Idaho voters are in for a rude awakening in 2012 as two major changes have taken place in the state. First, the GOP presidential nomination in the state will be conducted by a closed caucus. In addition, this caucus will occur on Super Tuesday. State legislative primaries will also be closed due to a recently won lawsuit by the Idaho GOP alleging an open primary violated the Idaho state constitution’s freedom to associate amendment. This move leaves Idaho voters who choose to remain unaffiliated out in the cold in state primaries or caucuses by 2012.
This piece will attempt to explore the impacts of the rule changes and what it could mean for 2012.
1. Closed Legislative Primaries: First championed by GOP State Chairman Norm Semanko in 2008 and largely credited for his victory the argument was that an open primary violated the GOP’s right to freedom to assemble. The hidden motive that most partisans knew was that the Idaho GOP was moving rightward in an ideological sense. In 2010 after two years of arguing in front of an Idaho judge the GOP won. The GOP argument was validated, at least they say so. As the Idaho GOP has moved rightward the schism between moderates and conservatives has grown. It was on full display in the 2011 state legislature over three key issues, 1) education reform, 2) the budget, 3) the closed primary. In each case moderate Republicans in the state house (few as they are) were pitted against their more conservative brothers and the sisters. Ditto for the Senate (minus conservatives outnumbering moderates). In each case conservatives got what they wanted, they just had to fight for it however.
To many conservative Republicans instituting a closed primary and caucus system seems to ensure long-time moderates are knocked out and new members are more conservative. But an unintended, or perhaps intended consequence, is that voter turnout in primaries is sure to be lower. Those who turn out in closed primaries tend to be more ideologically rigid then general election voters. Even so, long-time moderates have survived numerous primary challenges against more conservative foes time and time again, in different districts as well.
It is unclear however whether instituting a closed primary is sure to knock out long-time moderate legislators. In their terms these members have gained a rapport with their district voters. Even accounting for the possibility that many may be moved into new districts or be pitted against one another after redistricting some will surely survive. And then what for Idaho conservatives who want them gone? There is always retirement one would guess.
There is a Democratic perspective that having closed legislative primaries will benefit them. The argument is long-time moderates will retire or lose their primary to more conservative candidates and a moderate Democrat will have a better shot in the race. Depending on the race, maybe. But two surveys taken last year showed most Republicans call themselves conservative ideologically, as did independents, making this unlikely to happen, at least on a multiple district scale. More so, Democrats will have to close their primaries as well, which means Democrats will have to explain how it is the GOP’s fault they had to do so. Good luck with that. I am just sure voters want to hear that.
2. GOP Presidential Caucus (Closed): Many Republicans will argue that moving the Idaho presidential primary to a caucus is to ensure Idaho has a voice in the GOP nomination. That is a fair argument. Afterall, only six states had a later primary than Idaho in the nomination until the change. Also, it was not feasible for the party to simply move the primary. The state party holds all its local, county, legislative, statewide and federal primaries on the later date. Moving those to Super Tuesday would have been immensely confusing and costly. Delegate selection has long been an issue for the Idaho GOP. With the primary system, Idaho could only be a winner take all state. The new caucus system allows the Idaho GOP move to a similar system used by the Idaho Democrats (who also hold their caucus on Super Tuesday), which uses county apportionment of the vote for delegate selection to the RNC.
The nuts and bolts of the Caucus are as follows. 1) It is open to any GOP voter, 2) voting will take place by secret ballot, 3) in successive rounds with the low vote-getter being eliminated, 4) a winner is declared if a candidate hits 60% or 5) out of the final two candidates one hits more than 50%. If one candidate hits 50% of all the state county delegates they are awarded all the Idaho delegates to the RNC. Wonder how delegates from North Idaho who support Ron Paul will feel about that?
For all benefits the Caucus system ensures to ideologically pure Republicans and more say in the primary there is a downside. Turnout is sure to be reduced as a caucus takes more time and some GOP voters may still be at work when it starts. The fact the caucus is also closed will turn away unaffiliated voters.
Conclusion: The move to close the legislative primaries by the state GOP is sure to benefit conservative lawmakers and candidates. Moderates within the party at the state legislative level may soon find themselves on the out. Yet some may survive. Many have survived prior challenges from more conservative candidates. Depending on the new legislative maps moderates that survive being placed in new districts against other moderates may be better for it. A stiff primary challenge better prepares you for the general election. Turnout is sure to be lower but to many Republicans that is the cost of having a closed primary.
The new Idaho GOP Presidential Caucus has its benefits and downsides. Idaho Republicans will have a greater say in the GOP Presidential nominating process, avoid questions or problems on delegate selection (mostly) and only have one election on the day to worry about. For monetary and logistical issues all other primaries will stay on the later date. But a major downside is voter disenfranchisement and not just unaffiliated voters but GOP voters as well. These moves will also have consequences unforseen here, but that is for the future to hold.