Caucus week: Push is on to bring more voices into the election process

Many hoping to get more Utahns involved in party caucuses this week

Published: Saturday, March 10 2012 1:00 p.m. MST

Student Charles Osborn listens during a class on caucus training.

Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News

Editor's note: Find information for upcoming political party caucus meetings in Utah here. Find a basic guide to understanding Utah's mass meetings here. Also, read about a new poll that that says half of Utahns are not interested in attending party caucuses.

SALT LAKE CITY — Ali Sadler is just 18 and about to attend her first caucus meeting this week.

With any luck, the University of Utah student said she will win a spot as a precinct delegate, but at the very least it is her goal to get more educated about Utah's caucus system.

"I've always been pretty informed of the political process, but a couple of years ago the most I would have known is that there were caucuses, there were conventions and there were delegates," she said. "I really wish they would teach this in school because all they teach about is elections and especially in Utah, most of the decisions are being made long before that."

The power of that caucus-driven decision-making came clearly into focus in 2010, when incumbent U.S. Sen. Bob Bennett was ousted by his Republican party, despite a high approval rating. Because delegates selected at the caucus level gave voice to other candidates at convention, Bennett lost his chance to enter the primary, revealing the impact a small neighborhood caucus meeting can have on the election process.

Will 2012 be different?

A Deseret News/KSL poll revealed that most respondents have never been to a caucus and half said they don't plan to attend the meetings. But the push is on from many corners to get more Utahns involved in Tuesday's and Thursday's party caucuses.

Count veteran Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch among those pushing — and spending — for more participation as he tries to prevent becoming "Bennettized" at the state GOP convention in April.

"A lot depends on our campaign," Hatch said last week. "My mother always said to not count your chickens before they roost, but I think we have made a lot of headway."

Bennett was bested by Sen. Mike Lee, a darling of the tea party movement, marking the first time in 70 years that a Utah party ousted an incumbent. Hatch's campaign has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in a multi-pronged advertising blitz, a campaign effort that includes as much glad-handing as possible.

"We have been working towards this date for over a year now," said Dave Hansen, Hatch's campaign manager. "Basically that has been our campaign focus to get people to run as delegates to support Senator Hatch, as well as get people to attend the caucuses to support Hatch."

Both Democrats and Republicans are working to get more members of the public involved. And local businesses are hosting caucus-information gatherings to encourage employees to get involved, whatever their affiliation.

In a strong message issued by the First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, members were encouraged to attend the caucus meetings and leaders were urged to refrain from scheduling church activities on those evenings.

The church said it was "concerned" with low attendance, a fact that has been the clarion call of Utah's Republican Party under the new leadership of chairman Thomas Wright and echoed by special interest groups such as the newly formed Education First.

"I think our system is a great system but it does not work if people do not participate," Wright said. "People in Utah have not been asked or taught what a caucus is."

Wright said his goal is to get 100,000 people to turn out to this year's GOP caucus meetings — an increase of 72 percent over the 58,000 people who turned out in 2010. The 2010 turnout represented just 10 percent of Utah's registered Republicans, and just 3 percent of the voting-age population.

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