“We’re going to have to do this together and row the boat in the same direction.” — Utah GOP Chairman Rob Anderson, as quoted in the Deseret News.
SALT LAKE CITY — Nearly 400 years ago, the Swedish navy set sail on the maiden voyage of the Vasa, its latest and most impressive-looking warship to-date, carrying 64 bronze cannons. It sank 20 minutes later, less than a mile from the dock, after a wind tipped it.
A few years ago, researchers began to better understand what happened. Workers had used four rulers to measure the wood. According to a report by PRI, two of these measured Swedish feet, which were 12 inches. Two measured Amsterdam feet, which were 11. No one kept track of the parts that made up the whole. The ship was asymmetrical.
Utah’s Republican Party is going through a measurement crisis of its own, which is making it difficult, as the party’s new chairman urges, to row in the same direction.
The party’s central committee wants desperately to hold onto the power convention delegates have to select candidates for the races you, the voter, gets to decide. But rank-and-file Republican voters would like a more open system, and they have demonstrated a propensity to prefer candidates other than the ones party leaders choose.
Earlier this year, UtahPolicy.com conducted a flash poll that showed 70 percent of Utah voters want to keep a 2014 compromise that lets delegates keep the power to choose candidates while opening an alternative road to the ballot through a petition drive. Only 8 percent said they strongly opposed it.
But now the party is risking losing that compromise, along with any other hold it has over who represents it on the ballot.
Symmetry problems aren’t unique to Utah politics. Both major parties have them nationally these days. Primaries and caucuses have taken power away from party bosses. Donald Trump used more than a dash of populism to circumvent the party establishment and many of its platforms last year on the way to the nomination.
Against this backdrop, Utah’s Republican leaders are not unreasonable to worry about populism and to want to retain control over who represents the party’s ideals on the ballot. In Utah, however, the party is so dominant that a tightly controlled system can lead to symmetry problems with rank-and-file members.
Research has shown that Republican voters and Republican convention delegates don’t always see eye-to-eye. In 2012, the Utah Foundation found that 51 percent of party voters identified as conservative, compared with 61 percent of delegates. Women, in particular, tend to be underrepresented at conventions.
More importantly, however, party members and leaders often differ in candidate selection.
The 3rd Congressional District race offered a stark example. The delegates chose former state Rep. Chris Herrod. In the primary election, voters instead chose Provo Mayor John Curtis, who got on the ballot through a petition after being rejected by delegates.
Likewise in 2016, voters chose Gov. Gary Herbert by a 44 percent margin over the delegates’ candidate, Jonathan Johnson.
The compromise lets the party put its candidates on ballots, while still giving the party’s general membership the ability to choose people who gather enough signatures. It may not be the best of both worlds, but at least it allows for both worlds. And, as advertisers remind us daily, choices are good.
Last Saturday, the party’s central committee met again, with a new state party chairman, Rob Anderson, who would like to call off the party’s legal challenges to the compromise. After five hours, the committee failed to take action, which means the fight continues, as do the legal fees, which now total more than $300,000.
It also means the group that originally petitioned for change, known as Count My Vote, is likely to restart its petition drive. That could result in a ballot initiative in 2018 that does away with the convention selection process for good.
Rowing in the same direction becomes difficult when you’re boat is so much bigger than anything else on the lake and when the captain, passengers and crew want to row in different directions.
Sometimes, the best way to compensate is to stand somewhere near the middle and get more generous oars.