Sunday, March 8, 2015

Utah Republicans Vote to Abandon Presidential Primary for Caucuses in 2016

Two and a half weeks ago, the Utah Republican Executive Committee unanimously passed a resolution calling on the party to shift from utilizing the state-funded presidential primary to instead using a caucuses/convention system as a means of selecting and allocating delegates to the 2016 Republican National Convention.1

However, resolutions tend to be non-binding and that was the case in this instance because such a switch from a primary to caucuses required a change to the Utah Republican Party Bylaws. Additionally that kind of a change can only be voted on and approved by the full Utah Republican Party State Central Committee (UTSCC). The UTSCC met on Saturday, March 7 and those changes to the bylaws concerning 2016 delegate selection were on the agenda.

There was not that much that was eye-opening about the changes.2 The initial addition appears to give the Utah Republican Party the latitude to make this trade -- in either direction -- in the future without having to alter the party bylaws:
Prior to any deadline required by the Republican National Committee Rules, the State Central Committee shall certify a presidential primary or a presidential caucus as the Republican Presidential Preference Vote. [Emphasis FHQ's]
Beyond that, all references to a presidential primary were struck and replaced by preference vote. The ambiguity of that phrase/concept enables the discretion intended in the clause discussed above. The mechanism for such a future change/decision was left undefined.

Also left undefined: The date of the precinct caucuses that will begin the caucuses/convention process.

The February 18 resolution describes a presidential preference vote taking place concurrently with the regularly occurring neighborhood caucuses that are the common start point for the caucuses/convention process in both parties in Utah. Those neighborhood caucuses tend to occur in the early spring, but there is no guidance in the Utah Republican Party constitution or bylaws as to when on the calendar those local meetings will fall.

But there are a couple of pieces of information that may provide some hints as to where this preference vote will be on the 2016 presidential primary calendar.

First, the last two Republican neighborhood caucuses -- in 2012 and 2014 -- were on the third Thursday in March. But again, that specific date is not called for in the Utah Republican Party bylaws nor constitution. The 2010 neighborhood meetings -- the ones that derailed former Senator Bob Bennett's (R-UT) reelection campaign -- were on the third Tuesday in March.

March, then, seems a likely destination. But March is a popular potential 2016 landing spot for any number of primaries and caucuses across the country. History may not be a great guide.

Secondly, when Utah comes up in these dates discussions, some talk of involvement in a western regional primary has often not been that far behind. That was true yesterday as well. Governor Gary Herbert (R-UT) brought the idea up at the UTSCC meeting:
"We ought to do everything we can to get those who are going to lead our nation to stop by Utah," Herbert said, including holding the election the same day as other Western states to ensure focus on issues important to the region.  
“We ought to work toward a regional primary” to have a stronger voice in the Intermountain West, he said.
If that idea is resonant with the Utah Republican Party, the options are somewhat limited at this point. Northern neighbor Idaho as well as Washington state are eyeing March 8 primaries. Utah's southern neighbor, Arizona, is scheduled to have a primary on March 22. That actually falls quite close to the third week in March during which the neighborhood caucuses have taken place in Utah in the recent past. March 22 is also the date identified in the now-moot legislation -- at least for Utah Republicans -- concerning a move of the Utah presidential primary. Most importantly, Utah is one of the handful of truly winner-take-all states on the Republican side. Under Republican National Committee rules, states with such a delegate allocation plan cannot be scheduled for a date any earlier than March 15. That seemingly eliminates March 8 as a possibility.

Utah Republicans have a bit of a decision then. Gamble on a March 22 date with some regional partners which may in turn yield increased attention, or abandon that idea based on the fact that it may be too late to matter and move up to March 15. The March 15 option would mean competing with bigger states like Florida with more delegates at stake. And that may be tougher even if Florida is not truly winner-take-all.

1 Below is the language of that resolution from February 18:

2 Below are the proposed changes to the Utah Republican Party bylaws concerning the primary to caucuses switch:

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