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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Spin Control

Sunday Spin: The uneven history of the WA prez primary

Next year’s presidential primary may be on life support after a meeting last week in which Democrats blocked an effort to move it from late May to sometime in March when there could be more candidates in the race and more interest among the electorate.

Quite a bit was said at the meeting of the Presidential Primary Selection Date Committee about the virtues and popularity of these elections in Washington. Some of it was even true, although to be an annoying stickler for details, some of it was clearly not, such as the contention by two Republican members of the panel that “the people have spoken and they said they want a presidential primary.”

Not exactly. After lawmakers killed various prez primary bills for more than a decade, a 1989 initiative to the Legislature gathered enough signatures that they were faced with either passing it themselves or sending it to the ballot. Clearly able to read the results of surveys that showed it was popular, they passed it. Voters never actually weighed in.

 From that point on, the presidential primary has had uneven support from the electorate.

The political parties aren’t required to abandon precinct caucuses, which they’ve used for decades, and select delegates with primary results. Washington voters don’t register by party, so there’s no guarantee that Republicans are voting for the GOP nominee or Democrats picking the Democratic nominee.

Reaction to the first presidential primary in May 1992 was underwhelming at best. Both parties held their caucuses months earlier. The Democrats’ caucus leader in Washington, Paul Tsongas, had dropped out by May and Bill Clinton had the nomination all but sewn up. President George H.W. Bush was running for re-election so the GOP nomination was not in doubt. The one wild-card in the race, Ross Perot, was running as an independent so he wasn’t on the ballot but got some 53,000 write-ins. Washington voters were accustomed to getting a primary ballot with all candidates from all parties on it, and some balked at having to sign a statement that they wished to participate in a particular party’s primary and getting that party’s candidates. Turnout was paltry, about 10 percent.

Four years later, state officials moved the primary to March 26 to be more relevant. Even so, Bob Dole had the GOP nomination in hand by then and Clinton was running unopposed for re-election. To answer previous complaints of voters, the state offered an unaffiliated ballot, with both parties’ candidates on them, along with individual party ballots. Slightly over 20 percent of voters cast ballots, but two-thirds were unaffiliated, which the parties refused to recognize.

In 2000, neither party had an incumbent running and each had a long list of early candidates. But by the Feb. 29 primary, Vice President Al Gore was pulling away from other Democrats. Although the party was sticking with precinct caucuses for delegate selection, the events were close together and rival Bill Bradley came to boost his chances in both venues. But Gore won the primary by a landslide and captured most delegates at the caucuses.

Republicans awarded a handful of delegates from the primary, but only from results of ballots cast by voters willing to say they were Republicans. George W. Bush was starting to edge out John McCain, who campaigned hard in Washington hoping for a public relations victory by collecting the most votes by adding GOP and unaffiliated ballots. McCain led in unaffiliated ballots, but when that total was added to GOP ballots, Bush still had more votes. More unaffiliated ballots were cast than ballots for either party, but the turnout was about 40 percent.

The state canceled its presidential primary in 2004 because Democrats wouldn’t use the results to award delegates and all the Republican delegates were likely to go to Bush. Four years later, both races were wide open in February, when Washington held caucuses on Feb. 9, and a primary ten days later. That year, voters got a single mail-in ballot with all names of both parties’ candidates. But they had to check a box on the envelope saying they considered themselves a member of the party of the candidate for whom they were voting, or the ballot wouldn’t be counted. Despite that “oath”, Democrats again ignored the primary results and stuck with the caucuses; Republicans again split their delegates between the two events.

The winners were the same, but the spreads were significantly different. John McCain barely topped Mike Huckabee and Ron Paul as that trio had about three-quarters of the caucus attendees, but McCain got more than half the primary ballots. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton both campaigned hard in Washington before the caucuses, but Obama got about two-thirds of the delegates there. Both stayed away for the primary, where Obama finished only a few percentage points ahead. Still, Democratic ballots outnumbered Republican by about 160,000, and turnout was about 42 percent.

 In 2012, with the state still recovering from the recession, Washington again dumped its primary, saving an estimated $10 million. Republicans held their caucuses on the Saturday before Super Tuesday with Mitt Romney topping Ron Paul and Rick Santorum for delegates. Democrats caucused for Obama.

Next year, Republicans plan to hold caucuses on March 5 and Democrats on March 26. Republicans will award half their delegates on primary results, if one is held, but Democrats are under dictates from the national party not just to ignore the primary but to “educate” their voters that it has no bearing on their process.

Jim Camden
Jim Camden joined The Spokesman-Review in 1981 and retired in 2021. He is currently the political and state government correspondent covering Washington state.

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