Idaho Republicans just can’t get comfortable with their primary situation.
And probably never will unless the national primary picture changes.
This month, the Idaho Republican Party said it will change once again its method of participating in the presidential nomination contest by holding a primary election on March 8. Last time, in 2012, the party held caucuses, which is what the Democrats have done for many years. While the Democrats have stuck with the caucuses for a while, largely because that’s a method for safely ensuring the state’s delegates will be accepted at the national convention, Republicans have wrestled with their system like Houdini trying to escape a straitjacket.
But there is no perfect escape available.
A caucus would get the job done, but Dave Johnston, the GOP executive director, reasonably noted that many people cannot participate because of the very specific time and place, and cited his own 2012 example, when he was unable to join in because he was on active duty in the Marine Corps. And he said three to five percent of voters may go to caucuses, but about a quarter will vote in primary elections (the percentages sound generally correct), which unlike caucuses are secret-ballot processes.
Okay, so what’s the problem with a March primary?
Mainly, the cost of holding more than one of them. Idaho traditionally has held its party primaries for state, congressional and local offices (covering both parties, and many other candidates) somewhere around summer, to keep the general election campaign season running into fall down to a reasonable length. For a while some decades ago they were held in August, but mostly in May, which seems to be a satisfactory time for most Idahoans.
The problem is, the presidential nomination contests are effectively all over by then. In 2012, Mitt Romney had become a prohibitive favorite for the nomination by the end of March, and in 2008 John McCain was widely called the “presumptive nominee” by the end of February. And the Republican Party has been trying to “front load” the system to compress the period of serious contests, to give the nominee more time to settle into general election mode. If Idaho Republicans vote for a nominee in the May primary, they’re playing in a game that’s long since over.
Hence the idea of a March primary, which might put the Gem State into the action. But who will pay for it? That’s been a sticking point at the Idaho Legislature for years, especially when the Democrats say they’re not interested. A taxpayer-funded election for the benefit of one party, for presidential but no other candidates, would have an uncomfortable tinge to it.
Last week I was discussing some of this endless circle on a radio program, and the host mentioned a former neighbor of his who had the proposal of setting up several regional primaries around the country. It might rotate from one presidential cycle to the next, and maybe get started later in the year so that all of the presidential year isn’t hard-core campaign season. I’ve heard the idea for years (with ideas of anywhere from four to eight regional primaries in the proposal), and I like it - it would give people outside of Iowa and New Hampshire a shot at playing that crucial early role in the selection. It might solve Idaho’s problem too, by moving the presidential contests to a later point so they could be combined with the regular state primaries.
Unfortunately, that doesn’t seem likely for the near future. So Idaho Republicans are probably going to be stuck with their discomfort for a while yet.