Are Caucus Delegates Better Informed Than the General Electorate?

Kelly Patterson, a Professor of Political Science at BYU, recently posted an article on Utah Data Points titled “Who is a Better Filter, Caucus Attendees or Primary Voters?  The point of Patterson’s article was to demonstrate empirically that the caucus system did not generate better (or at least more informed) political outcomes than a primary — i.e., that the representative caucus system acted as a superior “filter” compared to the direct primary.  Patterson relied on a survey testing voters’ knowledge of Utah and national politics an ran a comparison based on whether the voters surveyed had attended their neighborhood caucus in 2012.

I’ll let Patterson’s article speak for itself (bracketed interjections for context):

[I]t does not appear that one group [i.e., those who attended their neighborhood caucuses] is highly knowledgeable, while the other group [those who did not attend their neighborhood caucus] is ignorant of Utah or national politics.  In fact, the far more noticeable trend is that knowledge of Utah politics is low among both groups.  Of the four questions about Utah politics we asked, both caucus attenders and non-attenders got about half right and half wrong, on average.  Both groups did much better in answering the six questions about national politics, where the average was 70% to 80% correct.

Thus, it does not appear that education or political knowledge are the defining factors that separate caucus attenders from non-attenders.  The difference between these two groups is not levels of information, but rather ideology:  research from the Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy shows that caucus attenders and delegates are much more ideological, even after controlling for knowledge, gender, income, etc.  This result is true in Utah and nationally.

Patterson concludes that there is no basis to make the argument that the caucus system acts as a superior filter — in the sense that it results in choices being made by more informed persons — than would a system with a direct primary election:

I grant that no nomination system – no filter between public opinion and nominations – is perfect.  Every system requires trade-offs between competing values.  But we ought not to pretend that one set of filters has virtues that are simply not present.  As Utahns make their choices about the process, they should be fully cognizant of what they specifically gain and lose when they make the nomination process dependent on this particular group of individuals.

Patterson’s article has been widely circulated on social media among Utah’s politicos, being cited as proof that delegates are no more politically-informed than the general population.

Hold on a second.

That’s not what Patterson’s post purports to measure.  The survey he references was taken of voters and the comparison was run based on caucus attendance — not delegate status.  The group “caucus attendees” includes the general precinct population as well as the handful of people who are elected as state or county delegates.

Of course caucus attendees are no more informed than the general population.  That’s because, to a very large extent, people who attend caucuses are the general population, especially the likely general voting population.

In actuality, Patterson’s article doesn’t speak at all to the point that it’s being cited to prove.  Patterson didn’t survey delegates to see if they were more informed than the average voter (or even the average caucus attendee).  But that’s the relevant question, because, it’s the delegates — not the caucus attendees — who really act as the representative filter in the caucus system’s candidate selection process.

While I’m quite skeptical about whether delegates make “better” choices than the general population — or even whether such a claim can be intelligently assessed — my own experience (admittedly anecdotal) is the delegates are significantly more well-informed about political events than the general population (Note that I’ve changed my mind on this point, you can compare my original opinion with my  current opinion).  Now, while it’s likely true that the extent of their information is uneven (i.e., they are likely much better informed regarding issues that line up with the ideological priorities), I’ve seen delegates grill candidates . . . and it’s much different from what a candidate could expect from your average voter, or even your average caucus attendee — the grilling often focuses on a wide range of issues — municipal, state, and national — referencing specific proposal and the most current commentary.  Even when I don’t agree with opinions expressed by the delegates, the vetting they do is often impressive.

It would be interesting to see this tested empirically — but Patterson’s post doesn’t do that.

I want to emphasize that Patterson’s article is fine as far as it goes.  He  uses his data responsibly and draws his conclusions rationally.  But be aware that — in my opinion — others are significantly overstating his conclusions.

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