Utah’s political parties are in an abusive relationship with their ideological extreme elements. And most Utah voters don’t want anything to do with the whole sordid enterprise.
The current path to get on the ballot through the caucus and convention system ensures that only the most narrow ideological selection of candidates is available to Utah voters. Those politicians have to run on an extremely limited ideological platform to appeal to the extremes.
The insular quality of the caucus system excludes participation from casual voters by its very nature. 2012 was different only because the LDS Church stepped in to encourage participation and Sen. Orrin Hatch spent more than $5 million to save his rear end. Without those two things, we likely would have had a repeat of 2010 which saw the nomination (and eventual election) of Sen. Mike Lee.
What to make of the parties vociferous defense of the caucus system? It’s a classic example of “Stockholm Syndrome,” where hostages begin to identify and sympathize with their captors.
Make no mistake, the Republican and Democratic Parties are hostages here. On the GOP side, running afoul of the Utah Eagle Forum and other far-right elements can mean big trouble for GOP candidates - so they toe the ideological line. For Democrats, the most coveted endorsement right now comes from Equality Utah. That’s why non-discrimination ordinances and marriage equality have bubbled to the top on Utah’s left.
Why do you think these extreme elements want to hold on to the current system? Because it gives their issues a stronger voice. Moving to a primary to nominate candidates means more broad-based campaigning and appealing to a larger slice of the electorate.
What would that look like?
I suspect we might actually have a serious discussion about how to fix education. How to better fund schools. How to improve scores. How best to get kids ready for college and beyond. Right now our political discourse about education centers around whether we should eliminate compulsory schooling - which is an issue near and dear to some fringe elements within the Republican Party. Where are the Democrats on this? This used to be their bailiwick.
Our infrastructure is crumbling, but politicians want to pick a fight with the federal government (that they’ll probably lose) over public lands in the state.
Environmental issues (including climate change) should be high on the priority list. The state’s chunky air will be back this winter, but lawmakers will probably spend more time talking about guns and the ever-present threat from the feds than air quality.
These kinds of discussions are bred from the insular and dogmatic nature of the caucus system. A system that deters participation by outsiders who either don’t understand what is going on or can’t find the time to attend. A system that values ideological purity above any sort of moderation or pragmatism.
To the extreme elements in the party, the caucuses are their own personal fiefdom. Something they protect ferociously from outsiders. It’s like that person in your office who has anointed themselves “emperor of the office supply closet.” They exert their control over everyone in the office, and make you grovel if you want some Post-It Notes or paper clips. Except that the caucuses impact everybody.
Caucus supporters argue that delegates spend time vetting candidates to ensure the best get their vote. How is that working out for Utah? We have one of the worst voter turnout rates in the entire country, and our politics are the subject of mockery far and wide.
The fear is moving to a primary would “steal” the Utah GOP and Democratic Parties away from the grassroots. It’s just the opposite. The caucuses have stolen the parties away from the rest of Utah in order to serve the purposes of small groups that probably couldn’t win elections if they had to appeal to a broader group of voters.
(Editor's note: UtahPolicy.com publisher LaVarr Webb is a member of the Count My Vote group working to establish an alternative route to the primary ballot for candidates.)