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Last But Not Least: Oregon is in play in this year's primary and changes could keep it that way

A couple of weeks ago on a rainy Tuesday morning, Oregon Secretary of State Bill Bradbury shuffled papers on his desk when his assistant informed


A couple of weeks ago on a rainy Tuesday morning, Oregon Secretary of State Bill Bradbury shuffled papers on his desk when his assistant informed him of a discreet caller on the line. It was President Clinton, and this time the phone call wasn't to discuss personal pleasantries. Bradbury worked on Clinton's presidential campaigns in 1991 and 1995, and both of their daughters, Chelsea Clinton and Zoe Bradbury, attended Stanford University together in the late 1990s

The former president was calling Bradbury, one of Oregon's 12 so-called Super Delegates -- there are 796 nationwide -- to persuade him to cast his vote for Hillary rather than Barack Obama

But Bradbury wasn't budging.

"I told him there was no way I could commit my vote to Hillary, even though we are old friends, at this time," Bradbury said. "I am going to first look closely at how Oregonians vote in our primary election on May 20 before I make any decisions on how to cast my vote as a super delegate. I want the people's voice to matter in the presidential process, and it should matter over what the personal opinions of the individual super delegates are."

The votes of super delegates like Bradbury are just one of the things up for grabs, and consequently under scrutiny this year as one of the tightest presidential primaries in history unfolds on the Democratic side. The result, say some insiders, could be a massive overhaul of the national primary system. Meanwhile, Oregon's Democratic voters may have a chance to determine who wins the party's presidential nomination.

When votes for Oregon's 65 delegates officially go up for grabs May 20, the only blue-ballot state primaries left on the calendar will be June 3 in Idaho, Montana and South Dakota, when a total of 70 delegates will be pledged. So, for the first time in U.S. history, it appears Oregon may be in a position to determine the outcome of a presidential primary election, and it's about time. After all, it was Oregonians who invented the current presidential preference primary system in 1910, when Oregon became the first state to require that candidates receive the majority of its delegates to the National Convention in order to win the state's official nomination.

A Call for Reform

Oregon's political junkies, and some voters, may be excited at the prospect of casting such an important vote. But the process wasn't meant to work this way. Take Super Tuesday for example. Protagonists argue Super Tuesday gives each state an equal say in the Democratic and Republican nomination for the parties. There may be some truth in that, but the reality is that a general election negates issues important to individual states and regions. Smaller states plunging into the Super Tuesday madness, like Alaska with its 18 delegates and Delaware with its 23, are overshadowed by delegate-rich states like California (440) and New York (281). This all-in-one approach doesn't lend itself to providing candidates the impetus to spend time in each state getting to know the relevant issues there, say detractors.

"Super Tuesday has turned into "Super-Sized Tuesday," with the number of states that want to hold primaries in early February more than doubling from the last presidential election cycle," said Massachusetts Secretary of State William Galvin, Co-Chair of the National Association of Secretaries of State Subcommittee on Presidential Primaries. "The reality is that most Americans won't have a say in choosing the presidential nominees and those that do will only have a few weeks at most to make up their minds."

Why should candidates focus their attention, and more importantly to them their campaign funds, on garnering the attention of voters in Alaska and Delaware when winning the primary elections in 11 states -- California, New York, Illinois, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Ohio, Texas, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Georgia -- gives you 1,788 delegates, falling short of the required 2,025 simple majority by 237 votes.

Are Georgia's 103 delegates and its agriculture-heavy economy really more vital to U.S. prosperity than Alaskan oil production? Should California, the sixth-largest economy in the world, be lumped in with West Virginia's fragile, coal-based economy that offers just 39 delegates? Does it make sense to force North Dakota (21 delegates) to compete with Illinois (185 delegates) for candidates' attention?

Not to Bradbury, one of the most outspoken proponents, at least in Oregon, of revamping the current national primary system. Bradbury maintains that the current process is busted, especially when one looks at the 2008 primary season. This year, state election officials spent months arguing with state party leaders over their position on the primary calendar. Some states, against party wishes, decided to bump their elections ahead on the calendar in order to give their voters a say in the presidential nomination. In some cases, though, it had the opposite effect. The Democratic National Committee stripped both Michigan and Florida of their delegates for defying the party's wishes stay out of the early season fray. That's 540 potential delegates down the drain and millions of disenfranchised voters.

Republicans also punished Michigan and Florida, but ultimately allowed each state to count half of its delegates.

