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.
"We've made an unprecedented effort with a 29-county plan," that drew from historical data tapping who had attended in the past, as well as the number of people who attended, Wright said. Caucus ambassadors representing all regions of the state have been holding bipartisan training sessions since November, with presentations offered to many different audiences — from book clubs to bridge clubs.
"We really believe that we have a participation problem and we are trying to fix it," Wright said.
Sadler, who studies political science and history, attended a pair of caucus training sessions put on by Education First, a political action committee formed last year for Prosperity 2020, which is a multi-year initiative to improve education outcomes.
Nolan Karras, a co-founder, said 18 caucus training sessions were held on campuses statewide and another 45 to 50 sessions have been offered at businesses as varied as auto dealerships to banks.
Karras said the goal is to get "more average" people to attend the caucus meetings, rather than the few political diehards who typically turn out.
He likened such devotion of usual attendees to the hypothetical scenario of an earthquake happening on March 14 this year in Utah — the day before the GOP caucuses.
"The regular people will be out the next morning checking on their neighbors," he said. "The very hard-core, the ones who want to control the process, will be sitting in their lawn chairs at the high school," waiting for caucus meetings to start. "They would show up on Christmas Eve," he said. "You have a hard-core group of people who have learned they can have an out-sized interest in the outcome of the process."
Karras said the more "average Dicks and Janes," who become elected as delegates, the better education issues will fare when it comes to critical public policy decisions — because education-loving delegates will support like-minded political candidates.
"Issues that are important to us, that do well with the general public, don't do as well in the very conservative caucuses."
Utah's caucus system is unique — subject to criticism because of so little participation yet heralded by supporters who say these mass-style meetings are down-home grass-roots politics of glorious proportion.
"Our system is not broken; we just have low participation," Wright said. "We need to get more people engaged in a process that has been working for 100 years."
Utahns started holding mass meetings not long after the state was settled and the caucus-convention system has been the path to political office since then — with the exception of a 10-year-period when direct primaries were held by political parties, according to the Utah Foundation, a nonpartisan public policy research group.
Although caucus-style meetings are a tradition that hails back to colonial times, most states have moved to a direct primary system. Utah remains one of seven states that retains the convention selection process and is the only one in the country that allows political parties to eliminate a primary election for statewide or congressional offices if candidates receive a high enough percentage of the votes.
Utah requires a candidate to secure 60 percent of delegates' votes to skip a primary and go directly to the general election. If that threshold isn't met at convention, the top two vote-getters advance to the primary election. In Bennett's case, he finished third behind two other contenders and was eliminated at convention.
Most of the other states with convention systems have a lower vote requirement to move on to a primary election. Bennett, who ultimately received 27 percent of delegates' votes in the final round of balloting in 2010, would have moved into a primary election were he a candidate in states like New Mexico, which has a 20 percent threshold, and Connecticut, which requires 15 percent.
With so few having so much say in such a pivotal political decision, the caucus system has given rise to calls for reform by critics who say delegates' views are not in sync with the general population.
The "real" decisions, like Sadler and Karras point out, can happen at the convention level in an atmosphere dominated by zealous party faithful.
State Democratic Chair Jim Dabakis said he believes the big GOP push for caucus turnout this year is being driven by the desire to weed out those zealots.
"One of the problems that party has is that it has been captured by the extremists," he said. "The Republicans believe Bob Bennett lost because only the fanatics showed up to caucus meetings."
The $300,000 caucus initiative launched by the Utah GOP speaks to the party's urgency to keep Hatch in office, Dabakis said.
"It's unprecedented. To take television time, the ads; they've spent an astonishing amount of money and organizational ability to try to get a more moderate delegate elected. We'll see if it works."
Wright scoffs at what he calls a "good conspiracy theory" offered by Dabakis.
"It couldn't be further from the truth for us," he said. "We're not ID'ing people to see who they support. The more people who participate, the more indicative the process is of the general population."
Beyond the "Hatch" factor, people active in both parties and the issues said 2012 has a different feel than two years ago and overall, there's more widespread interest in simply getting involved.
"Regular people are realizing they can be involved in the political process by either becoming a delegate or having voice to select a delegate," Salt Lake County's GOP chair, Julie Dole, said.
"You can get right down at the neighborhood level and decide which neighbor is going to be your delegate in the party."
LDS Democrats Vice Chair Crystal Otterstrom-Young said while it is always normal for groups to urge caucus participation, she agrees this year is proving to be more intense, with a greater influx of fresh faces.
"There are a lot of people frustrated with the system right now," she said. "There's definitely a big groundswell of people wanting to become delegates this year."
The consensus, too, is while voters may not be as angry this year as they were in 2010, they're not happy, either.
"Probably the No. 1 issue is jobs and the economy," said Utah Tea Party founder and gubernatorial candidate David Kirkham. "There's a determination out there to get active, get involved in the process."
Karras said there is an urgency to take action, not simply rant and rave.
"I don't think I see the anger we had in 2010. People are still afraid — afraid of what is going on in the county and they're wanting solutions, wanting leadership. I think it is a more pragmatic crowd, that the anger of 2010 is giving way to people looking for solutions, the pragmatic approach."
But Holly Richardson, a former Utah lawmaker who has gone on to chair Dan Liljenquist's challenge to Hatch for the Republican Party's nod, said people may not be as angry, but those she's met are hungering for change.
"We've met hundreds and hundreds of people and they are so ready to change Washington and to do that you have to change faces back there. … We're not sure it will be record-breaking turnout, but we don't think it will favor incumbency."
Liljenquist and Rep. Chris Herrod, R-Provo, also angling for Hatch's seat, are both tea party-leaning candidates who are trying to harness the wind of support that blew Bennett out of the convention.
Hatch is also facing a storm of television and radio attack ads put out by the tea party-aligned FreedomWorks, which is seeking the defeat of the six-term senator.
Despite the challenge, Hatch said he remains optimistic and believes 2012 will be a far different year than 2010.
"We are very optimistic and hopeful we are going to do fine at the state convention," he said. "More and more people walk up to me and say, 'We are with you."
If re-elected, Hatch, as the ranking member on the Senate Finance Committee, is poised to become chairman of that committee, arguably the most powerful committee position because of its purview of budget issues like Medicare and Social Security.
That position — which Hatch is happy to remind people about — turns the dial in his direction, according to some political watchers.
"There's a group of people who wish we had Bob Bennett back and that may work in favor of Orrin," Karras said. "And the pragmatic approach may help him — with some who don't want to scalpel people so badly."
For her part in the upcoming caucus meetings, Sadler is bringing as many friends and supporters to boost her chances at becoming a delegate.
"I want to see how it works this year. It can never hurt and you never know what will happen," she said. If she fails, she'll be back in two years to try again.
"I know what issues matter and I will become very informed, but beyond that, I will be really wiling to hear what people in my neighborhood think and what is important to them," she said. "I will act as a real delegate."
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