Utah Republican and Democratic parties saw record numbers of people show up to participate in last night’s caucuses. Most people were drawn in by the presidential vote, but many first time caucus goers were confused about the other purpose of the night.
This year, caucus nights were designed to accomplish two things. First, to find out which presidential candidates party members prefer, and second, to elect delegates to represent local precincts at county and state party conventions. But many of the record number of caucus attendees were first timers and had little to no idea about how it all worked.
“Such an exciting year with the candidates. And we just wanted to see what was going on and be responsible citizens and participate.”
That’s Mary Jenson. I spoke to her and her husband, Tim, at a Republican caucus meeting at Bingham High School in South Jordan.
“How much do you know about the other part of the caucus?," I asked. "Because you also get to elect your county and state delegate in your precinct. Do you know anything about that?”
“Nothing. Nothing,” Mary said.
“Not even aware who the candidates are,” Tim said.
And the Jensons weren’t alone. Don Warner was another one of the many first timers I spoke to that felt the same way.
“That’s something that I’ve got to be educated on. I’ve never done it before and so I don’t know the process,” Warner said.
“When I was helping people a lot of them said I’ve never been here before, I’ve never done this, what do I do? And they just wanted to vote for president and that’s it.”
That’s Tina Shaw. She’s a Republican Precinct chair who was caucusing at Bingham High School.
“I think a lot of them don’t even know that they get to vote for their state and county delegates,” I said.
“Right, I don’t think they have any clue.”
But for some people, that’s exactly how they want it.
“Delegates are a special breed," says Dave Hansen. "They read all of the material. They study the candidates. They study the issues. Like I often refer to them, they’re the kind of people that record C-Span for viewing later.”
Hansen has been a campaign manager for some of Utah’s most well known Republicans, including running Sen. Orrin Hatch’s 2012 re-election campaign.
“It used to be that you waited until the delegates were elected and then you worked them and tried to get them to support you. That all kind of changed in 2012 when Sen. Hatch was up for re-election.”
Hansen says after watching Sen. Bob Bennett be ousted by delegates at convention in 2010, there was some fear the same would happen to Sen. Hatch. So he and his team came up with a plan.
“Rather than wait for delegates to be elected, we were going to go out and get people to run as delegates and also recruit people to attend the caucuses,” he says.
And the efforts paid off. Hatch delegates showed up in masses and helped push the race to a primary.
“Some people say, well you manipulated it. Well, that’s part of the process, to see if you can manipulate it. And that’s not a bad word. It’s doing what you have to do to win.”
While that may be the new strategy for congressional seats, it’s a little too expensive for the smaller state legislative races. Complicating things even more, candidates have only been officially filed to run for less than a week, making it nearly impossible for a voter to choose a county delegate based on which legislative candidate they want to vote for. But Utah GOP Chairman James Evans says he doesn’t see that as problematic.
“One of the reasons for caucus is so that you can talk about the candidates that have filed," he says. "People ask questions. Well, who’s John Smith? Who is Mary Smith? What do they stand for and you’re getting this exchange of information right there.”
Evans says this also helps ensure delegates are well-informed.
“Those who want to run to become delegates are pretty, I would say they’re self starters.”
Meanwhile, back at Bingham High School, precinct chair Tina Shaw had some advice for the newcomers struggling to understand the process.
“Probably the best thing they can do is just kind of sit and learn," she says. "To just observe and see if they like this and see if they want to come back and do it in the future. It’s one of those things where you, after you’ve done it a few times then it’s like, oh, now I get it. I know what’s going on.”
But without a presidential race, will first time caucus goers come back again in two years? History says no.