Reformers be warned: Coloradans love the concept of caucuses, even if they don’t attend them.
In 2002 a group called Bighorn Ballot sponsored Amendment 29, which would have eliminated caucuses as a means of picking candidates and allowed anyone to get on the primary ballot by gathering a certain number of signatures.
It won the endorsement of the Rocky Mountain News, which argued that newcomers to the rapidly growing state didn’t understand caucuses and that the Americans with Disabilities Act made it impossible to hold caucuses in private homes, as they had been into the 1980s. What’s more, people formed friendships more at work than in their neighborhoods and were reluctant to talk politics in a stranger’s house.
It was finely reasoned, but apparently not persuasive. Amendment 29 was crushed by a 3-2 margin.
The reformers are back in the wake of last week’s caucuses — not because of apathy but, at least on the Democratic side, too much success.
State Democratic chairman Rick Palacio said he was “thrilled” by the record turnout of 122,000 voters and their “immense amount of energy.” They went heavily for Bernie Sanders over Hillary Clinton in the party’s quadrennial straw poll.
Nevertheless Ryan Warner of Colorado Public Radio did his best to let the air out of Palacio’s enthusiasm by pushing him into apologizing, sort of, for the long lines and overflowing meeting rooms. Some party members in Boulder County and elsewhere got discouraged and went home before voting.
Maybe Palacio was following the first rule of political advance work, which is to book a space too small for the expected crowd.
You can draw a crowd ten times larger than your opponent’s and still lose the media war. Here’s a hypothetical story you want to see: “A crowd of 400 enthusiastic students overflowed the jammed cafeteria at Henry Clay High School in Lexington, Ky., to hear Hillary Clinton…”
You don’t want to read: “A crowd of only 4,000, scattered throughout cavernous Rupp Arena in Lexington, Ky., greeted Donald Trump …”
The problem with the caucuses wasn’t the long lines at Democratic gatherings but the sparse crowds at Republican ones. The GOP had decided to abolish the straw poll that had been in effect only a couple of cycles and paid the price: With no chance to express their choice, relatively few people showed up. How many, nobody knows, since no poll was taken.
Why no poll? Because, said party leaders, the national party decreed that straw polls would be binding on delegates through the first ballot at the national convention in Cleveland in July. They didn’t like that.
That’s not a legitimate concern, said former state GOP chairman Dick Wadhams. First, there’s nothing wrong with requiring delegates to vote for whom they said they would vote for when running for the job. Second, if the candidate they backed withdraws before the convention, they can vote for whom they wish.
For decades the Republicans didn’t hold straw polls, running caucuses as though they were private parties for insiders and activists. Wadhams proposed them for the 2008 election cycle after being elected state chairman the year before.
“I’d been thinking for years, why don’t we take a vote like the Democrats do?” he said.
The GOP central committee agreed. “We got as much media attention for our caucuses as the Democrats did because we took a vote,” Wadhams recalled. The party drew 70,000 people that year, versus an estimated 10,000 most years.
GOP Chairman Ryan Call kept the straw poll for the 2012 cycle but the current administration got rid of it, to Wadhams’ dismay.
He envied the scene at the Democratic gatherings. “That is what caucuses ought to be about,” he said. “They ought to be loud, they ought to be chaotic.”
Nevertheless, there are moves to bring back our short-lived presidential primary, in the legislature and by petition. The latter proposal would permit the unaffiliated to participate and is opposed by party leaders.
An important element about presidential primaries: They cost the state money, which is why the legislature got rid of them after 2002. After all, half the time the incumbent is running unopposed for re-election, which means a lot of money is wasted.
At least caucuses are paid for the parties themselves, which is as it ought to be. Parties, as the Supreme Court has affirmed numerous times, are private organizations.
The legislative version of a presidential primary would still keep the caucuses for selecting delegates to conventions and assemblies, and to choose candidates for state and local office. History tells us a bill may have a better chance of passage than an initiative.
Longtime Rocky Mountain News political columnist Peter Blake now writes once a week for CompleteColorado.com. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org You may re-publish his work at no charge and without further permission; please give full credit to Peter Blake and www.CompleteColorado.com.