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