New rules could mean a long, dramatic battle for the GOP presidential nominee

Washington state nixed a primary, to save money, but the complicated caucus/convention system next spring could occur in the midst of the homestretch for the candidates.

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Mitt Romney (Romney campaign)

Washington state nixed a primary, to save money, but the complicated caucus/convention system next spring could occur in the midst of the homestretch for the candidates.

Ready or not, the 2012 presidential campaign is well under way.  Some on the left may not be happy about it, but President Obama almost certainly will face no serious opposition for the Democratic nomination.  All the drama will be on the Republican side, and based on the rules this cycle, and the early maneuvering, there may be drama aplenty.

Most American elections are very simple; whoever gets the most votes wins.  There is nothing simple, however, about our process for electing a president.  The rules are the key to everything, and the rules seem to change every four years.  Most of us will be spectators in this drama, especially given the fact that the Washington legislature has cancelled the presidential primary in order to save money.

To enjoy the show you need to understand what is going on, so here's a primary primer.

The one thing political parties still control is the presidential nomination process. The Republican National Committee (RNC) writes the rules for the national convention, and the various state parties write the rules on the selection of delegates to that convention.  State parties and state governments that attempt to ignore those rules run the risk of not having their delegates seated at the convention.  Courts have ruled against state parties when it comes to primary elections and access to the November ballot, but no court is going to tell the Republican or Democratic Party how to run their conventions. 

This cycle, the RNC has tweaked the rules in a very significant way.  They have effectively set up a three-stage process.  The traditional early states will be allowed to conduct their caucuses and primaries in February.  The states that apportion their delegates in a caucus/convention format, or by a primary election that awards delegates proportionate to the votes received, will be allowed to go in March.  States that hold winner-take-all primaries must wait until at least April.

This staging is designed to slow down the process and allow more candidates to compete deeper into the year.  Winner-take-all primaries in big states favor candidates with lots of money and established name familiarity.  By pushing those contests back, the RNC has given hope to candidates who otherwise might not have a chance.  Will the GOP regret this choice?

Conventional wisdom holds that the Republican nominee with either be Gov. Rick Perry or former Gov. Mitt Romney.  I share that view.  But the rules, and the ability of candidates to use the internet, the plethora of televised debates, and the 24-hour cable news cycle to spread their message, may allow one or more of the long shots to remain viable deep into the process. Meanwhile, money is becoming less important in such modern political campaigns.

So let’s walk through this process, with a special eye to how the caucus/convention system will work in Washington state.

The Iowa caucuses will lead things off on Monday, Feb. 6.  Caucuses tend to favor conservatives popular with the GOP’s grassroots activists. Perry and Romney will survive Iowa no matter poorly they may do.  But which one or two of the “others” will do well enough to emerge as alternatives to the big two establishment candidate?  Iowa will winnow the field.

The New Hampshire primary follows on Tuesday, Feb. 14.  Like most primary states, New Hampshire allows independent voters to participate.   New Hampshire has therefore revived many “moderate” candidacies, and this will be a crucial contest for Romney.  If he loses Iowa and New Hampshire his campaign will be in serious trouble. Conversely, if Perry loses Iowa and New Hampshire he will face a virtual must-win in the South Carolina primary on Tuesday, Feb. 28.

If Perry or Romney runs the table in February it’s game over.  But what if Michelle Bachman wins the caucuses in Iowa and Nevada, Romney wins New Hampshire, Perry wins South Carolina, and Ron Paul does well enough everywhere to remain alive?  Game on.

Phase 2 opens with Super Tuesday on March 6.  Roughly 10 states will hold primaries and caucuses including Massachusetts, Texas, Virginia, Ohio, and Tennessee.  Super Tuesday has often ended nomination battles, but this time these contests will all award delegates on a proportionate basis rather than winner-take-all. This system will likely allow more than one candidate to win enough delegates to stay alive.  If no one emerges from February in a commanding position, it seems unlikely that Super Tuesday will settle the issue.

Which brings us to phase 3, a long slog of winner-take-all primaries.  If there is still a battle after Super Tuesday it will be settled in big urban state primaries in New York, Conneticutt,  Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and finally California on June 5.  This is where the money and inherent advantages of either the Perry or Romney campaign should finally prevail, if they haven’t already.

And where does Washington state fit in all of this?  With the cancellation of the primary election, 40 of our 43 national delegates will be allocated by the caucus/convention process.  Unlike the Democrats’ super delegate system, the only Republicans guaranteed a seat at the convention are members of the RNC. State Chairman Kirby Wilbur and our two National Committee members, therefore, are automatic delegates.  Everyone else has to get elected.

The process will start with precinct caucuses on Saturday, March 3.  Most county and legislative district party organizations are now choosing to pool multiple caucuses in public locations, such as high schools, rather than in people’s homes.  Any registered voter can attend a caucus as long as they are willing to sign a form pledging not to participate in any other party’s nomination process.  At each caucus two or three attendees will be elected as delegates to the next step in the process, which is the legislative district caucus in King County, the county convention in the rest of the state.

A presidential straw poll will be taken at the precinct caucuses and the state party will release the results.  Those results will be meaningless.  The straw poll will have nothing to do with who ultimately wins Washington’s delegates, but the media will announce a “winner” on March 3, just as they erroneously announced Pat Robertson as the winner in Washington state in 1988.

Some or all of the presidential campaigns may try and organize and turn supporters out for the caucuses, but the battle will really begin with the county conventions and district caucuses.  These mini conventions elect delegates to the state convention, and take place in high school gyms during weekends throughout April and May.  The presidential campaigns still in the running will organize slates of delegates informally pledged to their candidate and work to get those slates elected.

The state convention will be held in Tacoma the weekend of June 2.  Three national delegates will be elected in each of the 10 congressional district caucuses, with 10 delegates elected at large on the convention floor.  These delegates must disclose whom they support for president, and will be bound to support that candidate at the national convention.  This is the only step in the process where delegates are formally selected based on their support for a candidate.

At every step in the process deals are cut, and agreements are made.  Potential delegates are often more interested in getting themselves elected to the state or national convention than they are in supporting any particular presidential candidate.  Delegates are often elected based on their popularity or long service to the party, not because of whom they support for president.

What do you do if your candidate drops out before the state convention?  What happens if Perry or Romney has locked up the nomination, but the majority of the delegates in Tacoma support Bachman or Paul?  These sorts of scenarios have happened before.  Party leaders are called upon to negotiate agreements that bring unity and order to the state convention and elect a national delegation.  The caucus/convention process is the ultimate in old-school, grassroots, back-room party politics.

The 2012 GOP nomination fight is unpredictable at this point.  It may end early with a decisive string of victories by one candidate.  But the rules this cycle and the emergence of new forms of campaigning very well may produce a battle as dramatic and drawn out as the Obama-Clinton battle of 2008.  Strap yourselves in.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Chris Vance

Chris Vance

Chris Vance, a former Republican party chairman, is a senior fellow at the Niskanen Center.