The caucus has an image problem. Can we fix it?

By Jesse Harris

After the Republican state convention, it’s become fairly obvious why a lot of people think ill of the caucus system. It took five hours of arguing about rules and agendas before anyone could get to the primary purpose, nominating candidates. Not only does this alienate new participants (my father-in-law was a first time state delegate and less than impressed), it makes the caucus and convention process look like a complete clown show. On top of that, we’re doing little to build faith that the convention process actually sends the best possible candidates to the ballot for primary elections.

So what can we, as a party, do to change this?

We have to accept a very simple fact: perception is reality. I’ve heard more than a few die hard caucus supporters argue again and again that the popular image of the system is not the reality. But that’s not how politics works. Politics doesn’t thrive on facts and data, it thrives on image and feelings. The feeling is that the system enables lunacy. The image is of weirdos using their open mic time to argue about rules that the average member of the GOP won’t care about. We get Dave Bateman in Facebook Live videos claiming grand conspiracies that would give Art Bell pause (which the authorities have investigated and been entirely unable to substantiate). None of this is a good look.

The first thing we need to do is stop airing our dirty laundry in public. Most GOP voters don’t care about bylaws and platforms and agendas. You might be able to argue that they don’t care because they don’t understand, but whose fault is that? It would be ours. We haven’t made a coherent case for why any of the internal fighting that makes front page news (or at least Paul Rolly’s latest column) has any relevance to the candidates on primary and generation election ballots. You know, what the voters actually care about.

We also need to stop fighting each other so much, in private as well as in public. Yes, the process of party governance matters. It doesn’t matter nearly as much as we’d like to think it does. The party’s purpose is to nominate right of center candidates and support the party nominees in the general election. That’s it. Unfortunately, some party members have got it in their head that the delegates and SCC are meant to be kingmakers, arbiters of who does or doesn’t deserve to be in our exclusive club. It’s a self-defeating attitude and explains why so many delegates do it just one time and often won’t show up at the organizing convention in “off” years. This is not healthy for any big tent party.

And finally, we need to come to terms with SB54. Keep My Voice, the attempt to overturn it at the ballot box, burned $191K without turning in a single signature on a ballot question that polled with 17% support and 75% opposition. Count My Vote, on the other hand, looks like it’ll be very close (as of this writing) to actually getting on the ballot. I’ve written before that I think the signature path is an awful way to improve electoral outcomes and ballot access, but absent an absolute miracle on continued appeals (which could take years), we’re stuck with it. Oh yeah, and it’s actually pretty popular both with voters as a whole and registered Republicans.

We can continue to demonize candidates who take out a primary election insurance policy, or we can take our lumps and figure out how to deal with it. Yes, primary ballots will be crowded, so why not expand the ranked choice voting pilot from municipal elections to primaries? Why not raise the threshold to avoid a primary from 60% to 2/3 or 70% to provide more choices and less incentive to gather signatures? Both of these would eliminate the plurality problem, provide at least the appearance of greater choice to general party membership, and build some bridges with the significant portion of the party who is totally cool with signature gathering.

It would be easy to say that there’s no reason to change because the GOP is dominant. That’s an increasingly tenuous position as Utah grows from out-of-state immigration. One day we may wake up to a landscape not unlike Colorado and be ill-equipped to handle multiple competitive races. Will the delegates and SCC strengthen the party in case of that future or continue down their scorched earth path?

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