This editorial will appear in Friday’s print edition.
Tomorrow’s a big day for state Republicans. They’ll gather in schools, community centers, lodge halls and church meeting rooms to conduct a highly personal brand of politics: the party caucus.
They will make and listen to impassioned speeches for the four presidential candidates – Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul – and select delegates to the county convention. A non-binding straw vote will be taken, with the winner getting bragging rights three days before the big Super Tuesday contests in 10 states.
The outcome of the straw poll is important enough that all four GOP candidates stumped in Washington at least once. The official winner won’t be named until the party’s state convention starting May 30 in Tacoma.
The Democrats will hold their own precinct caucuses April 15. But since President Obama looks like a lock on the nomination, the focus will be on conducting the party business of choosing delegates to the legislative district caucuses and county conventions.
The real action will be at the Republican caucuses, the closest voters will come this year to helping shape the eventual head of a party’s ticket – a crucial matter for down-ticket candidates hoping to ride coattails or at least not get tangled up in them.
This year’s competitive race for the GOP presidential nomination is expected to result in a higher turnout than the paltry 14,000 who showed up to caucus four years ago. But by then, Sen. John McCain had pretty much sewn up the nomination, so the gatherings were of little interest to any but the party’s most faithful foot soldiers.
The rap on the caucus system is that it can be dominated – some might say “hijacked” – by the most zealous supporters. That happened here in 1988 when the fervent followers of televangelist Pat Robertson flooded the caucuses and gave him his only state victory.
The result: a candidate with no chance of being nominated won a majority of caucus delegates and the state party was marginalized at the GOP national convention.
A presidential primary would be a more inclusive way than the caucuses for voters to make their preference known. Not everyone can get to a meeting on a Saturday morning – certainly not military members serving abroad, people who have to work at that time, or those unable to leave home or find transportation. But the state’s primary was suspended this year to save the $10 million cost.
A primary via mail-in ballot would offer a universal opportunity to participate – if both parties actually used the results to make their decisions. Although state Democrats have refused to use the results in allocating delegates, the state GOP has allocated about half of its delegates to reflect caucus results.
Without a primary, registered voters who consider themselves Republicans and who want a say in who will be the GOP standard bearer in November should attend Saturday’s caucuses. It might not be the most inclusive way to choose a favorite, but it’s the only way Republicans have this year.