Opinion

Robert Ehlert: The March presidential primary in Idaho, for what it is worth

At the rate we’re piling up presidential candidate announcements, with more than eight months to go in 2015, it is hard to imagine what this is going to look like as the calendar turns to 2016.

Let me predict that after GOP announcements by Sens. Ted Cruz, Rand Paul and Marco Rubio, with plenty more to come, the Republican field is soon to resemble pay TV: lots of channels but not much to watch.

Hillary Clinton and “First Dude” Bill (thanks, “Saturday Night Live”) might be out on the road unopposed, perhaps conferring with James “Gollum” Carville (thanks, Internet). They’ll be devising strategy and cataloging embarrassing YouTube videos of all the GOP hopefuls, who will be busy calling out one another. After the convention and leading up to Election Day, all the nasty things the GOP candidates said on film about each other will be recycled by Democrats. President Barack Obama’s 2012 team perfected this practice, and I am positive the Clintons will, too.

So, what is primary season going to look like in Idaho? GOP legislators here pushed for and passed a bill to run and fund an Idaho presidential primary for March 8, 2016 — without a single Democratic vote from either the House or Senate — at public expense. This could cost up to $2 million, and supposedly will make us feel more relevant. Though a primary will make it easier than a caucus for absentee military and shut-ins to vote, I am not holding my breath there will be any profound Idaho Effect on the process.

A presidential primary in Idaho is a mistake for three reasons:

1) Historically, Idaho Democrats caucus to choose a nominee — and party officials confirmed this week that is their plan for 2016. They will not be participating as a party in any presidential primary.

2) The GOP is a closed primary, so only registered Republicans will be participating, and that’s just a fraction of the folks who would be if it were not closed. Some of the 400,000 unaffiliated registrants and the Democrats might choose to become “chameleon Republicans” just long enough to vote — or hang on to that status so they can vote in the May 2016 statewide primaries. The Idaho GOP should pay for the presidential primary show itself.

3) If you really want to have an impact in the presidential process, you don’t throw in with a bunch of other states on a Super Tuesday. If things pan out as they look now, some 17 states will already have had their caucuses/primaries by the March 8 date of Idaho’s. As it stands now, Michigan, Ohio (which could move to March 15) and possibly North Carolina (which is looking at March 8) will be competing with Idaho on that second Tuesday in March. Will the herd of candidates be thinned by then? It is anybody’s guess.

If you didn’t want to guess, you would jump ahead of the crowd, maybe even cut in line among the “firsts” in Iowa and New Hampshire. Iowa did just that when it jumped ahead of New Hampshire and established the Iowa Caucuses in 1972. Yes, I know we have set dates for elections in Idaho now, and it is too late to change and rearrange things for 2016 to accommodate a January or early February contest.

But if we really wanted a primary with impact — if that’s even possible — we missed the boat. Testing the candidates for one of the first contests can bring in a lot of press and political entourage activity — not to mention money. The Greater Des Moines Convention and Visitors Bureau told the Business Record after the 2012 election that the Iowa Caucuses generate between $17 million and $25 million in economic impact. The higher number occurs when both parties have open seats and are fielding lots of candidates, like this year.

But imagine the impact if Idaho were to lobby for, and succeed in, jumping ahead of Nevada or South Carolina, and found itself as the No. 3 or No. 4 stop on the presidential vetting trail?

Better yet, don’t imagine that. It will just remind you that our reality will be waking up one day in mid-March 2016 and asking: We paid $2 million for this?

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