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Frank Pignanelli & LaVarr Webb: Will attempts to increase Utah caucus attendance succeed?

Published: Sunday, Feb. 19 2012 12:00 a.m. MST

In this 2004 file photo, Scott Matheson speaks to a large group of Democrats at a caucus meeting at Highland High School.

Scott G. Winterton, Deseret Morning News

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The biggest question so far in Utah's 2012 election is how many people, and what sort of people, will show up at party caucuses in March.

The largest effort in Utah's history is being conducted to get citizens to the caucuses. The LDS Church has weighed in with a letter to all Utah members. Various political candidates, especially Sen. Orrin Hatch, are spending more money than ever before to get people to the caucuses. The Salt Lake Chamber is holding caucus training sessions for businesses. The state Republican Party has pledged to spend $300,000 on training and TV/radio ads to encourage caucus attendance. Tea party activists are holding caucus rallies and training sessions. This unprecedented caucus campaign raises some interesting questions:

Will all the effort pay off? Will caucus attendance this year set new records?

Webb: I'd love to see a turnout that blows the doors off. But I'm highly doubtful, even with all the terrific effort, which I fully support, that 100,000 Republicans (the state GOP's goal) will attend caucuses. If we don't hit that level, it will prove, once again, that the caucuses will always be dominated by a relatively small number of passionate political activists who don't represent mainstream Utahns.

Short of an immense, spontaneous, bottom-up groundswell of interest sparked by anger or fear (which was what we had in 2010), I don't see GOP caucus attendance reaching 100,000.

Pignanelli: "One tell-tale sign of a wingnut: they always confuse partisanship with patriotism." — John Avlon

The Utah "powers that be" are investing serious skin into the 2012 caucuses. They need to. Delegate selection will not approach sanity without some infusion of rational thought. Ultraconservatives have dominated GOP caucuses for years (as their ultraliberal colleagues have Democratic caucuses). But their numbers and commensurate demand for purity in ideology dramatically increased in 2010 precinct caucuses. Their influence continued in the 2011 special and interparty elections.

A number of dynamics will push the more extreme elements to their precinct caucuses, including the national election, continued anger against government, an opportunity to rant with a captive audience, etc. But the presidential primaries in other states indicate lower enthusiasm among other Republicans. Utah's religious and community organizations may be able to change this potential apathy for a strong showing in GOP meetings on March 15.

If the lights dim and your pets bark unexpectedly on the evening of March 13, a rip in the fabric of the universe has occurred. The cause will be active Mormons who heeded the advice of their church leaders to participate in their democratic mass meetings. Such moderation in the minority party caucus meetings is also needed. (Left wing nuttiness is equally hilarious.)

Will high attendance help tea party candidates or mainstream candidates more?

Pignanelli: The belief is that a higher number of attendees will deliver a dose of moderation. But the delegate selection process is so bizarre, a greater volume of gray matter does not always deliver the expected results. This is a time for hope and prayer.

Webb: The theory, of course, is that if double the number of people show up, the more extreme elements of both parties will be diluted. That clearly is what people like GOP State Chair Thomas Wright are expecting. He has said on many occasions that he wants all Republicans to participate, not just the usual activists. Higher attendance is expected to help Hatch, Gov. Gary Herbert and other establishment candidates.

However, in 2010, attendance went up considerably, yet it was mostly due to people who were extremely angry about what was happening in Washington, and they took it out on Sen. Bob Bennett.

Will high attendance eliminate or at least reduce the calls for reform of the caucus/convention system?

Webb: That is clearly the hope of many people who support the current system but are a bit chagrined that it is dominated by the right wing/left wing of the political parties. They don't like being labeled as extremists and don't like the system being blamed for Utah's embarrassingly low voting rates.

However, even if attendance numbers increase dramatically, as I hope they will, if you are away on business, if you are serving in the military, if you are on a church mission, if you can't get a babysitter, or if you are disabled and can't get into a home with steps, you just can't participate.

In primary and general elections, we encourage and allow everyone to participate. You can vote early, use absentee ballots, or vote by mail. But in this election, which in many cases is the most important election of all, if you can't be there in person and devote several hours, you're out of luck. You are disenfranchised. You have no say in who represents you.

Pignanelli: Often times, after a moderate and sensible Utahn attends his/her precinct caucus, the general result is the following: "It's always enjoyable to see the neighbors. I just didn't know some of them were such wackos." Conversely, even the most bland of precinct caucuses deliberations can raise concerns in the selection of the delegate. The more Utahns experience the strangeness of the system, the louder the calls will be for reform.

Republican LaVarr Webb is a political consultant and lobbyist. Previously he was policy deputy to Gov. Mike Leavitt and Deseret News managing editor. Email: lwebb@exoro.com. Democrat Frank Pignanelli is a Salt Lake attorney, lobbyist and political adviser. Pignanelli served 10 years in the Utah House of Representatives, six years as minority leader. His spouse, D'Arcy Dixon Pignanelli, is a state tax commissioner. Email: frankp@xmission.com.

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