Smoky caucuses are deeply rooted in the earliest years of American political parties

By Dennis Box, The Courier Herald

Washington state voters parsed and pulled the issues and candidates Saturday in first presidential caucus since the state's blanket primary was abandoned.

The blanket primary system, where people voted for any candidate without declaring party affiliation, had been in effect since 1935. Last year the U.S. Supreme Court ruled California's blanket primary unconstitutional and sent Washington political leaders scurrying to educate members on the caucus process of selecting delegates.

"American don't get together and talk politics like they used to," said Kent Sprague, 31st Legislative District Chairman. "You can't do it at work and we pass each other at 70 miles-per-hour every day. Where do you go to talk politics and discuss ideas? The primary vote kept most people away from the caucuses, but I'm seeing a lot of interest in the candidates and politics right now."

Caucuses reach back to the very roots of American politics. According to Encyclopedia Americana the etymology of the word traces back to the Algonkian Indian caucausu, an elder or counselor and the Greek word kaukos meaning "drinking vessel."

One of the earliest American uses of the term came from John Adams' diary in 1763 when he described the Caucus Clubb, "There they smoke tobacco till you cannot see from one End of the Garrett to the other."

The sense of a caucus being a smoke-filled room where backroom decisions were made has carried on to this day.

The process of nominating a presidential candidate through a powerful party caucus was the standard during the early years of the republic until the presidential election of 1824. Prior to that election, presidents were chosen through the King Caucus leaving citizens with virtually no choice.

In 1824 for the first time, the King Caucus selection, William H. Crawford, failed to win a majority of the Electoral College votes. The election went into the House of Representatives. John Quincy Adams became the first son of a president to become president, and the King Caucus came to an end.

Selecting a presidential candidate through a caucus has waxed and waned over the last 200 years. During the 1920s state primaries began to replace caucuses in some states.

Today, caucuses still play a significant role in selecting a president. The Iowa Caucus is known as the the first step on the trail to the White House.

At more than 500 caucuses around Washington state on Saturday, the process began of choosing 78 delegates for the Democratic National Convention, July 26-29 in Boston, Mass., where the presidential nominee will be chosen.

After the precinct caucus, there will be a County Caucus on April 24 and a Legislative District Caucus on May 1, the Congressional Caucus on May 29 and the Washington state Convention on June 5.

The general election is on Nov. 2.

Dennis Box can be reached at

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