From mystery to fisticuffs: A thumbnail history of the Minnesota caucuses

Their origins are murky but Minnesota's precinct caucuses have a long, sometimes lively history

It's almost time for Minnesotans to have their say about who should be on their preferred party's presidential ballot this fall.

Caucus night may seem like an odd ritual to the uninitiated. How did it start and evolve into what we have now?

We've got what you need, dear reader.

How did Minnesota's caucuses get started?

Well, OK, we don't actually have a straight answer for that one.

Minnesota's earliest caucuses are shrouded in the murkiness of a 19th century smoke-filled room. Since the state and counties run elections, there are plenty of public records about those. Caucuses, however, are run by political parties and there apparently isn't much documentation about the old days.

An archivist at the Minnesota Historical Society once told the Wahpeton Daily News: "The feeling here is that they go way, way back. But we can't find anything."

Have they changed much?

Oh, you betcha.

The caucus system that developed even before Minnesota became a state was not very democratic at all. Caucuses were not even open to the public. Instead, party honchos would disappear behind closed doors.

William Harris, the author of a book describing the early caucuses, said that behind those closed doors "it is decided for whom the people shall be instructed to vote," National Public Radio reports.

It took Andrew Jackson, the first president born into a working class family, to begin opening the process to the public, NPR says.

But even when Minnesota's caucuses began – presumably with the 1860 election – it was still political professionals who selected the candidates, the late U of M historian Hy Berman told the Citizens League in a 1991 report. Not until 1900, Berman said, did Minnesota's process become more accessible.

NPR says until 1972 a majority of the states were still using caucuses.

Have we ever tried a primary?

Yes, but only for a decade or so.

In 1912 Minnesota switched from caucuses to primaries. And those primaries were wide open, not done by political party, the Citizens League report says. The change made for weaker parties, though. By 1922, when more radical movements such as the Non-Partisan League began to gain power, state leaders chose to move back to caucuses.

In 1992, as the New York Times reported, Minnesota held both caucuses and primaries. The primaries, though, amounted to what political analysts call "beauty contests" – purely for show because the delegates were still chosen at the caucuses.

Are they always boring?

Not always.

A MinnPost piece on DFL history notes that in years when the party was divided, precinct caucuses were tense political battlegrounds. One example: 1948, when the Farmer-Labor wing sought to move the party to the left. Minneapolis Mayor Hubert Humphrey favored a more centrist course and wound up as the party's U.S. Senate candidate.

Another example came 20 years later. The war in Vietnam drove a wedge into the party, with some remaining loyal to Humphrey (who was then vice president) and others joining Sen. Eugene McCarthy in denouncing the war.

Need a more recent example of a lively caucus? How about 2014?

That's when a meeting in Minneapolis had to be shut down by police and rescheduled because it degenerated into a fight between backers of opposing candidates.

How many people go to these?

The last time the White House was an open seat (2008), Minnesota set its record for caucus turnout. But as WCCO reports, even that all-time high amounted to only about 10 percent of eligible voters. There were 214,000 people at DFL caucuses that year and nearly 63,000 at Republican ones, the station says.

This time around, Minnesota is among a dozen states selecting their preferred candidates on March 1. We'll see if the power of Super Tuesday can push even more than 10 percent of voters to their precinct caucuses.

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