Sam Youngman

Sam Youngman: What would a Republican presidential caucus mean for Kentucky?

In this June 14 file photo, Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, right, talked with Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., during the Iowa State Republican Convention in Des Moines, Iowa. Branstad has been working hard to spread the word that the Iowa Republican Party and the state’s lead-off presidential caucuses are welcoming to all Republicans.
In this June 14 file photo, Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, right, talked with Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., during the Iowa State Republican Convention in Des Moines, Iowa. Branstad has been working hard to spread the word that the Iowa Republican Party and the state’s lead-off presidential caucuses are welcoming to all Republicans. Associated Press

When considering the possibility of a Kentucky presidential caucus in 2016, there are at least a million unanswered questions.

A good place to start might be by asking what is a caucus?

While several states use a caucus instead of a primary election to decide their preference for both parties' presidential nominees, Iowa remains the gold standard.

The Iowa caucuses have produced countless chapters of American history, and it can be accurately said that the road to the White House starts amid the frozen cornfields of the state.

David Yepsen, director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University, is the authority when it comes to the first-in-the-nation caucuses.

Yepsen worked as chief political reporter and columnist for The Des Moines Register for 34 years, covering nine presidential caucuses in that time.

In a chat with the Herald-Leader, Yepsen explained how the caucuses work, how they can benefit both a state and a political party and how they can make both voters and candidates better engaged in the process of picking the next president of the United States.

"The best way to describe it is it's a neighborhood meeting," Yepsen said.

Democrat and Republican caucuses differ greatly in Iowa, with Republicans essentially conducting a series of precinct-level straw polls and Democrats navigating a far more complicated process.

Iowa has caucuses every two years and has since about 1916, Yepsen said.

"Some of them literally met in people's homes," he said. "They got together, and they talked about get out the vote efforts and party-platform resolutions. What has happened to Iowa, is it's morphed into something much larger than that."

By Yepsen's estimation, the Iowa caucuses became the crucial first battle in the war for the White House with the 1972 election.

Since then, candidates and media flock to the state every four years to cement its place in American history.

President Barack Obama won the caucuses in 2008 over then-Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton. The famous Howard Dean "scream" happened on caucus night. Former Presidents George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush and former nominees John Kerry and Bob Dole all took their first steps to the fall contest by winning in Iowa.

There are a number of ways to conduct a caucus, and it's too early to say what form the contests might take in Kentucky, where allies of U.S. Sen. Rand Paul are toying with introducing a caucus system in 2016. Paul and some other Republicans have long been dismayed by Kentucky's relative irrelevance in nominating presidential candidates.

Generally speaking, Yepsen said that implementing a caucus could strengthen Kentucky's political parties, and an earlier date could make the state a larger factor in deciding who represents Republicans in the fall contest.

"It's one of the reasons Iowa is one of the most competitive states," Yepsen said.

To be sure, the way campaigns are conducted have changed wholesale since the days when Yepsen would jump in the back of a car with George H.W. Bush and ride around Iowa. But there is still great benefit in the kind of up-close-and-personal nature of the contests.

Candidates who want to compete in Iowa, for example, have to become well-versed in issues that are dear to voters there. Woe to the candidate who lands at the Des Moines International Airport without a working knowledge of corn and soybeans.

To that end, Yepsen said candidates who wanted to compete in Kentucky would have to learn about coal and other issues that are important to the voters in the state but few, if any, other places.

"Politics today is all money and media," Yepsen lamented. "There's something to be said for having contests for the presidency where real people can show up and talk to the presidential candidates, talk to them and ask them questions. And more importantly, it educates the presidential candidates."

But Yepsen warned that "some states that have tried this screwed it up and it just didn't work."

Using the example of Kentucky's annual Fancy Farm picnic, which Yepsen used to regularly attend, the Iowa guru noted that "most states have their own political traditions and rituals, and it's not easy to start new ones."

"I wouldn't miss [Fancy Farm], but it would be very hard to replicate something like that," he said.

Ultimately, whether a caucus would work in Kentucky could come down to whether Kentucky voters end up feeling like a new kind of caucus is about them and not a specific candidate.

Among the considerations the Republican Party of Kentucky will have to consider is whether Kentuckians would adjust to a new kind of contest.

Stephen Voss, a political science professor at the University of Kentucky, said that "a caucus system generally asks a lot more from voters than just a primary election."

"Rather than hopping by the local fire station or elementary school to cast a vote, party members typically put in a serious time commitment on caucus day," Voss said. "The higher demands that come with participating in a caucus tend to discourage voters, resulting in lower turnout and an electorate that's likely not as representative."

While the process can be confusing or daunting, Yepsen and Voss both said it can also be a great way to give voters more ownership of the process.

"A caucus allows for more community interaction," Voss said. "Instead of individuals hopping in and out of a voting booth, the way they do in a primary election, neighbors can reconnect as a community during a caucus. Caucus participants may try to educate or persuade each other, so it involves citizens a lot more in their own governance. It's a smaller electorate, but likely also a more informed electorate."

Or as Yepsen put it: "People feel empowered. They participate."

A few years back, Yepsen looked up the origin of the word caucus, which is an Algonquin word that translates to a gathering of tribal chiefs.

"I think that pretty well describes it," he said. "It's a gathering of the tribal chiefs of the Democratic and Republican parties."