Time to Talk: Washington’s Old Caucuses were Different


Our Presidential primary is coming right up. This year it seems like a non-event as President Biden has no significant competition and Super Tuesday was quite decisive for Donald Trump.  We used to do this differently, and we’re not going back to the caucus system. Looking back, I think we’ve lost something.

Compared to other states, elections in Washington are a relatively non-partisan affair. We do not have to register by party (except in the presidential primary). Our state and local elections are either non-partisan or the two candidates who get the most votes in the primary advance to the final ballot.

The parties don’t like this as it diminishes their importance. They keep trying to change it. Their chances of doing so have improved as so many new Washingtonians grew up elsewhere, in places where political parties play a more important role.

The state parties drove the change to a primary as the basis for selecting delegates to the national conventions. For the presidential primary you must check a box on the return envelope when sending in your ballot, indicating that for the purposes of that election, you are a Republican or a Democrat. And then you can only vote for one of the candidates affiliated with that party. (There is an option on the Democratic slate to vote “uncommitted”. If 15 percent of voters do, an uncommitted delegate pool would be sent to the Democratic National Convention.)

This is painful for many of my friends who typically vote Democratic, but who want to vote for Nikki Haley as a protest against Trump. They cannot bring themselves to vote as a one-time Republican.

The old caucus system was different. Each party’s precinct committee person would host a caucus gathering, often in their own home or perhaps in a local school.

The caucus agenda would begin with a discussion of issues. Then the caucus would elect delegates who would go on to the legislative district convention, where delegates would be selected to go on to the State convention and then a select few were chosen to go to the national convention.

I attended several caucuses over the years, but one in particular demonstrates how caucuses differ from primaries. In 1988, televangelist Pat Robertson was running for the Republican nomination against the “establishment” candidate, George Bush the elder. At the time, we lived in rural Fall City and I was the Republican precinct committeeman. I was a supporter of Vice President Bush and the caucus would be held in our home.

We heard through the grapevine that members of a local church were fervently pro-Robertson.  The parishioners were urged to attend their caucus and were warned that the precinct committee person was a Bush supporter and would probably try to prevent selection of pro-Robertson delegates.

This was not our normal social group. My wife grew worried about what might be about to happen in her living room. A few minutes before the appointed hour we saw a long stream of headlights coming down our driveway. She gathered up our three small children and took them upstairs to our bedroom.

I greeted the dozen or so guests at the front door, all of whom had firm jaws and steely gazes. The atmosphere was tense as we gathered around to discuss the issues. The discussion was organized around a questionnaire that the party drafted. Many of the questions were clearly one-sided. “Are you in favor of protecting the life of an innocent child, or do you prefer encouraging sex without commitment?  And so forth…

Our conversation that night didn’t go exactly to script. I don’t recall the first issue. What I do remember is that I read the question. One person immediately said, “this is what Pat thinks.” After a brief silence, another said, “well, I don’t agree.”

Lively conversations ensued, with a variety of opinions, often well stated. I got to share my opinion, but mostly just tried to give everyone a chance to speak. At the end of the night, it was time to select our three delegates to move on to the higher conventions. I was pleased that I was nominated and elected.

What happened that night was people of different opinions coming together to make a decision, and they did so in a civil and productive manner.

This year’s Washington primary is very different. There is almost no chance for people to work together. I tried to volunteer to help my favorite candidate but got no response. It seems to me that the primary is now entirely about mass media, driven by the party elites and big money.

I understand how the primary gives more people a chance to participate. But, for better or worse, the quality of that participation is very different.

On a recent morning, I happened to pluck from the top shelf one of the many books I have intended to read but never did. The book was Robert Nisbet’s The Quest for Community, originally published in 1953 and acquired by me in 1975. Nisbet wrote, “People do not come together in significant and lasting associations merely to be together. They come together to do something that cannot be easily done in isolation.”

I think he had a point.

John Rose
John Rose
John Rose is a past King County Budget Director and the retired CEO of Seattle-Northwest Securities.


  1. If you were back in your old precinct, and the caucus system were restored, would you sign up for that again? Have the current Republican faction in your house, and have a civil discussion, about all the stuff people believe and whether it’s true? January 6, etc.?

  2. Oh GAWD no. It was long past time that we finally dropped the 19th Century caucus system. In a good year, 250,000 people would participate in the Democratic Party Caucuses, and yet, even when the vote did not count towards delegates, three to four times as many would vote in the Primary election.

    Decades after the Legislature adopted the Presidential Primary Initiative to the Legislature, the Democratic Party fought every attempt to use the Primary to award delegates. It is true that “mainstream” Republicans helped on the Initiative campaign after that deplorable Pat Robertson win, but so did a former King County Democratic Party Chair. I worked on the campaign.

    While the author has fond memories of people talking about issues in his living room, my memories are of near-violent clashes, with many, many threats by supporters of the candidate challenging the mainstream candidate. Worse, caucuses were highly discriminatory, especially for people who worked when caucuses were held, those who couldn’t get or afford childcare, people who don’t speak English as a first language (or at all), and especially, people with disabilities. Many times, I witnessed people of color walk into a room full of white people, and quickly leave. Or elderly people who left because they could not find a place to sit,. I watched overly aggressive young people lash out at those over sixty, accusing those middle-aged people of having views they did not actually have (ironically, many of those middle-aged people had marched for peace during the Vietnam War).

    The Democratic Party fought against its own voters in other battles, including the Top Two Primary. But finally, after several caucuses required calls to police in 2016 (in the 34th and 37th Districts, and others) when Bernie Bros verbally and/or physically assaulted people, the need for change was evident. Thankfully.

    A process still exists within each party to discuss issues and create a platform (that 99.9% of people voting in that Party will never read). For the rest of us, we would rather spend our political time more wisely and efficiently here in the 21st Century.

  3. “Looking back, I think we’ve lost something.”

    I agree. But in today’s instant online world, probably few would show up in person.

  4. The caucus as civic participation became strained when it was the last civic function standing. Let’s bring back churches, unions, masonry groups and other vehicles for civic discussion and engagement. It was too much to ask people to arrange for care (child/elder), transportation, or absentee participation just to exercise a voice in the primary. Good riddance caucuses are gone.


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