DENVER, CO – It’s politics at the most personal level, as Colorado Republicans gather tomorrow at their precinct caucuses to discuss and profess support for each of the four remaining GOP presidential candidates with their neighbors, and for the second time in four years, vote in a non-binding straw poll.
Most political observers expect former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, winner of Saturday’s Nevada caucus, to roll to another victory in Colorado. Such an outcome would make Romney 2-for-2 in the state’s preference poll after his 2008 romp.
Romney garnered just over 60 percent of the vote in Colorado’s 2008 straw poll, easily outpacing the eventual nominee, Sen. John McCain, by more than forty points. But while his support in Colorado remained considerable, Romney decided to end his campaign just days later, on February 7, 2008.
What a difference four years could make for Team Romney.
Clearly, Romney hopes that a Rocky Mountain repeat will provide a boost with delegates and demonstrate a major sign of campaign momentum, with contests in Minnesota and Missouri also taking place Tuesday night. With just one debate remaining in February and the month’s remaining contests three weeks away, an impressive Colorado victory would go a long way in making the path to the nomination for each of the remaining GOP rivals increasingly difficult.
There has been little polling in the state relative to the other early contests, but the most recent Public Policy Polling survey of likely Republican caucus voters shows Romney with a commanding lead over former Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, 40 to 26 percent. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Representative Ron Paul carve up the remaining votes, with 18 percent and 12 percent respectively.
Among the four, Romney’s supporters are the most committed, but Santorum holds slight edges over the frontrunner in three important Republican constituencies: Tea Party supporters, Evangelicals, and self-described “very conservative” voters. But PPP also detected volatility among those likely caucus-goers, with 33 percent indicating they could change their candidate preference between Saturday, the day PPP conducted the survey, and Tuesday evening.
While Romney won the Nevada caucus, hovering just around the symbolic 5o percent mark, his perceived strength in Colorado will be put to the test. His campaign has earned a raft of top-level endorsements by the state’s GOP luminaries. But with three strong anybody-but-Romney candidates in Santorum, Gingrich, and Paul—representing different factions within the Republican primary and caucus electorate—splitting the “anybody but Romney,” the question will really not be about a Romney victory, that seems to be a foregone conclusion.
What political observers will try to ascertain is how the other three candidates split the non-Romney vote—and whether Santorum or Gingrich can begin to put distance between himself and the other to possibly force the other out of the race, and in enough time to make a real play for delegates. Paul remains formidable and should not be disregarded, whether one views him as a spoiler in the race or as a necessary libertarian influence, effectively giving voice to the more disaffected Republicans who vowed “never again” following the nomination of McCain four years ago.
Regardless of the outcome Tuesday, Colorado’s caucus procedure remains relatively unique, combining a traditional precinct caucus and state assembly process with a new, Iowa-like straw poll. To comply with RNC rules, the poll is non-binding, and delegates for the national convention will not be formally selected until April.
Lost yet? I asked Ryan Call, State Chairman of the Colorado Republican Party, to explain.
“Colorado has been holding precinct caucuses and party assemblies for over a hundred years to select party candidates and local party leaders,” explained Call.
Unlike primary states and other winner-take-all schemes employed around the country, Colorado’s caucus and assembly structure spreads the delegate selection over many months:
“A total of 36 delegates will be chosen to represent Colorado at the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Florida in August – 3 delegates will be elected in each of Colorado’s seven congressional district assemblies in early April, and 12 delegates will be elected at the state assembly and convention on April 14, 2012, joining three party leaders (State Chairman, RNC Committeeman and RNC Committeewoman) as delegates under the RNC rules that will cast votes to designate the Republican candidates for President and Vice-President and adopt a national party platform,” Call elaborated.
To get elected delegate to the national convention, however, requires participation at the earlier precinct caucus and county assemblies. But recent memory points to a drastically different system of conducting Republican Party selection of Presidential nominees, and has led to confusion in both 2008 and this year as well.
“For a short time, Colorado held a Presidential primary in the spring during the Presidential election years of 1992, 1996 and 2000. But in 2002, the state legislature changed the state statute to eliminate the early Presidential primary election and return the selection of delegates to the national nominating conventions back over to the respective political parties,” said Call. He continued, “The principal arguments at the time were that eliminating the Presidential primary would save the state millions of dollars, and that it was really the responsibility of the party committees to run their own nomination process and select delegates to the national conventions under their respective party rules.”
Originally scheduled for March, Colorado’s 2008 caucus was moved forward to February 5, 2008, joining 24 other states in “Super Tuesday” voting. Republicans voted to once again move the date forward one month at a meeting last fall, skirting RNC rules penalizing states moving up their caucuses by ensuring the results remain non-binding.
“I believe Colorado Republicans exercised a great degree of foresight in moving up the date of our Republican precinct caucuses to February 7th. In addition to its status as a key swing-state in the upcoming general election, the fact that leading candidates have or will be coming to our state to compete for our caucus and delegate votes underscores Colorado’s role as a state that could either confirm and lend important momentum to a leading candidate, or change the direction of the race for others at this early stage in the nomination process,” said Call.
The schedule of campaign stops in the state by each of the contenders in just the last week appears to support Call’s assertion. Romney and Santorum both made appearances in the state despite record-breaking snowfall over the weekend, and will return to the state for events scheduled for today. Paul made multiple stops along the Front Range last Tuesday. Gingrich’s Monday appearances include a rally and an energy policy forum.
And no matter whom Colorado Republicans select on Tuesday, Colorado’s status as a battleground state remains unequivocal. Even if the path to the GOP nomination doesn’t hinge on Colorado alone, the contest against President Barack Obama very likely may.