Colorado Republican Party Says “No Caucus For You”

On Tuesday, the Colorado Republican Party’s executive committee voted to cancel the presidential preference poll that would have been held at its 2016 presidential caucus. In effect, Colorado has just dropped out of the Republican presidential nomination process.

To be clear, there will still be a Republican caucus in the state, sometime in late winter. But a caucus generally serves two functions. First, there is a preference vote, at which participants register their support for various presidential candidates. Second, there is an election for county convention delegates. This is the first stage in the byzantine process of selecting national convention delegates who will represent Colorado Republicans at the national convention in Cleveland next summer. The state party just got rid of the first part.

This will likely have substantial effects on who participates in the caucus and who campaigns in the state. Since there will be no candidate preference vote, there’s no bragging rights for the winner, so there’s no real point in expending much time or effort campaigning in Colorado. There will be few ads, little campaign presence, almost no rallies, probably no door-knocking. Other than coverage of the national campaigns, Colorado’s Republican voters will get little notice that there’s a caucus going on. And it’s not like caucuses usually get much of a turnout anyway. Five percent of eligible voters is considered great turnout for a caucus (other than Iowa’s).

The only people likely to show up for this event are those who are determined to be national convention delegates. These are people who are committed not only to attending the caucus, but also the county convention, the district convention, the state convention, and the national convention. These are unusual people.

What’s more, these are people who probably believe that their participation in the national convention could be determinative of the nomination outcome. In other words, they’re counting on the brokered convention scenario, in which no candidate has a majority of delegates after the last of the state primaries and caucuses and in which their own vote could be pivotal in picking a nominee. This hasn’t happened in a long time. All this is to say that turnout will be extremely low and will consist of an odd collection of partisan activists committed to maintaining some leverage on the convention floor against the party’s favorite candidate.

Why is the state party doing this? The state GOP chair seems concerned about the large number of presidential candidates and the volatility of the race; a candidate could very well win the caucus, get a ton of pledged delegates, only to drop out a week or two later, leaving the delegates unpledged.* It’s not clear to me why this is a problem. After all, Rick Santorum won the Colorado GOP caucus in 2012, and after he dropped out, his pledged delegates were free to vote for the party’s ultimate nominee, Mitt Romney. Like basically every nominee in the modern era, Romney had enough pledged delegates from the caucuses and primaries that there was no real contest at the convention. The fact that Colorado’s delegates largely started as Santorum people really wasn’t an issue. So it’s not obvious just what problem is being fixed here.

But there’s a considerable downside to all this. Party voters will have less incentive to learn about the candidates. Any democratic benefits that result from people discussing politics with their neighbors at a caucus meeting were pretty much thrown out the door. A lot of potential advertising revenue has been squandered. If you’re a Coloradan who hates political ads, okay, this is a pretty good outcome for you, but really, opting out of a monumental decision like which candidate to nominate for president is not something to be proud of.

*The party is also claiming that current national party rules require all delegates to be pledged to the plurality winner of a state caucus vote. This seems a strained interpretation of RNC rules.

[Cross-posted at Mischiefs of Faction]

Seth Masket

Seth Masket is an associate professor of political science at the University of Denver.