Robert Gehrke: Ditching the 2024 presidential primary means fewer Utah Republicans will nominate a candidate

Picking the Republican’s favorite for president at neighborhood caucuses excludes voters and yields a winner who doesn’t represent Utah’s GOP

The Utah Republican Party will forgo the traditional presidential primary election next year, opting instead to choose the party’s preferred presidential candidate in the much more sparsely attended party caucus meetings.

They made that decision despite Utah moving up earlier in the presidential nominating process, putting the Beehive State in a rare position where it could actually make a difference in the GOP presidential contest.

Utah Republican Party Chairman Robert Axson sent a letter to the lieutenant governor’s office notifying state election officials of the decision — which was actually made by the party’s central committee back in June.

What that means is that registered Republicans who want to weigh in on the presidential candidates will have to attend their neighborhood party meeting and cast a vote in person.

Democrats plan to hold a traditional primary.

There are two problems with the Republican decision, both of which have been inherent to the caucus system for decades.

First, turnout at caucus meetings is much, much lower, meaning that fewer Republicans will be involved in picking the state’s favorite GOP contender.

In 2016, right around 177,000 Republicans took part in the party’s caucus-night presidential vote. Compare that to 2020 when, because of the pandemic, caucuses were canceled and the party went with a traditional mail-in primary election. It was pretty much meaningless since Donald Trump was the incumbent and faced token resistance from former Gov. Bill Weld. Still, nearly 345,000 Republicans participated in that vote — nearly double the caucus-night result.

There are a lot of reasons caucus turnout is lower, but generally speaking, it is harder for people to show up on a specific night — between jobs or kid’s soccer games or other family commitments, and assuming they know where their meeting is being held — than it is for them to fill out and return a ballot.

As a result, a lot of Republicans end up being excluded, which leads to the second problem: The people who do show up at the caucus meetings have traditionally been much more conservative than the mainstream Republican voters.

We’ve seen that play out time and again, like when the caucus-chosen delegates nearly ousted Gov. Gary Herbert at convention in 2016; when they backed state Sen. Mike Kennedy over Mitt Romney in 2018; and wanted former state Rep. Chris Herrod over John Curtis in 2017 and again just last. year. Obviously, mainstream Republican voters picked Herbert, Romney and Curtis — the more moderate candidates — by overwhelming margins.

The delegates don’t represent the average voter. And it’s not only me saying this. On Thursday, Gov. Spencer Cox said, using the Herbert result in 2016 as evidence, “showing that the delegates did not represent the Republican Party at all.”

A lot of times this wouldn’t matter. I mentioned in 2016 Republicans decided to pick their candidate at the caucus. At that point, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and former Ohio Gov. Jon Kasich were making a futile last stand to try to deny Trump the nomination, but Utah was late in the process that year and the race had already been all but decided weeks earlier.

This time Utah is moving up to a prime spot on Super Tuesday, when 15 states will hold their presidential nominating events, playing a massive role in winnowing down a Republican field that currently has a dozen candidates vying for the party’s nod.

Shrinking the Republican voter pool, I’ve got to believe, is a major benefit to Trump. It’s true that he lost the 2016 caucus vote when Utah Republicans generally disliked him as a candidate. But things have changed since, and polling shows that the most strident Republicans, like those who tend to attend caucuses, are the most loyal to the former president.

While Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis won a delegate straw poll back in April, but DeSantis was still riding high nationally at the time and had just given a lengthy, red-meat speech that likely boosted his performance.

GOP Chair Axson disagrees with the notion that the caucus-night vote diminishes turnout and favors Trump.

“I actually think the exact opposite is the case,” he said. “I think the caucus-executed presidential preference poll creates an equitable playing field for all the candidates, which is beneficial not just for the Republican Party, but for all of Utah.”

Cox said Thursday he supports the party’s decision because it saves taxpayers money and could bring more Republicans out to the caucuses.

“I think one of the problems we have with the caucus convention system is that not enough people show up and participate. And when that’s the case, you don’t get a good representation of the Republican Party,” Cox said.

Axson told me that any Republican who wants to participate can, and the party will try to make accommodations for people who have work conflicts to make sure as many people as possible can vote.

But if we really want more people participating, we know how to achieve that: Hold a traditional primary election. Any other format will inevitably exclude potentially hundreds of thousands of voters who otherwise would take part and will produce a victor who is more right-wing and less reflective of the mainstream Utah Republican voter.