Well, it might be. And maybe even weirder. But the recent weirdness–the ousting of long-serving Senator Bob Bennett in the state convention–is quite remarkable, but for different reasons than most people are led to believe by the national media.
There has been a lot of national reporting on this important story. As is usual, the media is taken up with looking for recent trends in voter opinion. They always want a horse race, something new, something that can reveal how in touch they are with the storms that are brewing. Currently the trend is talking about the importance of Tea Partiers and (according to the Left) how they have taken over the Republican Party. The storyline is that even a Senator as conservative as Bob Bennett cannot survive. The country has gone whacko.
The real story is more mundane and has to do more with Utah’s institutions than with Tea Partiers. Bob Bennett lost without even facing a vote and having voters, even primary voters, decide whether to accept the boot. In Utah a Republican candidate has to get 40% of the vote at the State Convention to qualify for the primary. If he/she gets 60%, there is no primary. Thus the convention delegates are enormously powerful in either putting a candidate on or keeping him off the ballot in the Fall.
Delegates are chosen in a closed caucus system that essentially nobody knows about. Now I say this because, as a long-term resident of the state and one who follows politics very closely (though admittedly more at the national than the state or local level), I have never in my life gone to a caucus, even though I am a registered Republican. This is because I have never known when the caucus is, not because I don’t want to attend. Prior to caucus day (which is sometime in March, I think) there is very little media coverage, there are very few campaign signs, and I have never received an announcement from the Party or from anyone else telling me to go participate. Caucuses are very much under the radar.
Of course the candidates know about them. The try to recruit delegates to vote for them, which can be a little hard since delegates aren’t committed to any candidate. And the activists know about them. And all the nutjobs know about them. Now spending an evening with party officials, campaign workers, activists and nutjobs is not how I would spend my time, even if I were to know when the caucus was happening.
It is also impossible for Bennett to pull a Lieberman and run as an Independent. If he could, he’d win. But he would have to run as a write-in candidate. It would take a very charismatic and popular person to win when one’s name is not even on the ballot. Bennett is not that person.
So, Bennett’s loss is less about movements and more about institutions. The media, though, cannot illustrate institutions the way they can show Tea Partiers waving signs and shaking their fists at the Convention.
This is often the case. Back in 1992 when I was living in Chicago, Carol Mosley Braun beat Al “The Pal” Dixon in the Democratic Primary by getting 38% of the vote. She became a media darling and poster girl for the “Year of the Woman” media stories (remember those?). She then went on to be a joke in the Senate.
Of course the reason Braun won was not because it was the year of the woman, it was because the institutions allowed a self-financed candidate, Al Holfeld, to peel off Dixon’s support. Dixon would have easily trounced Braun in a two-person runoff, but the rules didn’t allow for that. Institutions are a huge part of the story, but they are unglamorous.
So Bennett lost primarily because Utah has institutions which allow extreme views and fringe candidates to take hold of the selection process, not because the Tea Partiers have moved the state’s voters so far to the Right that not even Bennett can survive.
Of course we are weird for other reasons, too.
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