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Primary Voters Versus Caucus Goers and the Peripheral Motivations of Political Participation

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Depending on their state of residence, Americans can participate in Presidential nomination contests either by voting in a primary or by attending a caucus. Since caucus participation requires more time and effort than primary voting, it has long been thought that caucuses must attract a more partisan, activist, and politically extreme cohort of citizens than primaries. This paper challenges the view that more burdensome electoral institutions necessarily ought to attract more politically engaged citizens. I propose a theory of peripheral motivations that predicts caucus goers and primary voters will not differ in terms of their political attitudes or interest, but they will differ in their levels of community engagement. The key insight is that many of the reasons why citizens choose to participate or abstain from politics actually have little to do with politics. Analysis of two surveys from the 2008 Presidential election substantiates the theoretical expectations.

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  1. David Broder, “Wait for New Hampshire”, Washington Post, 3 January 2008.

  2. “Transcript for March 9 2008,” Meet the Press, MSNBC 9 March 2008. See also, Julie Bossman and Jeff Zeleny, “Clinton Works Wyoming to End Caucus Streak,” New York Times, 8 March 2008.

  3. Consult Norrander (1996) for a comprehensive review of the literature on “post reform-era” nomination research. See also Shafer and Wichowsky (2009).

  4. The number of caucuses and primaries for each party do not add up to 51 (for states plus Washington, DC). Parties in some states have both primaries and caucuses. In a few states, the Republican Party does not have either primaries or precinct-level caucuses. In these states, party leaders at county or state conventions nominate delegates.

  5. Consider the Addonizio et al. (2007) study in which researchers organized carnivals at voting precincts. Precincts that hosted carnivals had higher levels of turnout than control precincts, apparently due to a purely peripheral participatory benefit.

  6. Because precinct caucuses are not institutions exhaustively examined in the literature, I conducted 30 in-depth interviews with Iowans in Sioux County and Louisa County in April 2008, following the precinct caucuses, in order to gain some insights into the caucus experience beyond reports in the news media. Interviewees were selected randomly from the voter registration files in these counties, and were conducted by telephone.

  7. Note that both the CCES and NES surveys are fielded in the Fall, just before and after the November general election. Primaries and caucuses are held up to ten months earlier than the general elections, which requires that we assume a degree of accuracy in respondent recall with respect to their election participation. See Atkeson (1999) for a study of misreporting in primaries.

  8. The six states include Idaho, Montana, Nebraska, Texas, Washington, and West Virginia.

  9. Washington State Democrats, however, do not use the results of the primary in the selection of their party delegates.

  10. The NES respondents from caucus states are distributed fairly evenly across these five states, with 32% coming from Colorado, 11% from Kansas, 16% from Minnesota, 30% from North Dakota, and 11% from Nevada.

  11. Appendix 2 section details variable sources and coding decisions.

  12. Survey weights are used in analyzing NES and CCES data throughout this study. In both cases, the weights are intended to make the sample more representative of the population. For details, consult Lupia et al (2009) and Ansolabehere (2009b).

  13. The first two summary measures merely combine two variables into one, which is essentially equivalent to averaging the two. The summary measure for political activism is based on summarizing 5–6 variables, and in both the CCES and NES, the variables load onto single factors. In the CCES, the first factor has a Eigenvalue of 2.30, with the next factor having a Eigenvalue of 0.86. In the NES, the first factor has an Eigenvalue of 1.93, with the next factor having an Eigenvalue of 0.92.

  14. As a robustness check, each of the three political engagement variables can be included without the other two in the model. In no case do any of the interaction terms show a statistically significant positive effect.

  15. Expected probabilities and first differences are generated using the Zelig package in R (Imai et al. 2007).

  16. A similar concern is whether the results are generalizable beyond Presidential contests. Given the heightened salience of Presidential contests, it is unclear whether a caucus-primary study of down-ballot races would be comparable to this study. Niven (2001) finds that mobilization of unengaged voters is particularly difficult in state house primaries. In down-ballot races, the peripheral benefits might be so limited that they alone could rarely overtake the costs of participation.

