Joe Raedle / Getty Images
(Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

“In the Democratic Party, legitimacy is determined by who you represent, and in the Republican Party by whom you know and who you are.”
Jo Freeman, 1986

A visitor to a Democratic National Convention would have a hard time not noticing group caucus meetings. Much of the available time and space of the convention is devoted to meetings of the Women’s Caucus, the Black Caucus, the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender American Caucus, and so forth, held before the prime time speeches each evening.

But just what role do these caucus meetings serve? Are they there to serve the candidates, helping to build support around the party’s likely nominee? Or are they there to help the groups advocate their needs to the broader party?

Michael Heaney, Dara Strolovitch and I examined these questions (ungated pdf) through the use of surveys we administered to delegates at the Democratic National Convention in August 2008. This struck us as a good venue to test these questions, as that was a famously contentious convention (by modern standards) after a heated primary season in which an African American male candidate and a white female candidate competed closely in just about every contest. It is not an exaggeration to say that the party was internally divided that summer along the lines of two of its largest and most historically significant demographic constituencies.

We conducted surveys of 462 delegates at the convention, half of whom were pledged to Hillary Clinton, the other half pledged to Barack Obama. We asked the delegates which group caucuses they were attending and how supportive they were of Obama as the party’s nominee. We found little evidence that support or opposition to Obama as the party’s nominee was related to caucus attendance. People weren’t just attending to show support for the party’s preferred candidate.

What we did find, however, is that people’s group identification was important in determining whether they would show up for a caucus. Specifically, female delegates who were less approving of Obama’s candidacy were far more likely to attend the Women’s Caucus meeting than those who felt good about Obama. As we argue, “The Women’s Caucus at the 2008 Convention was a gathering place for many women who experienced Clinton’s defeat as a loss for their group.”

These findings may be quite relevant as we head into the 2016 nomination cycle, with the Republicans, in particular, possibly facing as divisive a nomination process as Democrats faced in 2008. Our paper suggests that it may be possible to reach out to the self-perceived “losers” of an internal party battle through group caucus meetings, perhaps acknowledging past offenses, massaging bruised egos and working on a conciliatory agenda for the future. Indeed, there is little evidence that disappointed Clinton supporters bolted their party in 2008, despite widespread speculation that they would. While there’s no direct analog for such group caucuses within the Republican Party, there are certainly some group meetings during their conventions; these could serve as a useful venue for the party to unite and air grievances in the wake of a difficult 2016 nomination contest.