With the Legislature in the rear-view mirror, Utah’s political community turned to political party caucuses and presidential politics last week. As your lovable (in a grandfatherly sort of way) commentators, we weigh in on the consequences to our state.

March 5 was Super Tuesday for Republican and Democratic presidential preferences in 16 states, including Utah. Local Democrats chose traditional primary balloting, while the Utah GOP restricted presidential voting to caucus attendees and ballots delivered to caucuses. As expected, Donald Trump prevailed over Nikki Haley. Utah caucusgoers also selected delegates to county and state conventions. How does this process and result impact local politics?

Pignanelli: “Intelligence is the ability to adapt to change.” — Stephen Hawking

For much of the 20th century, precinct caucuses (my generation knew them as mass meetings) were quaint, neighborhood gatherings where the parties’ faithful members thoughtfully selected delegates who determined nominees for various offices at the conventions. But lifestyles eventually changed, which caused attendance to drop. The meetings are now in larger venues, and the once heartwarming dynamics are rare. Current support of the delegate/convention system ignores this reality.

In the 2016 caucuses, 177,204 Republicans cast a ballot, a sharp decrease from the 2012 presidential preference poll, in which 241,000 participated in a traditional primary format. Trump was unopposed in the 2020 pandemic primary and yet a record 344,852 returned their mail ballots. Last week, only 84,942 (less than 10% of registered Republicans) bothered to attend caucus meetings.

Furthermore, Utah received negative national attention for glitches in caucuses and was the last state to report — even after Alaska. Trying to overlay modern technology on an outdated system breeds problems.

Many pundits across the country thought Haley could prevail in Utah. She performed well but her inability to capture a majority here prompted departure from the race. Prominent Utahns who supported Haley will now readjust their public relationship with the nominee.

Both the selection of Trump and declining popularity of the precinct caucuses were predictable outcomes, and the latter result will be an ongoing problem if ignored.

Webb: The GOP caucuses were chaotic for many attendees. But the real tragedy of the caucus night wasn’t just the confusion (even though my wife and I drove 80 miles to our caucus location, only to be told we were in the wrong place). The real tragedy was that the presidential preference results did not reflect the views of Republican voters across the state.

Women, young people, minorities and moderate Republicans were vastly underrepresented in caucus meetings and will be nearly absent in ensuing GOP conventions. There are nearly 900,000 active, registered Republicans in Utah. Some 84,000 Republicans voted in party caucuses. So the voices of only 9% of Utah Republicans were heard in the race for the GOP presidential nomination.

Caucuses are great for old, white males like me, and for those activists who love politics. But they don’t represent more moderate, casual Republicans. I believe Nikki Haley would have defeated Trump, or come very close, had a regular primary election with mail-in ballots been held.

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President Joseph Biden delivered a much-reviewed State of the Union address last Thursday. Was the speech successful as Democrats claim or overly partisan as claimed by Republicans?

Pignanelli: While watching the speech, I was tempted to contact my doctor to request the prescription of whatever Biden had consumed since it boosted energy, concentration and articulate discourse. Biden had no choice but to blast away because anything with less enthusiasm would be criticized as his typical low-energy, confusing ramble. He motivated the base but will have to tone down some rhetoric to capture independents and moderate Republicans — just as Trump must.

Webb: If Biden’s main goal was shoring up his progressive base, it was an effective speech. He didn’t appear as feeble and confused as I’ve sometimes described him. I actually liked the first few minutes when he made a strong case in support of Ukraine and defended a robust foreign policy.

But then the speech deteriorated into a lengthy laundry list of left-wing, big government, incredibly expensive programs that will raise taxes, run up the national debt, make citizens more dependent on the federal government and intrude in the lives of all Americans.

Biden’s speech did little to win over voters beyond his base. It won’t save his presidency.

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Comments

Alabama Sen. Katie Britt delivered the GOP State of the Union response. Was it effective?

Pignanelli: Responses from the loyal opposition are usually ignored unless the media obsesses over any mistakes. The setting for Britt’s speech (the kitchen background was criticized as patronizing) and factual errors may have diminished any immediate benefit but there is no long-term harm otherwise.

Webb: It was weird. I like Katie Britt a lot. She is a talented young politician with a bright political future. She was trying to speak from the heart, but her facial expressions and emotion were over the top. The overwrought discussion at the kitchen table didn’t work real great.

Republican LaVarr Webb is a former journalist and a semi-retired small farmer and political consultant. Email: lwebb@exoro.com. Frank Pignanelli is a Salt Lake attorney, lobbyist and political adviser who served as a Democrat in the Utah state Legislature. Email: frankp@xmission.com.

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