Here’s what to expect from Colorado’s GOP caucuses

Your neighborhood Republicans are gathering March 1. You should know how to get involved.

Here’s what to expect from Colorado’s GOP caucuses


Unless you’re a committed cog in the Colorado GOP machine, chances are you’ve never participated in the state’s early voting process. To many, it can be confusing. This presidential year you might be even more confused because Republican leaders in Colorado canceled their traditional presidential preference poll at the March 1 precinct caucuses. What’s that mean exactly? We’ll get to that. But one thing it doesn’t mean is that presidential politics won’t play at least some role during the local party get-togethers taking place March 1. And besides, there are a whole bunch of other important local and state elections to worry about.

So if you’re a young Republican, new to Colorado, or are just thinking about participating in your first caucus this year, here’s what you need to know. (Democrats can click here for a similar story about their own caucuses.)

Democrats are holding an official straw poll for president at the March 1 caucuses, so why aren’t Republicans?

In August, GOP leaders in Colorado chose not to hold a traditional presidential preference poll on March 1. Why? They didn’t want to tie the hands of delegates who will go to the Republican National Convention in Cleveland. Party officials said new rules by the RNC would bind Colorado delegates to the candidates who won the straw polls going into Cleveland. They wanted our GOP delegates to be free agents, so they scrapped the poll. It’s disputed whether the rules would have bound delegates to a candidate if that candidate dropped out, and there was a time when some party people called for the GOP to re-instate the straw poll, but that didn’t happen. So this means there won’t be any official presidential straw polls at neighborhood caucuses across Colorado on March 1. Not everyone is happy about it, for sure, but the move didn’t lead to a complete meltdown. Party officials point out that the vote was unanimous among an executive committee that is a good mix of Tea Party liberty-types and establishment Republicans.

For his part, Colorado Republican Party Chairman Steve House downplays the significance of nixing the straw poll. He describes previous ones merely as “media events.” In 2008, for example, Mitt Romney won it in Colorado, while John McCain went on to become the nominee. And in 2012 Rick Santorum won in Colorado, and, like Romney, didn’t get the nomination.

“So Colorado picked these two guys, they didn’t get any delegates because of it [and] delegates are not bound in a caucus process,” House says. “The only way they would be is if we had a presidential primary, and this state does not do a presidential primary. So we decided this year— we had the option to do a straw poll and bind our delegates— and through lots of discussion back in August the executive committee made the decision not to bind the delegates and hold the straw poll because it just wasn’t sensible in an election year that we potentially will have a convention with multiple candidates on the first ballot. We didn’t want to be bound.”

So are the March 1, 2016 GOP caucuses important beyond presidential politics?

Oh, yes. And if you want to see steam shoot out the ears of a Republican Party leader in Colorado, try to say otherwise.

The precinct caucuses are about party building, and there’s much to be done at the local level during these neighborhood political gatherings. Registered Republican voters will help select their neighbors to positions of power in the party structure. They’ll help form the state’s Republican organization for the next two years by electing precinct captains, district captains, and other positions on up to convention delegates.

The caucuses are also a place where you can meet candidates for local and state office, and also just get a sense of what’s going on politically.

“I call it the grassiest of roots,” says Denver GOP County Chair Sue Moore. “If you want to get involved and you want to know what’s happening, that’s the place where it all starts.”

In Elbert County, for instance, the area is so heavily Republican that the races for two open seats on the county commission are likely to be decided in the GOP primary, says Tom Peterson who heads up the Elbert County GOP. “So that is one strong draw” for the precinct caucuses, he says.

In Boulder, the new county Republican Party chair there, Peg Cage, says she’s heard concern in the past that some people just showed up to the caucuses during presidential election years so they could hit the straw poll and then split, blowing off the local stuff altogether. She wonders if perhaps not having a presidential poll this time around will bring out those who are more committed.

I’ve been a registered Colorado Republican, but I’ve never participated in this process. What are these ‘precinct caucuses’ happening on March 1?

These are neighborhood events that take place at the homes of local party leaders, or in community centers, schools or churches near where you live. You’ll show up and hear speeches from candidates (or their supporters) for state, local and national office, depending on your location. This year there’s a very contentious GOP primary for U.S. Senate in the race against Democrat Michael Bennet, so that will likely be a big focal point.

Most importantly, though, in most counties caucus-goers will be electing delegates to the next level, which is the county convention. Some counties might take an unofficial straw poll to see where local Republicans stand on the current announced crop of GOP candidates for U.S. Senate. But that’s really a county-by-county thing. Douglas County, for instance, has a tradition of doing straw polls for all statewide elections. Other counties might just stick to the local stuff.

