Yes, your columnists can often be hyperbolic (especially Frank). But the last several weeks have been truly remarkable at the intersection of politics, technology and the pandemic. How we conduct elections and lawmaking could be changed forever. We do our best to tamp down emotions and explain why.
The Utah Republican and Democratic parties conducted their nominating conventions by remote speechmaking and voting. Were there surprises and did the new process impact the outcome? Is this a harbinger of political gatherings in the 21st century?
Pignanelli: “All great discoveries and paradigm shifts are always stimulated by an external event.” — Roberto Esposito
Being overdramatic is a fundamental element of my Italian Irish heritage — which is handy in analyzing these new developments. The state and county conventions held in April were a HUGE shift in electioneering. Over 93% of Republican and 85% of Democrat delegates participated in the online voting process. More amazing is most attendees were holdovers from the 2018 precinct caucuses. Participants agree the events were successful. Party leaders must consider this alternative for future gatherings.
The convention outcomes destroyed any conventional wisdom. Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox outperformed polls and projections. This reflects his high-profile leadership of the COVID-19 pandemic task force.
The delegate/convention system was on a long path to extinction. However, online conventions, with delegates chosen by electronic means, may preserve this legacy for decades.
So let me wave my arms and exclaim this was really a big deal.
Webb: Convention reviews were mostly positive. The good news was no one had to spend a full day at a convention center. The bad news was that the rush and vibe and magic of being at an exciting, dynamic political convention was lost.
The serendipity and undercurrents of several thousand noisy political activists gathering in one spot was missing. A political convention can take on a life of its own. With great planning, a stemwinding speech, and a penchant to create floor buzz, a candidate can swing a lot of votes in convention. I’ve seen it happen many times. Like in an exciting basketball or football game, you can feel the momentum shift.
It’s fun to watch the floor management, the stunts and events. There’s not much intrigue in watching recorded speeches or voting remotely. The patriotic fervor of a political convention can’t be matched sitting in your pajamas with a laptop or iPad.
So I expect live, in-person conventions will return at some point. However, this year’s experience and technology can absolutely be used to involve more citizens in the political process, especially at party caucuses.
The Utah Legislature conducted two special sessions remotely. Were they successful and will this change legislating forever?
Pignanelli: I watched every second of both special sessions. The proceedings were effective — despite the intriguing and distracting overabundance of facial hair displayed by our elected officials.
Lawmakers passed needed legislation in response to the pandemic while allowing the public to observe the proceedings. Hopefully, future sessions will have a less emergency dynamic, to provide online committee hearings that permit remote public input in some form.
While the use of this system may not be a regular feature for full sessions, I believe commonsense dictates this could be how task forces, some interim committees and other special projects be conducted. This allows both lawmakers and observers from around the state to be engaged without unnecessary cost and effort.
Webb: The sessions worked in an emergency. But remote sausage-making isn’t nearly as good as being there in person, getting your hands greasy. The side discussions, the emotion, the body language, the on-the-spot coalition building are sorely missed. It’s hard to have a passionate debate from a distance.
The GOP has four-way primaries for governor and also in the 1st and 4th congressional districts. How does this impact results?
Pignanelli: All four of the candidates (and the lieutenant governor contenders) in these contests are substantive and charismatic. Also, they all enjoy a political base and will capture a slice of the electorate. Thus, mathematics compel that a person could be the GOP nominee for governor or Congress with 30-35% of the vote. This will alter how campaigns focus resources to excite the base and attract others along the ideological spectrum. Plus, any outreach will occur during a pandemic.
Webb: As I’ve written previously, Utah is assured of having a very good governor beginning next year. All four GOP candidates are solid, capable people. A four-way primary means voter targeting is more important than ever. Candidates must use every means (especially social media and direct mail) to identify likely supporters, communicate frequently and get them to vote. TV and radio ads are important, but not enough.
Leading the state’s COVID-19 response gives Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox an edge. We’ll see how innovative other candidates can be in their pandemic campaigning.
The tactics of targeting likely voters are even more critical in the two congressional districts where most candidates are not well-known.