Voters in Hawaii’s upcoming Republican presidential caucus have found themselves in an unusual position: They’re relevant.
The change reflects a GOP effort to create enthusiasm for the party in a state where conservatives face long odds in November.
Hawaii is home turf for President Obama and the Democratic Party. But for the first time, everyday Republican voters in the Aloha State will have a say in their party’s presidential nomination process.
"What we want to do is get more people involved in the system," Hawaii GOP chairman David Chang said. "We want that person to come out and vote. And then they’ll realize that their vote will count because the results will ultimately determine which presidential candidate will get our delegates."
Republican caucuses in the past were drawn-out and largely informal affairs. Party members gathered in parks, businesses and homes to pick delegates to the state convention in a process that took about two weeks.
Votes for presidential candidates weren’t even counted. The state’s GOP presidential delegates were chosen at the state convention months later, and then they were free to vote for whomever they pleased.
Under the new system, individual votes for Republican candidates will be tallied on caucus day next Tuesday with 17 of the state’s 20 delegates up for grabs.
Candidates will gain support in proportion to their vote totals. The other three are "superdelegates" who may vote for anyone at the national convention this summer.
Even with the changes, Republican officials expect a turnout of only about 6,000 voters, partly because voting will occur in just a two-hour window, from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m.
None of the candidates — Newt Gingrich, Ron Paul, Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum — has visited Hawaii and none has a strong direct connection to the islands, further muting enthusiasm.
Romney’s campaign is the most visible, though that’s a relative term since none of the campaigns has drawn much attention. Romney’s Mormon faith gives him a boost, thanks to the state’s significant population of Latter-day Saints.
Matt Romney visited Oahu in December to rally support for his father’s campaign, a stay that included a fundraiser in a largely Mormon North Shore community.
All four campaigns have faced the challenge of familiarizing voters with the new caucus process and convincing them their voices will matter. Campaign volunteers have needed to explain repeatedly that only ballots cast while caucuses are open will count — there is no absentee or mail-in voting.
Even if the caucus increases party interest, it’s unlikely that in November Hawaii will vote for a Republican presidential candidate over Obama, who was born in Honolulu and grew up in the state. Also, Hawaii voters tend to support Democratic candidates. The state’s governor, its entire congressional delegation and the overwhelming majority of state lawmakers are all Democrats.
Still, there is reason for the GOP to try to stir up its partisans this year — the party has its best chance of winning a U.S. Senate seat since Sen. Hiram Fong retired in 1977.
Former Republican Gov. Linda Lingle is seeking to replace 87-year-old Democratic Sen. Daniel Akaka, who is retiring. Lingle was the state’s first female governor and served two terms.
John Hart, chairman of Hawaii Pacific University’s Communication Department, analyzes state politics. He’s not sure whether the new caucus system will do much for the party.
"(The caucus) is a better way to market your product — Republicans," he said. "The question is whether that product sells in the islands."