While neither major political party in Washington state has greeted a presidential primary enthusiastically, Republicans at least have appreciated its pertinence more than Democrats. Several times since the state approved the primary concept in 1989, Republicans have designated half their delegates to the national convention from the primary and half from its party’s caucuses, while Democrats have insisted on using only the caucuses.
Last weekend, the Republicans took a giant step toward making the 2016 presidential primary both more relevant and more representative of a large swath of the state’s voters. Party officials, meeting in Pasco, voted to use results from the May 24 primary to award all of the state’s 41 contested delegates to the Republican National Convention. In addition to those 41, three top Republican officials will attend the convention as automatic delegates. Democrats, unfortunately, will stick entirely with their March 26 caucuses to decide their presidential delegates, even though voters may cast ballots for Democratic candidates in the primary.
The GOP is also keeping an eye on proportional representation, with three delegates to be awarded in each of the state’s 10 congressional districts, and 11 based on statewide results. A candidate who carries a majority of the primary vote in a congressional district will win all three of that district’s delegates. This setup recognizes that even in intraparty matchups, results from west of the Cascades could tilt toward different candidates than those favored by Central and Eastern Washington voters.
The 1989 primary effort came right after the 1988 Republican caucus saw a victory by religious conservative Pat Robertson, much to the consternation of the party establishment. A similar scenario could be at work next year, given the strength of insurgent candidates like Donald Trump and Ben Carson, whose supporters may be more motivated than other Republican voters to take control in a low-turnout caucus.
And a caucus guarantees a low turnout. Former Secretary of State Ralph Munro famously once said that more people attend the annual Seattle Boat Show than a presidential caucus in Washington. And while an earlier primary date likely would heighten interest in this state’s primary, which is an argument made by current Secretary of State Kim Wyman, the remaining candidates of what is now a large GOP field of well-financed candidates could well be coveting delegates from late-voting states like Washington.
It’s no secret that Republicans have struggled against Democrats in recent statewide elections, though they have found more success at the legislative level. In an era in which fewer voters identify with parties than in the past, the Republicans have sent a signal that they are open to popular participation – Wyman estimates about 10 times more people will participate in the primary compared to a caucus. The state GOP’s decision is a welcome one for voters and a healthy one for democracy; it’s too bad that the Democrats don’t agree.