But will there be any talk about the 2016 presidential race at the March 1 precinct caucuses in Colorado?

Of course. There will be more than one Republican in a room, so yeah, presidential politics is going to come up.

“They will be talking about the Republican candidates for president. They just won’t be taking a preference poll,” says Colorado GOP Chairman Steve House.

Now, some counties might actually take unofficial straw polls for president anyway just to see where people stand. But these polls will not be sanctioned by the state or national party. County party officials might even put the numbers out on social media, but there won’t be an official count by the Colorado GOP.

Sedgwick County Republican Party Chairwoman Claudine Kappius says she hates the presidential straw poll, so she’s fine with not having one this time around. “I think it’s the worst thing that anybody ever tried to do,” she says. She clarified that she meant the poll just didn’t have much value to her. The GOP candidates whom Colorado caucus-goers chose in recent elections, she said, didn’t become the nominee.

In Pueblo, county GOP chairman George Rivera doesn’t think not having a presidential straw poll this year will affect turnout. He hasn’t decided whether the Pueblo County GOP will do an unofficial one yet, but he believes enough Republicans are galvanized by the political moment to bring them out to the 2016 caucuses.

“They’re pretty upset with what’s going on with the country,” he said. “People are upset and they’re motived … I just think we’re going to have more involvement than we have had in the past … I think people still want to have their voices heard and express at least where they’re at.”

OK, I’m going to the caucuses. How do I know when and where to show up?

Sometime in the next week or so the state party will have a link on its website where voters can register to avoid lines on caucus night. Registered Republican voters can sign in online to register at the state party website, but can also just show up without registering online. If you pre-register online the party will e-mail you your caucus location.

Back to presidential politics for a minute. It’s 2016— a presidential election year! Will March 1 have any bearing on the presidential race for Colorado Republicans?

Yes, in a way.

If you go to a Republican precinct caucus on March 1, you’ll be helping elect delegates to the next level. The levels after the March 1 precinct caucuses are the congressional conventions and the state convention. These delegates selected March 1 at the precinct caucuses are people who will eventually go on to make up 34 of the state GOP’s 37 delegates at the national convention held later this year in Cleveland. So if you have a favorite presidential candidate, you’ll want to make sure you elect delegates who also support that candidate. And plenty of the presidential campaigns are trying to figure out the best strategy for getting their candidate help in Colorado on March 1.

But delegates aren’t bound to a candidate even though they say they might support someone, right?

So this is interesting. That’s technically correct— only if someone trying to get selected as a delegate to the national convention doesn’t pledge their support for a candidate in writing on what’s called an intention-to-run form. If they do opt to put a candidate’s name on this form then the delegate is bound to that candidate when and if they get to Cleveland, says Colorado Republican Party director Ryan Lynch.

But these potential delegates don’t even have to fill out this form until after the March 1 caucuses. So, on March 1, could some Republicans running to become a delegate to the national convention promise to name a presidential candidate on their form as part of a strategy to get elected as a delegate? Sure.

So some Colorado delegates might end up bound to a candidate when they get to Cleveland?

“It’s possible,” says the Colorado GOP’s director Lynch.

But it all comes down to strategy. If a presidential campaign thinks its candidate is super popular in Colorado they might tell their supporters who are running to become national delegates to indicate that they’re supporting that candidate. If a different campaign doesn’t think they have that much support here, perhaps they’ll urge their supporters running to become delegates to run as an unbound delegate — a free agent.

“It’s going to be individual strategies by each campaign depending on how they go about doing it,” Lynch says, adding that presidential campaigns are calling the state party daily to try and better understand the caucus system on March 1 and how they can devise a strategy from there.

So March 1 is the first step in a long game when it coms to the 2016 race for the White House. Presidential contenders are going to want their supporters elected each step of the way so the voting body (the delegates to the congressional and state conventions) are stacked with supporters of their candidate.

But the national convention is a long way off. And anything could happen before then. Candidates could and likely will drop out.

And meanwhile, there are local issues that can affect voters’ lives perhaps even more than who wins the presidential nomination, says Garfield County GOP Chairmain Dave Merritt. Every member of the Colorado House of Representatives is up for re-election this year, as is half the state Senate. In Garfield County, for instance, there are two races for county commissioner. “So all those, frankly, are at least as important to individuals at the local level as trying to influence the presidential election,” he says.

