SALT LAKE CITY — More than three-quarters of the Republicans who attended their party's caucus meetings last year support a controversial change in how nominees are chosen, according to a new poll released Thursday.
But it’s still not clear whether delegates to Saturday’s Utah Republican Party Organizing Convention will vote for that change, an increase in the vote threshold from 60 percent to two-thirds for candidates to avoid a primary election.
“I think they probably ought to pay some careful attention to it,” said pollster Quin Monson. “This is as good as information as they will have about what the people who sent them to this convention would like them to do.”
The poll, conducted by Y2 Analytics, a new private polling firm run by Monson and Kelly Patterson of BYU’s Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy, was paid for by the state Republican Party.
Besides 77 percent support for a two-thirds threshold, the poll also found that 76 percent of the caucus-goers surveyed like the state’s unique caucus and convention system for selecting candidates.
And 61 percent said they believe allowing Republicans to vote for delegates even if they are unable attend their neighborhood caucus meeting would improve the selection process.
The poll of 400 caucus attendees — 100 in each of the state’s four congressional districts — was conducted May 10-14 and has a margin of error of plus or minus 4.9 percent.
A group of prominent Republicans calling themselves Count My Vote has been pushing for both major political parties to increase the threshold, as well as to make it easier to participate in caucus meetings.
The group, which includes former Gov. Mike Leavitt and political consultant LaVarr Webb, who writes a column for the Deseret News, has said without such changes, an initiative to create an alternative to getting on a primary ballot will be circulated.
Rich McKeown, a spokesman for Count My Vote, said the poll results are significant.
It shows that Utahns like the caucus and convention system, McKeown said, as a way of “keeping government in a place where everyone has a chance to run. And yet everyone recognizes it’s become a closed system.”
Although Count My Vote initially sought a threshold increase to 70 percent, McKeown said the group would likely see a two-thirds requirement “as an agreeable place to be.”
“I don’t think we ever had in our mind there was a magic number,” he said.
Outgoing Utah GOP Chairman Thomas Wright said the changes are needed to ensure the party’s continued strength. Republicans hold every major statewide office except a single seat in Congress and control the Legislature.
“The Utah Republican Party is doing well, so we could say to ourselves, 'We don’t need anybody. We’re in total control, so why would we want to change?'” Wright said. “We can expand our horizons. We can bring new people into the party.”
The party leader said he’s been disappointed to hear from some GOP delegates “that we don’t need more people and the informed people we have are enough to make all the decisions.”
A group of former elected officials in Utah, including four governors, and state party chairman endorsed the proposals to raise the threshold and open up the caucus system in a letter to Wright released Thursday.
"These modest changes would empower the broader party membership which will, in turn, boost Utah's voter participation rate," the letter read.
But GOP state central committee member Fred Cox, who is opposed to the threshold change, said he doesn’t believe it will lead to more participation by Republican voters.
Cox said if there are more primaries, “then we’ve got the party members spending more money beating up each other. The purpose of the party is obviously to put forward our best candidates, not necessarily our richest candidates.”
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