Is a presidential primary worth the price?

Special to the Herald-Guide
May 20, 2011 at 11:57 am  | Mobile Reader | Pring this storyPrint 

By John Maginnis,

In 2008, after decades of political irrelevance, the Louisiana presidential preferential primary actually figured to matter in the nomination races of both parties.

Held on Feb. 8, four days after 21 states voted on Super Tuesday, Louisiana's party primaries were still in the thick of the competition between Democrats Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton and among Republicans John McCain, Mike Huckabee and Mitt Romney. Only four other states voted that day. Finally, Louisiana would hold a presidential primary that would mean something.

Not so much, though, as it turned out. Obama and Huckabee won unmemorable victories, marked by few visits from candidates and only passing attention from the national press. The seemingly historic electoral opportunity also underwhelmed the state's Democrats and Republicans, three-fourths of whom did not bother to show up at the polls.

Prospects for national attention and local voter participation auger no better, probably worse, for 2012, when only the GOP nomination will be in contention, if it still is by when Louisiana votes on a day still to be decided.

If like four years ago, only a quarter of Republicans, who are about 25 percent of registered voters, vote in the presidential primary, overall participation will be about 6 percent.

The above arithmetic frames this question for our Legislature: is the opinion of 6 percent of Louisiana voters worth almost $6 million, or about $30 per vote, to find out?

"I think we ought to consider not having one," said Rep. John Bel Edwards, D-Amite, chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, whose sentiments are shared by state party chairman Buddy Leach.

Easy for them to say, of course, since there is as much doubt about who the Democratic nominee will be as there remains to the question of where he was born.

Republican state party leaders are insistent on holding the primary, even if, under their rules, about only half of the state's delegates to the national convention will be bound by the results.

But more than turnout numbers are working against the GOP leadership. Lawmakers have about $1 billion less to spend this year and the governor's proposed budget, depending on who's counting, is still $200 million or more out of balance.

With the governor and Republican legislators vowing to cut their way out of the deficit, Democrats might try to turn their words back on them by offering the presidential primary for the chopping block.

"We want to be fiscally responsible, but we want the ability to vote," says Republican state chairman Roger Villere, who points out that next time it could be the Democrats wanting to hold the primary. True, just as next time the state might not be looking at selling prisons, raising tuition and contracting out large chunks of government services just to squeak by.

Even if the state does hold a presidential primary, it's not yet clear when that will be. The vote is scheduled for Feb. 11, but the Legislature has before it a bill to push that back to March 10 in order to comply with the rules of both national parties. To protect the early primary states New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada, both national parties have passed rules that would take away half the delegates of any states that hold elections before the first Tuesday of March.

If the Legislature decides to stick with the February election date, the Republicans, say Villere, would cancel their primary rather than lose delegates to the convention in Tampa.

Their fallback plan would be to hold regional caucuses around the state in March to pick delegates committed to presidential candidates. Only if the nomination is still hotly contested by then would candidates make more than a tarmac appearance or two. Delegates committed to candidates would be chosen by a few thousand, if not a few hundred, active supporters.

If the Legislature accommodates the GOP and pushes back the primary to March 11, it's unlikely that the delegate counts among whichever candidates are left would be that much different from the caucus results.

Whenever or however Louisiana votes, it seems hardly likely that presidential candidates would rush to court voters here with promises of military commands and highway projects.

 Given past levels of voter participation and likely impact on the nomination, the way for Louisiana to attract the most attention to its primary could be to call it off.

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