So if I’m not a diehard, party-building type, but I’m still a registered Republican and I want to participate, why should I spend time on March 1 to caucus?

Other than that it just might be your duty as a registered voter in a major political party to participate in local elections and make your voice heard about who should represent you and your party?

Well, if you want to nationalize it, if you have a favorite Republican candidate for the White House who you want to see nominated by the Republican Party, then you can get in on the ground floor early to find out who of your local potential delegates are also in your corner. And, most importantly, you yourself can run to become a delegate.

Another big reason to get involved this time is to hep decide who could run against Bennett for U.S. Senate. In April, only three GOP candidates out of the dozen or so who have announced they’re running will make it out of the state convention. That’s because a candidate needs to crack 30 percent of the delegate vote in order to get on the GOP primary ballot for U.S. Senate.

“You very much can have an impact whether you run for delegate or you elect delegates who support candidates that you like,” at the March 1 caucuses, says Lynch. “Your vote goes so much further in a caucus process simply by showing up.”


Photo credit: DonkeyHotey on Flickr

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About the Author

Corey Hutchins

is a journalist in Colorado, and Columbia Journalism Review's Rocky Mountain correspondent for the United States Project.


  1. Berniebutt on said:

    I have religiously attended Republican caucuses for decades. The last was the final one for me. I finally came to the realization that my time would be better watching TV at home.
    It is time for Colorado to leave the obsolete caucus system. Our use of it pretty much makes Colorado inconsequential in the presidential races, compounded by the lateness of our actually picking a presidential candidate. By the time we get around to it, the national candidate is already chosen by other states. That is why we do not see any primary ads by presidential candidates.

  2. Chuck on said:

    I’ve attended the last four Colorado GOP caucuses and they have all been a total waste of my time. They take hours and provide no tangible benefit. I swore I’d never attend another and given this latest twist I certainly won’t. Is it too much to ask to just be able to vote and have my vote count??? Really?? Our party is pompous, elitist and pathetic in Colorado.

  3. ralph s on said:

    What you think of caucuses is not part of this article. This is a well written and educational article. Very well done!

  4. Susan on said:

    Ms. Hutchins, please get your facts right. The straw poll is not a Colorado GOP tradition. It was instituted in 2008 in order to raise the visibility of the caucuses.

    As a central committee person, I hated the straw poll. People came in expecting a binding vote, and were furious at me that the vote meant nothing.

  5. John on said:

    Before reading this article, I had no idea how this was going to work. No one I know has any clue about this. Some months ago I changed my party affiliation back to Republican so I could vote in the primary. Now I will not be able to vote for a Presidental candidate. That is just wrong. The state GOP heads need to realize this is a big turnoff for many locals. I don’t want to vote for a delegate rep, I want to vote for a Presidental candidate!!

  6. Denise on said:

    The only reason that I am affiliated with any party (I’ve been a registered Republican since the first presidential election when 18 year olds were allowed to vote) only because I knew that someday I would want to vote in a presidential primary. Well, for the first time in all these years, I am undecided and wanted to attend a caucus. But now, I feel cheated. I guess I will have to just trust watching the debates, and hope that the candidate that I decide upon wins in the states that actually get to have a choice!! GOP needs to get a primary for our voters in Colorado! The new “vote for a delegate” sounds like an unstable and wishy washy way to conduct this important process. This year is too important to screw up!!

  7. Matt Arnold on said:

    Informative article – particularly for those not immersed in the process, as some of us commenting clearly are.

    Nice to see the return of some semblance of actual *journalism* to Colorado.

  8. Cecile tobey on said:

    With non-binding delegates, it sounds that a few will have total decision making power.How can this be truly representative of the citizens of Colorado?

  9. Chuck Paul on said:

    The only reason I registered republican was to participate in the Colorado primaries. I will unregister now.

    There’s absolutely no benefit to me at all to be registered Republican.

  10. Ron Vaughn on said:

    I also have attended in the past, and came away feeling that the caucus was a waste of time. My input had no actual impact on the outcome. It was very frustrating.

    Also, Mr. Hutchins, you have simple typos in your article above. You should have someone proof-read this before publishing.

  11. Bob Kub on said:

    The republicanParty in CColorado is a sad joke. The Colorado GOP self elected officials are blue not red. RINO.

  12. Re'uben Drebenstedt on said:

    Most sad to see we have no primary. No way to feel really involved nor that my participation in the great American system has given me a voice, than counts.