Rotating Regional Primaries Weighed

Bradbury agrees with the National Association of Secretaries of State's proposal to create a series of rotating regional primaries that would lend some order and predictability to the current chaotic primary schedule. Under the new rules, the U.S. would be divided into four regions - East, West, Midwest and South - with regional primaries taking place in each section during consecutive months, say April, May, June and July. The initiating region changes every four years.

"Under a rotating regional system you could not have a candidate locking up the nomination until at least after the third month," Bradbury said. "So, if there is kind of a tight race like there is this year, no one will be selected until the fourth and final month. The point is, the candidates would get to spend a lot of time in each region of the country getting to know the people there, what is important to them and the issues that are unique to that region."

For instance, in Bend, there is the recognition that natural resources, especially water and alternative energy sources, are a huge issue of importance to residents and local leaders, issues that aren't necessarily salient with people in Iowa, Pennsylvania or Ohio, Bradbury said.

"The management of national forests and grazing land, and all of these natural resource-type issues, are very West-specific," he said. "It would really help the people in each region if the candidates would take the time to get to know them, and it would really help the candidates if voters had the opportunity to get to know them, at least a little more personally than the current system allows."

In order for the reformed primary system to become a reality, each political party has to vote to officially change its rules. Democrats need only a party-wide consensus to implement rule changes while Republicans require their nominee to bring any changes in procedure to a vote at the convention. In 2000, Democrats committed to the rotating regional primary, but President George W. Bush subsequently shot it down by deciding not to bring it up at the Republican convention. Party unanimity did not exist and President Bush decided he did not want acrimony on the day he was accepting his party's nomination, Bradbury said.

"But it's ready to go again this year," he said. "It's been adopted by the rules committee in both parties, so the same decision that President Bush faced now rests on the shoulders of Sen. John McCain."

Heading Into the 9th Inning

Meanwhile, Oregonians collectively hold their breath to learn if our presidential primaries will carry any weight.

"Hillary just said how excited she was to win 38 new delegates in New Mexico," said Kari Chisholm, president of Portland-based Mandate Media, Inc., a political consulting firm that uses web technology to helps politicians reach constituents.

"If Hillary and Barack Obama are now counting delegates in the single digits, you better believe Oregon stands to be an important state," Chisholm said.

Everything now hinges on the elections set for March 4, dubbed "Super Tuesday 2" by cable news pundits covering the campaign. The Ohio and Texas primaries pay out the largest jackpot that day with 161 and 228 delegates, respectively, but the Vermont and Rhode Island primaries also tally votes that evening with 55 delegates on the line.

Barack polled pint-sized primacy over Hillary following the February 19 primaries in Washington, Wisconsin and Hawaii, stuffing another 91 new delegates into his campaign ballot box compared to 52 for Clinton. Obama's in the lead - but by how much depends on whom you believe. For some reason, their current total of pledged delegates differs from source to source, although all sources agree Barack is the front-runner. For instance, records Obama's lead at 1,327 to Hillary's 1,255; has Barack out in front 1,192 to 1,036; The Washington Post calls it 1,336 to 1,251, Obama; the New York Times counts it 1,351 to 1,262; and, an encyclopedic and oft-cited Blog tracking political arcana since 1999, gives Obama the nod at 1,298 to 1,244.

No matter what source is correct, this officially is the tightest presidential primary in anyone's memory, including Google's - a deep web search could not return definitive information on any race being closer in the 98-year history of primary elections - which underscores the possibility of Oregon currently holding the primary trump card.

Increase in Local Turnout Expected

No matter the final tally, the tight race between Barack and Hillary is causing more of a buzz among Oregon's Democratic and independent voters than some local politicos can remember. Pat Ackley, communications director for the Deschutes Democratic Party, said a lot of independent voters are showing up at party meetings now, asking what they have to do to re-register as a Democrat so they can participate on May 20. At the same time, Deschutes County Republican Party Chairman Leland Smith said he is not seeing the same bounce.

"The unintended affect of high voter interest and turnout is that it really has a huge impact on the down-ticket races for U.S. Senate, and local elections, for example," Ackley said. "We thought our primary was so far down on the calendar it wasn't even going to be a blip on the radar, but now it looks like it will be."

Republican voters may feel somewhat disenfranchised, with McCain all but wrapping up the nomination on Super Tuesday, and this worries Party Chair Smith.

"My concern with having the national primary locked up before the May 20 election in Oregon is that many voters may decide not to send in their ballots," Smith said. "We want to keep enthusiasm high among our voter base to generate momentum toward the general election in November. We are prepared to fully support John McCain in the race for the presidency, but we are required by statutes to wait until the primary election is over to begin campaigning (for local and state elections). Until then, we can't afford to have our voters become complacent."

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