  17. For a related concern, see Kenney and Rice’s (1985) discussion regarding states that were early adopters versus late adopters of primary elections.

  18. For Colorado, the matched state is New Mexico; for North Dakota, South Dakota; for Minnesota, Wisconsin; for Kansas, Oklahoma; for Iowa, Missouri; for Maine, Vermont; for Wyoming, Utah; for Nevada, Arizona. Note that not all of these states are included in the NES.


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The author thanks Stephen Ansolabehere, Gabe Lenz, Brian Schaffner, and participants in Harvard’s Political Psychology and Behavior Workshop for their helpful comments. Additional thanks to Greg Distelhorst, Jennifer Hochschild, Orit Kedar, David Mayhew, Robert Putnam, and Patrick Warren for their advice on a course project from which this paper emerged.

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Correspondence to Eitan Hersh.


Appendix 1: Reestimation of Models in Tables 1 and 2

See Table 3, 4 and 5.

Table 3 Caucus goers versus primary voters on political engagement, accounting for calendar bias
Table 4 Caucus goers versus primary voters on political engagement, accounting for state selection bias
Table 5 Caucus goers versus primary voters on community engagement, accounting for calendar and state selection bias

Appendix 2: Variables and Coding

The variables utilized from the 2008 National Election Study include state of residence (V081201a), primary/caucus turnout (V083077), income (V083248), education (V083217, recoded into five categories, less than a high school degree, high school degree, some college, 4-year college degree, and graduate education), race (V083251a, recoded into Black and Hispanic indicator variables), gender (V081101), marital status (V083216x, recoded as 1 if currently married, 0 otherwise), age ( V081104), children (V083265a, recoded 1 if one or more children under 10 years old is present in the household), length of residence (V083266a, recoded into six categories, less than a year, one year, two years, three years, four years, five years or more), party affiliation (V083097, recoded into two indicator variables for Democratic and Republican party affiliation) and the sample weight (V080102).

The variables measuring political engagement include partisanship (V083097, V083098a, V083098b, broken into four categories: pure independent, independent leaner, weak partisan, strong partisan), ideology (V083069, recoded into four categories: moderate/middle of the road, slightly ideological, ideological, and extremely ideological, with respondents who did not know an answer recoded as middle of the road), wore campaign buttons (V085031), contributed to a campaign (V085033), interest in/attention to politics (V085072 , V085073b, recoded into four categories: hardly at all or never, once in a while or only now and then, some of the time or about half the time, and most or all of the time), contacted public official (V085125), followed the campaign (V085193), joined a protest (V085201a), signed an online petition (V085201c).

The variables measuring community engagement include community work (V085124), school or community meeting attendance (V085126), organization involvement (V085127, recoded as an indicator variable where 1 equals a member of one or more organizations), and volunteer work (V085128).

The variables from the 2008 CCES include state of residence (v206), primary/caucus turnout (cc324_1, cc324_2, cc324_3, recoded as one if voted in a caucus or primary, 0 if did not vote in either), income (v246), education (v213), race (v211, recoded into Black and Hispanic indicator variables), gender (v208), marital status (v214, recoded as 1 if currently married or in domestic partnership, 0 otherwise), age (v207, birthyear recoded as age), children (v242), length of residence (cc334), party affiliation (cc307a, recoded into two indicator variables for Democratic and Republican party affiliation) and the sample weight (v200).

The variables measuring political engagement include partisanship (cc307a, broken into four categories: pure independent, independent leaner, weak partisan, strong partisan), ideology (cc317a, recoded to range from 0 for most moderate to 50 for most ideological), attention to news (v244), political interest (v245), contacted House member (cc320), persuaded someone to vote (cc415_2), put up a political sign (cc415_3), worked for a campaign (cc415_4), commented on a political blog (cc415_5), and donated to a political candidate (cc415_6). Unless otherwise specified, missing values are coded as missing.

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Hersh, E. Primary Voters Versus Caucus Goers and the Peripheral Motivations of Political Participation. Polit Behav 34, 689–718 (2012).

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