Monday, January 07, 2008

Why Mitt Romney's Wyoming caucus victory rings hollow

These days you can't go anywhere without running into political talk. So, I don't feel guilty hijacking the regular Slaunchways shtick (if there is such a thing) in favor of a loooong political rant. Heck, there may never again be a more politically opportune time for a Wyomingite to speak his piece.

The short version...

For this political creature, Wyoming's caucuses highlighted three troubling trends:
1. We have a mainstream media focused more on hype than facts and issues.
2. Political parties - specifically Wyoming's GOP - are proving to be more interested in themselves than democracy.
3. From the national scene all the way down to the grassroots level, it takes alarming sums of money to drive "free elections."

Intrigued? Please read on. I've also provided an audio track of me reading the story in an attempt to make it easier to follow and focus. It is embedded below.

If you weren't aware, Saturday was the day of Wyoming's Republican conventions. In a nutshell, they were similar to the Iowa caucuses that drew near-constant media and political attention over the past few weeks - though here, the Democrats decided to hold off until March.

Up until the "day of” - Wyoming's conventions had largely snuck under the radar of mainstream media. As soon as Iowans finished their caucuses, most media outlets immediately switched focus to New Hampshire - which will hold its primaries Tuesday.

That’s in spite of the fact Wyoming actually has greater clout within the GOP nominating process than New Hampshire. Surprised?

Because the Republican Party awards delegates based on merit (i.e. the number of GOP congresspeople elected, total votes for Republican candidates, etc.), Wyoming has 14 delegates to the Republican National Convention.

New Hampshire has 12.

But that hasn't drawn much national press. As Casper Star-Tribune reporter Jared Miller wrote in an article Saturday morning, "The lack of attention translated into only occasional mentions about the Wyoming conventions in the national media, and those sometimes came with a wink." [link]

Results from the conventions show Mitt Romney handily winning the Cowboy State. While the triumph may give the Romney campaign a shot in the arm, it's equally possible that the victory will be quickly forgotten in the national scheme of things.

But for this voter, the lessons are what will be hard to ignore. In my mind, Wyoming's conventions highlight some pitfalls of our form of democracy.

As noted Friday in a scathing column by John McCormack of The Weekly Standard (and bemoaned by my roommates and me for months), the real story may be Wyoming Republicans' woefully indirect means of choosing a presidential candidate.

As McCormack writes, "While Wyoming lacks the historical and geographical significance of Iowa and New Hampshire, what most diminishes its importance is its arcane system of electing delegates, a process that is much more liable to charges of being 'undemocratic' and 'unrepresentative' than the Iowa caucuses." [link]

Harsh words, but perhaps fitting for the state GOP's labyrinthine political setup.

Here's how it works:

In mid-December, Wyoming's Republicans met at the precinct level (very small areas; Meeteetsee, pop. 350, has at least 3 precincts) to elect precinct committee men and women. The importance of those elections is this: only precinct committee men and women were allowed to vote in Saturday's county conventions. In other words, not every Republican got to vote.

In my home of Park County, where a 2004 count found more than 11,000 registered Republicans [link], only 50 people had the privilege of casting a vote for a presidential candidate.

Statewide, only 1200 of the state's 160,000 or so registered Republicans (.75%) had the opportunity to vote for a delegate/candidate. [link1] [link2] Furthermore, of those 1200 committee men and women, only 300 or so were elected at the December precinct conventions. The overwhelming majority were elected in 2006 - before Wyoming chose to move up their selection date and "be a player" in the nominating process. [link] It also was before some contenders had announced their candidacy.

On Saturday, the precincts' selected few met in each county and cast their ballots. But they didn't vote for presidential candidates like McCain, Romney, Huckabee, Paul, etc. Instead, these 1200 Republicans voted for local folks dedicated to support a specific candidate. The person who received the most votes would go on to the Republican National Convention (RNC) in September and cast a vote for their chosen candidate.

So rather than actually voting for Mitt Romney, Park County's Republicans voted for Marilyn Taylor, who had pledged to support the former Massachusetts governor at the RNC.