  13. Tom Mitchell on said:

    I take part in the republican caucus process. I was explaining the caucus voting process to my wife as we support different candidates and intend to go to the caucus and make our opinion’s known. She then looked up the caucus process on line and informed it had changed and no vote for president would take place. I am shocked! Time to push to change Colorado to a Primary State. I want my vote to be heard weather the candidate ends up being the party choice or not.

  14. David Adam on said:

    So, the republicans in Colorado have no say in who the republican nominee for President is. Who thinks that’s a good idea? Other states who do have a say.

  15. David Hall on said:

    What steps can the average voter take to ensure lawmakers approve legislation to create a primary system for presidential elections in Colorado? Voters want to feel their voice is being heard and their vote counts.

  16. Ariella on said:

    I think it sucks that we the people don’t get to vote like the rest of the country does!!!! So 34 people represent the views of the entire state of colorado? ?? That is total bs!!!

  17. Jack Smith on said:

    It seems to me as though the country club leaders of the party need a wake up call? They managed to dump Tancredo for both ways Bob and who won? The Hick! Now they try to dump the Trump. Is Rep. Coffman going to Catholic church to speak to a group of illegals again in my Aurora? I will not attend the cacous it sounds rigged without a presidentual vote. So what if Colorado chooses delegayes who do not vote for the winner. Is it about Colorado. No more Bushes no more Clintons!

  18. S A Wands on said:

    I was so excited to vote for my candidate for president as this is such a vital year for our country where the presidency is concerned. I am angry to say that I will NOT be participating this year and I have been involved in politics since the Kennedy/Nixon debates.

  19. Bob Scott on said:

    What a chocolate mess! This reminds me of the old saw “cross a lawyer with a mobster and he’ll make you an offer you can’t understand.” This is an intentionally complex maze intended to allow party wonks to manipulate the results at every level with little or no accountability or transparency. If I don’t know what I’m being asked to vote for, I’m not voting. So count me out of the caucus, folks, I’ll just cast my vote for Trump in the general election.

  20. Georgia on said:

    I would like to see the GOP have a primary. I went to the Republican caucus and 2012. We did do the straw poll then. But, I didn’t feel like I really got to vote for my candidate. This year without the straw poll I really don’t feel represented. And I feel like the Colorado GOP is not making their voice heard on the national stage. It’s time to have a GOP primary in Colorado.

  21. Joan Eckhardt on said:

    The Republican Caucus for Precinct 14 was a joke! The only thing that was accomplished was a vote for delegates to the County Caucus(?) on March 19. No discussion about Presidential candidates, no vote, no nothing of consequence…a total waste of my time! The Republican party needs to improve their communication with the Colorado Republican voters. I had no idea that my voice in choosing the Republican Nominee had been SILENCED. All of the other states cast their votes, and NOTHING from Colorado Republicans. Even the Democrats got to vote!! My time would have been better spent watching election results on TV at home! What is wrong with Republicans? Not only are we a divided party that is attempting to eat their own, but many won’t even commit to voting for whoever the Republican nominee is just to defeat Hillary! Even the Democrats are not this stupid! I am considering registering as an Independent, and I have been voting Republican since 1968.

  22. terry smith on said:

    A friend went to a Rep caucus site on 1 March. He was told that in order to participate, he would need to pay to support delegates. Your article does not mention that. Can you explain?

  23. Dale Bugby on said:

    I’m filling out the Intent to Run form for national delegate. If checking the box and pledging to support Kasich keeps me from being selected to Cleveland, as “unpledged” so be it. We all have to stand up and be counted at some point. Pray for a brokered convention.

  24. Amanda T on said:

    I’m done with our two party system. Neither party speaks to me. I have been either a republican or independent since 1984. After the murkiness of our most recent caucus, it is apparent that we really do not have a voice.

  25. Mike Colohan on said:

    I feel that our fellow republican state leaders have given our state a black eye with their actions of pledging all of their support to Ted Crews. There actions have convinced me that we need new Republican leadership across the board in this state. How could our current leaders in this state legislature not have know that there actions would create such a negative representation of the politics in our state.

  26. Stephen on said:

    In my view, if you fail to prepare then you prepare to fail. Why did you Coloradans address this long before your turn in the GOP selection process. If you knew their was an issue, then why didn’t you challenge this a year ago. Have you been smoking legalized dope instead taking responsibility? Why do you all cry now after the selections were made? Why didn’t you attend all of your precinct meetings, understand the rules and take action along with the other 65,000 people who gave a RATS and did their duty as Citizens and Coloradans?

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