Voting with the West: Regional primary could make Utah and other states more powerful, decisive in 2008

The formation of a Western states primary will make the West more influential in the 2008 presidential election, said Janice Houston, a senior policy analyst for the U Center for Public Policy and Administration.

Houston said that if everything goes as planned, Utah, New Mexico and Montana will all be participating in the first Western states regional primary this coming February, 2008. Other states likely to join the primary include Idaho and Arizona.

Houston called the primary a “smaller version of ‘Super Tuesday,'” the Southern states’ profoundly influential primary. Supporters of the Western primary hope it will make the West more significant in national elections, just as “Super Tuesday” has done for the South.

Houston says that a Western states primary will have many political advantages for Utah and the West. Some of the advantages include more attention from candidates, national media coverage, greater voter participation and more attention to Western issues.

“Were hoping to bring more attention to the West,” Houston said. “Hosting a regional primary means more media attention, which entices candidates to come.”

Candidates make strategic decisions about where they will spend their campaign time, and having a big bloc of voters means more attention, said Matthew Burbank, director of graduate studies for the political science department.

Voter turnout in Western primaries generally tends to be low, but a regional primary might spark more public interest, Houston said.

Houston mentioned several key issues affecting Westerners that candidates don’t currently address but may address in the future with the new Western primary. Water rights, disrepair in federal parks, land usage, environmental preservation and nuclear storage are all issues that she mentioned.

The primary would also increase policy collaboration among the Western states, Houston said.

“Candidates need to think about the West,” she said. “Why is an expensive bridge being built to the middle of nowhere in Alaska when we have more needs here?”

The Western states primary will be scheduled for sometime in February because organizers want to hold the primary before “Super Tuesday” in March.

“It will be more influential to have the Western primary first because after “Super Tuesday,” the party nominations are pretty solid,” Houston said.

Burbank said that scheduling a primary early can be beneficial, but can also be risky, because many states try to “rush to the front,” and the bigger states usually get all the candidate and media attention.

Some fear that a Western states primary will only solidify the GOP’s hold on the West. However, Houston believes that it will expose the more moderate-leaning Republicans in the West and give Democrats more opportunity to work together on policy issues.

Another concern is that the Western states primary will take away the individual states’ identities and group them into a bloc.

Burbank said, though, that this is unlikely and that the increased attention of the primary outweighs the risks.

“The reality is that the Western states are getting no attention now. Any attention that a primary would create would be beneficial,” he said.

The Center for Public Policy and Administration will be hosting a symposium to discuss the potential effect of a Western states primary next spring, focusing on the logistics and implications of such a primary.

Houston said the individual state legislatures would have to approve the primary before it can take affect in 2008.

[email protected]