Park County's initial voting looked like this:

19 votes for Mitt Romney's delegate (Taylor)
10 votes for Duncan Hunter's delegate
8 votes for Fred Thompson's delegate
8 votes for Rudy Guiliani's delegate
5 votes for Ron Paul's delegate
Not represented by delegates: Mike Huckabee and John McCain

In round-robin elimination (voting in rounds, with the lowest vote-getter dropped each time), Taylor – who is free to switch candidates between now and September – won a majority and became Park County's (and Romney's) representative at the RNC.

The problem with this process became clear. When the GOP later conducted a straw poll to see which Park County's Republicans favored, the results changed:

13 votes for Hunter
11 votes for Romney
10 votes for Huckabee
4 votes for Paul
4 votes for Guiliani
3 votes for Thompson
2 votes for McCain

Ultimately, Hunter won out over Romney with Huckabee coming in third. This apparent gap between the proxy selected and actual candidate supported is troubling. And at least anecdotally, it appears not to be an isolated occurrence. A Ron Paul supporter in Campbell County (which also selected a Romney surrogate) said their straw poll had Paul as the top vote-getter. [link]

To me, these discrepancies are a grim reminder that party politics can play as large a role as democratic processes.

Money also emerged as a determining factor.
Of course, that should come as little surprise - our political world is one where some of society's wealthiest receive donations and tax-supported wages to "represent the people."

As noted in stories by CNN and CBS this year, it's easier to point out the presidential candidates who are not millionaires. Hillary Clinton, Ron Paul, Rudy Guiliani, John Edwards, Mitt Romney, and John McCain all appear to make the tier of America's richest 1 percent. Barak Obama is at least close to that seven figure threshold, Mike Huckabee is comfortably into the hundred-thousands, and I'd venture a guess that former Law and Order actor and Tennessee Senator Fred Thompson isn't hurting either. [link1] [link2]

Of course the craziest part is that those millions aren't enough. As an April USA Today article read, "Republican John McCain, once considered the front-runner in his party, raised questions about his operations by bringing in a mere $12.5 million" [emphasis mine]. As laughable as that sounds, early estimates predicted campaign expenditures to top one billion dollars in the '08 presidential race. [link]

And don't think the high price tag applies only to politics at the national level.

I have little doubt that a primary reason Huckabee and McCain went unrepresented in Park County was because their supporters weren't interested in the cost of representing them. The pair had folks speak on their behalf, but those folks weren't willing to spend money and time on a September trip to the RNC in Minneapolis.

Delegates to the National Convention are responsible for paying their own way - a bill estimated at about $3,000. For most people, that's a serious chunk of change. The average Wyomingite, who pulls in a little over $40,000 a year, would be spending more than 5 percent of their income to get a candidate "on the ballot." [link]

To frame it another way, consider this: according to federal campaign finance laws, a supporter can contribute no more than $2,300 to a candidate’s primary election campaign. [link] While a trip to the RNC probably shouldn’t qualify as a $3,000 in-kind donation, it does seem to be an alarmingly high political price.

Basically, to get a full slate of candidates this year, you had to have 7 people in each of Wyoming’s 23 counties willing to pony up 3 grand for their political beliefs. In Park County, there were apparently only 5 people willing or able to do so - regardless of support. Huckabee apparently had 20% of my county's precinct members, but no delegate. Who knows if that happened elsewhere.

I believe it's crucial that all options are on the table at the primary stage.

In this election cycle, Republicans voting for, say, Mike Huckabee, are supporting a candidate who – honest-to-goodness – wants to do away with the IRS.

GOPers choosing Ron Paul are opting for a foreign policy based on non-intervention - an ideology not embraced by the other Republican candidates.

Put simply, there are serious policy decisions being made during our nation's preliminaries. But in Wyoming, those decisions are being made deep within the Republican's political machine.

In a wrap-up in the Wyoming Tribune-Eagle, a disenchanted resident, Josh Gatrell, voiced his disappointment with the GOP's set-up. "It seems like this avenue almost discourages participation from your local average citizen," he said. [link]

Gatrell’s assessment stands in direct contrast to the strategy espoused by state Republican county coordinator Tom Sansonetti.

Miller of the Casper Star Tribune paraphrased the motivations: "The goal all along, Sansonetti said, was to convince candidates to pay attention to rank-and-file Wyoming Republicans, and that happened. 'Anything above and beyond that is icing on the cake,' said Sansonetti..." [link]

His claim is awfully hard to swallow.

