My Turn: Why presidential primaries are important

  • By WIN GRUENING
  • Wednesday, February 3, 2016 11:18pm
  • Opinion

With all eyes on Iowa this week and New Hampshire next week, the Presidential primary season has begun. For most of us, Iowa and New Hampshire seem far away and, for relatively small states, appear to have far more significance attached to their primaries than you would think they deserve. Yet, political fortunes can change overnight based on perceived momentum and candidates try to make the best possible showing in their party’s primary regardless of who is leading in the polls.

The series of U.S. primary elections and caucuses is part of the nominating process for U.S. presidents. This process was never included in the U. S. Constitution; it was created over time by political parties. In fact, there’s no provision for the role of political parties embodied in the Constitution. Originally, Congress nominated candidates but, since 1832, the preferred mechanism for nomination has been a national convention.

Both major political parties — Democrats and Republicans — officially nominate candidates for President at their respective national conventions. Each convention is attended by delegates selected in accordance with each state’s primary or caucus nominating process and party rules.

The process can be confusing, mysterious, and messy — especially in states where there really isn’t an “election” as we know it. Approximately 75 percent of the 50-plus primaries held for each party across the country are more traditional primary elections managed by state officials at regular polling locations where voters choose candidates by secret electronic or paper ballot. The other states hold caucuses, or “straw polls,” similar to what is used in Iowa and Alaska. In Alaska, both parties’ nomination process is different but are alike in that they are “closed” —meaning only voters registered with a party may participate in that party’s caucus or poll.

Alaska Republicans will vote on March 1 by private ballot in a presidential preference poll held in various district locations, with results sent to party headquarters for final tabulation. Delegates are selected later in separate meetings and awarded to candidates based proportionally on preference poll results.

On the other hand, Alaska Democrat caucus-goers will attend party-sponsored meetings on March 26 in various neighborhood locations where campaign supporters attempt to persuade the undecided before choosing candidates. Democrats signal their candidate choice publicly and the process can take some time — eliminating any candidate that doesn’t initially get enough support — until everyone’s final choice is made and local delegates are selected according to each candidate’s support.

Both processes have their advantages. Democrats claim their procedure is more open but Republicans respond that their process avoids subjecting voters to undue pressure by neighbors and fellow party members.

Delegates representing Alaska comprise a very small percentage of the thousands of votes needed to win a presidential nomination in a national convention. But this year, it’s possible that either party could end up at their national convention without a candidate having won a clear majority, making every delegate important. On the Republican side, due to the dominance of the party in Alaska, Alaska has the same number of delegates at their national convention as Oregon and five more delegates than New Hampshire. Therefore, even a small state like Alaska could make a difference in ultimately deciding the next party nominee for President.

Primaries, caucuses and straw polls are different in other ways as well. Traditionally, only 15-20 percent of registered Republicans and Democrats will show up to participate — just a fraction of total voters who will vote in November. In addition, there are presumably far more undecided voters. These two factors, however, can be highly variable, making polling projections notoriously inaccurate. Conventional wisdom leading up to this week was that a much larger turnout in Iowa would help Trump and Sanders, whereas a lower turnout would help Cruz and Clinton.

As the Iowa caucus process unfolded Monday night, Democratic participation was robust but it was clear that Republican participation would be at record levels as long lines formed in many Republican caucus locations around the state. But conventional wisdom was turned on its head. Neither party front-runner performed to expectations. Donald Trump ended up in second place behind Ted Cruz and virtually tied with Marco Rubio. On the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders ended up in a statistical dead heat.

It remains to be seen whether the Iowa caucuses will change the course of this election. But it’s clear Alaskans participating in the nominating process this year will likely have more impact than in the general election, where our polls are still open after most of the country has voted and key exit polls are announced. Unlike regular elections in Alaska, independent voters can change their affiliation up to the last minute where they caucus or vote. This is your chance to make a choice and make a difference.

• Win Gruening retired as the senior vice president in charge of business banking for Key Bank in 2012. He was born and raised in Juneau and is active in community and statewide organizations.

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