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Parties can and should be shaped by states they represent

SHARE Parties can and should be shaped by states they represent

Much attention has recently focused on the decline of the Democratic Party in Utah, the increasing propensity of active Mormons to be Republicans, and the increasing ideological factionalism among Utah Republicans. To many, the first response is likely, "Who cares? Aren't political parties corrupt and to be avoided?" Americans have long held parties in low regard, and part of our national mythology is that we vote for the person not the party. Yet parties are vital to the operation of democracy. Think for a minute what voting would be like without them. Parties play a vital role in structuring the electoral process, recruiting candidates and providing essential voting cues for the scores of candidate contests decided by voters.

Utah no longer has a two-party system. Instead, it is increasingly a single-party system, much like the Old South, where the real decisions were made in primary elections within the Democratic Party. The inability of the Democrats to field a candidate in the Third Congressional District, the contentious nature of the recent state Republican convention, and the upcoming primary election in the Third Congressional District all are evidence of Utah's changing political landscape. One-party rule heightens ideology and disenfranchises roughly one-third of the Utah electorate who do not consider themselves Republicans. It also means that those who only vote in general elections have less say over their government. Contentious fights within the party can backfire, as they did for Republicans in 1990. Democratic candidate Bill Orton clearly benefited from the primary battle between Karl Snow and John Harmer. The KBYU-Utah Colleges Exit Poll found that two-thirds of those who voted for Harmer in the primary voted for Orton in the general election. But in 1998, Democrats cannot benefit from Republican feuding, because they don't have anyone running in the general election.Party preferences are important to voting choice. Since 1982, on average three-fourths of all persons with a party preference have voted for that party for president, U.S. senator, governor, U.S. House, or attorney general. Among those voters who consider themselves strong Republicans or Democrats, the proportion voting for their party has been in excess of 90 percent. The Utah electorate in 1996 was 31 percent Democrats, 11 percent Independents, and 58 percent Republican - figures almost the exact reverse of the national party breakdown.

How did a competitive two-party state become dominated by a single party? The answer in large part is the growing tendency of active Latter-day Saints to be and vote Republican. Religion is important to the parties in Utah in part because of the sheer size of the Latter-day Saint constituency. Since 1982, 74 percent of all voters have been Latter-day Saints, and since 1984, 55 percent consider themselves very active in the church. For parties to be competitive, they must appeal to large constituencies, and the reality is that Republicans have been successful in asserting that their party is more representative of Latter-day Saint values. Of very active church members in 1996, 81 percent were Republicans and only 11 percent Democrats. It is not surprising that Republicans would want to build a nexus between themselves and Latter-day Saints. Two issues illustrate the current party divide: abortion and same-sex marriage.

In the 1996 KBYU-Utah Colleges Exit Poll we asked voters about both issues. On abortion, nearly two-thirds of all Utah voters consider themselves pro-life and 30 percent pro-choice. If Republicans can label Democrats as pro-life or Democrats choose to so label themselves, as some recent Democratic candidates have done, then not surprisingly they not only are out of touch with voters on this important issue but they reinforce the Democrats' image problem. The problem is even more acute, given the large LDS voting block, which a winning candidate cannot ignore. Very active Latter-day Saints were over half of all voters in 1996, and 94 percent percent of these voters consider themselves pro-life.

Utah voters are even more unified on the question of allowing same-sex marriage. Overall, 81 percent disagree with the idea and among the very active LDS voters, the percent opposing the practice climbs to 97 percent. Non-LDS voters see abortion differently; nearly two-thirds are pro-choice. A majority of non-LDS (57 percent) oppose same-sex marriage. The declining proportions of active LDS among the Democrats has meant the party is more representative of non-LDS attitudes on such wedge issues as abortion and same-sex marriage. This is one reason why Democrats who were strongly pro-choice have defeated more moderate candidates in recent primaries.

Congressman Hansen's speech to the recent Republican convention treated parties as if they were not open to change. He knows better. Largely under the leadership of Ronald Reagan, Republicans became a more conservative party. Utah Democrats can redefine their party. Parties are a means to an important political end. Parties can and should be shaped to the state and polity they represent. If citizens want to reshape a party, all they have to do is become active in it, elect party leaders who share their views, and nominate candidates who reflect their values and preferences. If the Democrats hope to again become competitive, they will need to redefine themselves and resist Republican efforts to label Democrats as being out of touch with Utah values.