Certainly, the state GOP energized things and brought unprecedented national attention. And as Sansonetti noted, any attention was better than previous years.

But while I may be off the mark, I can't shake the feeling that true "rank-and-file" Republicans experienced little change.

For a further example, the GOP hosted a presidential forum in late September that brought Thompson, Hunter, and Kansas Senator Sam Brownback to the state. But only the elected precinct people were allowed to ask questions of the candidates during the forum, and, according to a GOP press release, it was those credentialed folk who were "provided the unique opportunity to meet and talk with the candidates." [link]

To this unaffiliated voter, the Republicans have crafted a system that allows only a small number of elected voters to participate, and forces those bold enough to get involved into a dizzying and expensive political maze. While obviously some like the set-up, the frustrated commentors on recent news stories and blogs covering the caucuses seem to support my view.

In this writer's opinion, Wyoming's GOP could stand to be a little less of a "Grand Ole Party" and a little more of a "Government Of the People."
All images used in this post came from candidates' official websites. Mitt Romney -; Duncan Hunter -; Fred Thompson -; Rudy Guiliani -; Ron Paul -; Mike Huckabee -; John McCain -

Got your own thoughts? Wholeheartedly agree? Vehemently object? By all means - leave a comment or shoot me an email. The more viewpoints, the better, but please keep it civil.


preacher man said...

Excellent CJ!

I was disappointed that I did not get to vote.

"Preacher man" Parker

Anonymous said...

Thanks, "preacher man!" I'll have to make sure I watch my language on here. ;)

Amanda said...

I think that may have been one of the best and most insightful opinion pieces on the political process that I've read in recent memory. And I've read a lot. You make some excellent points. I personally think the entire "let's campaign for 2 years before the election" system is stupid-why not actually go DO something instead of just talk about how everyone else isn't getting anything done? I also feel like it takes up the majority of the news time instead of important issues or things the American public should be focusing on.
Your point about disenfranchising voters? I agree wholeheartedly. I think it's part of the reason the college-age demographic doesn't vote by and large. Why would we bother with a system that doesn't really attempt to include us (how many college students, I wonder, were represented by those voting on the caucuses in Wyoming?) to vote for candidates that have yet to actually take the time to take us seriously. I'm all about being an educated voter. But its a time commitment I make that most of my classmates do not.
The biggest problem is the newsmedia-all of it. I'm so sick of "Election 2008" already...and it's only January. :-P If I feel that way, how many other voters are the same way?

Excellent piece. You should like advertise it or something. It's fabulous. I'm sending it to a few of my friends. :-)

Daniel Caldwell said...

A couple thoughts:

Perhaps Wyoming would have had better voter representation, like Iowa/NH, if pollsters and the org/edu/com that pays them took at least one poll of the state's republicans to see who they would have voted for. Price tag? $6,000.

If you want students to be fully represented, you would need to require that all high school seniors and college students register to vote. How? Make it an assignment for their required history/government class(es) or part of registration/enrollment.

In the mean time, it still helps the delegate count for the guy with the strongest record for organizational success.

Anonymous said...

Amanda: First, I'm genuinely honored by your kind words - especially coming from a fellow debater. :D

I think you raise a great point about how insanely long the campaigns are getting. It's really crazy when you consider that many of these candidates are supposed to be representing their states in Congress. And I totally agree that the coverage and candidates seem to be more about speeches than actual, concrete plans for the future. Specifics aren't as inherently interesting as mudslinging, but we need to hear them.

Students definitely seemed out of the loop in Park County. I believe there were only 5 or 6 folks under 30 in the room and I don't think any of them were voters. I know my roommate and I weren't.

Daniel: I think a poll probably would have been helpful in getting attention. Both nationally and locally, there seemed to be little idea what was going on here - including who was winning.

I don't my inner libertarian could support mandatory voter registration, but I wholeheartedly agree that we need schools to encourage political participation and registration. Government class shouldn't be boring.

Anonymous said...

Dude why are you giving free web space to all these candidate's? I think you could have fattened your wallet a little here.

Anonymous said...

Anon: No thanks. The connection between politics and money is strong enough as is.

Anonymous said...

Its ridiculous,How can you say that you cannot go anywhere without political?
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