Making a choice

Sunday, January 6, 2008

Missouri has had three presidential primaries. Ever. It will have its fourth presidential primary Feb. 5. Voters in the 158th District of the Missouri House of Representatives will also choose a state representative on Feb. 5, which could bump the historically low turnout for presidential primaries.

Which is better? A primary or caucuses?

Both give registered voters important roles. In a primary, that means going to the polls and casting votes. In a caucus, it means going to a meeting and picking delegates to national political conventions.

Missouri has relied on the caucus system, much like the one in Iowa, for most of its statehood since 1821. The first presidential primary was in 1988. The state returned to caucuses in 1992 and 1996. The state opted for a primary in 2000. The 2004 primary cost $3.7 million ($39,000 in Cape Girardeau County) and drew just over 500,000 voters statewide, or 15 percent of the registered voters.

Elsewhere on this page, Washington Post columnist David Broder worries about the low turnout in this year's Iowa caucus (20 percent) and wonders if a primary would attract more participants. Probably not. Iowans get much more excited about the presidential selection process because they're the first in the nation to have a say on who eventually might be the Republican and Democratic candidates. Even with all the nationwide media attention and the candidates who blanket Iowa in the weeks preceding the caucuses, only 20 percent of that state's eligible voters take part.

So what? At least those Iowans who show up for caucuses have more than a passing knowledge of the candidates.

Remember, the purpose of both primaries and caucuses is purely political. They provide a process whereby delegates to national political conventions will be picked. In Iowa, both Republicans and Democrats have their caucuses on the same day. That's not true in all states. The last state to have a caucus this year will be Nebraska, when that state's Republicans gather June 28. Meanwhile, Nebraska's Democrats will caucus Feb. 9.

So should taxpayers foot the bill for a presidential primary when the cost of caucuses is borne by political parties?

Between Jan. 5, when Wyoming Republicans held county conventions (similar to caucuses), and Feb. 1, one or both political parties will have caucuses or primaries in nine states. On Feb. 5, when Missourians have their presidential primary, more than 20 other states also will have caucuses or primaries for one or both major parties.

It will be interesting to see what the turnout is Feb. 5 in Missouri. Perhaps a primary serves a useful purpose by streamlining the process and giving it structure. For example, the polls will close at 7 p.m. on primary election day. In Iowa, caucuses last as long as the want, which means getting complete results can go on all night. Either way, as long as Missouri in a pack of 20-plus states that kick off the presidential selection process on the same day, it will never enjoy the attention of the candidates that Iowa and New Hampshire have.

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