A caucus is a caucus is a caucus. What is a caucus? Some 15 states have now held caucuses to begin the process of determining who will emerge as the presidential candidate in each party in the November election. Minnesota holds caucuses today. Kansas and Montana caucuses come up later this week.
Most voting citizens have a fuzzy notion - if any notion at all - of what caucuses are all about. Yet caucuses, or party gatherings, are becoming preferred over primaries as a way of strengthening the political parties. The reason is that a citizen really has to care about the democratic process to take part in a caucus. It filters out the casual voters who just want to slip into voting booth on primary day and pull a lever. It engages the activists - those who are seriously inclined to the hurly-burly of participatory democracy.
Take the Democratic caucus for Precinct 96, held recently at the Gatewood School in Oklahoma City. There were nine caucuses at the school, and some 2,200 other precinct caucuses were taking place in schools, homes, and farmhouses throughout the state.
It all began at 7:30 in the evening. Precinct 96 voters were directed to an elementary school room, where they signed their names and put their candidate preference on a sheet watched over zealously by a party precinct worker. Crowding into the room were young and old, fathers and mothers with tiny children in tow, college students, senior citizens, whites, blacks. A din filled the air as the prospective voters swapped views on candidates.
''I'm for Hart,'' said a middle-aged man dressed in a plaid, open-collar shirt. He was sitting precariously on a child's stool. ''I don't think Mondale can do it, and I'm not impressed with Reagan.''
''You're right,'' a young woman agreed. ''There's a lot of cheese being eaten in this neighborhood. People are suffering.''
Lively exchanges went on until 68 people had signed in and the roll was closed. The acting caucus chairman, state Sen. Bernest Cain, holding his daughter, Millicent, proceeded to divide the assemblage into groups representing each candidate: Mondale, Hart, Jackson, and - ''Who's the other guy? Oh yeah, the astronaut.''
Two individuals sauntered in late. The list was closed. What to do? ''I move that they be permitted to participate,'' a voice from the Glenn group called out. ''All in favor?'' asked the chairman. A resounding ''aye'' carried the day. The two joined the Hart cluster.
Each group then counted itself. Hart, 37. Glenn, 14. Mondale, 11. Jackson, 4 . McGovern, 1. Uncommitted, 1. Under Oklahoma's complicated caucus system, this meant that only those with at least 20 percent of the 68 voters present could send one or more delegates to the coming county convention. Only the Harts and the Glenns qualified. So the Mondales, Jacksons, and one McGovernite had the choice of joining another group or remaining uncommitted.
To try to influence a switch, each group was permitted one speech on behalf of its candidate. The groups huddled to select a spokesman.
''Glenn stands for morality and stability,'' the Glenn spokesman said vehemently. ''He grew up tough and married his boyhood sweetheart. He was a war hero. His political life has been marked by fairness and opportunity.''
As the Hart spokesman readied for his moment, some one yelled, ''Where's the beef?'' The young man laughed but proceeded undeterred: ''Hart's down-to-earth. He's sensitive to energy problems. He'd give Reagan a run for his money. He does offer new ideas - the media caught on to him late.''
''Jesse's the first candidate I've heard say we should have a woman for vice-president,'' said the Jackson man, a young black. ''He's pointed out this nation has moral, economic, political relations with the rest of the world. We need leadership that is capable of nose-to-nose negotiations. It would be the most strategic moral move now to elect Jesse Jackson.''
His fervency won him the biggest applause.
After 10 minutes of heated discussion, most of the Mondale and Jackson losers walked over to the Glenn cluster. One joined Hart. The final count was Hart 38, Glenn 29, and 1 uncommitted. So, out of eight delegates allowed for Precinct 96 to the county convention in late March, five would be for Hart and three for Glenn.
Caucus business was not over with yet. The delegates - and alternates - had to be elected. Voice nominations and voting proceeded in the two remaining groups.
All was going smoothly in the Hart entourage when a female voice cried out, ''Do we have an equal number of men and women delegates?'' ''Someone get the rules,'' another voice rang out. ''Let's look at the rules.'' The rules were clear: ''Minorities and women should be encouraged to run as delegates.'' Two women were elected Hart delegates. At about 8:30 p.m. the caucus participants, their business completed, began leaving. This boisterous exercise only began the process of choosing from Oklahoma's congressional districts a total of 29 delegates to the national Democratic convention in July. County conventions will now elect delegates to district conventions, and the district conventions will select a majority of the state's delegation to the San Francisco convention. Another 24 delegates will be chosen at the state convention - for a total of 53 Oklahoma delegates.
For all the complexity of the system, this year it has worked better than usual, largely because of the surge of interest in Gary Hart. The all-time high for caucus attendance in Oklahoma was 50,000 in 1972. Only 13,000 Democratic voters participated in 1980. On Super Tuesday 1984, more than 42,000 took the time to find out where their caucuses were being held and to take part.
To an outsider, the whole process is zestful but seems an obstacle to broad popular participation. Yet given the decline of the Democratic and Republican Parties following the Watergate experience, many public officials and scholars welcome the move away from primaries to the more deliberative caucuses - a trend taking place largely in the Democratic Party - as helping to invigorate and discipline the political process.
''It's a trade-off between quality and quantity,'' says presidential scholar Thomas E. Cronin of Colorado College. ''A caucus is a feisty, serious gathering where you can debate local issues, national candidates, and even write resolutions to send up to a state convention. And it is done in public. But the primary - going into a booth and often voting by union or other affiliation - is the thinnest kind of democracy. We want a high voter turnout in November, but people who are willing to deliberate should do the nominating.
Comments political scientist Austin Ranney of the American Enterprise Institute: ''Caucuses are certainly more demanding than primaries. I favor a mix , but with fewer primaries than at present - enough to show where there's a contest, but not so the nomination is left to the vagaries of the primaries. The trend to caucuses is a good one.''
Presidential primaries reached their peak in 1980. Many states felt they could comply with new populist-type party rules - on encouraging minorities and women, for instance - only by introducing a primary system. In the last presidential election there were 31 primaries and 25 caucuses.
The Republicans still choose about 70 percent of their delegates in primaries. But the Democrats this year dropped six state primaries in favor of caucuses and will elect about 50 percent of their delegates at the national convention by the caucus method. Moreover, in the past, caucuses were often secretive gatherings attended only by hard-core party workers. Today they are becoming more participatory.
''It gets a lot of Democrats out to talk with one another,'' Senator Cain commented after the Gatewood School caucus. ''For a public official, therefore, it's a good thing.''
''You get more active participation by people who care about the system,'' agrees Tony Borthick, executive director of the Oklahoma Democratic Party. ''We were thrilled with the turnout.''