involved and they will also train and push for delegates related to their cause as well.  Banks and Credit Unions are the most famous for this as of late. 

In defense of the system, it is wonderful to get together with your neighbors and discuss politics and the future of our state and country.  However in my opinion, nearly everyone who comes to these meetings has a secret agenda of who they want to vote for and who campaigns have trained them to vote for.  

So if you think this is a fair representation of your neighborhood and you don't mind these delegates will essentially be trained operatives for the candidate, bought and paid for--then the caucus system is for you.  If you think otherwise of the caucus system, you're naive at best. Direct primaries will in reality cost the candidates more money since you no longer have to focus your time on a select group of 4000 people but instead on a much larger group.  But from my insider perspective, big money and big name ID affects the caucus system even more when it is limited to small group of people.  


Anonymous said...

So are you for or against the count my vote initiative?

BenJoeM said...

That is a great question, in reality I don't think it matters, I think less people will vote or care if it is a direct primary; but the delegates are too easily bought off.

So on that idea I support the Count My Vote movement.