Just a couple weeks ago, it looked like the Colorado Republican Party’s decision to move its precinct caucuses up to the first week in February wouldn’t matter much. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, by all appearances, was prepared to bag the first three presidential nominating contests — in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina — leaving it to subsequent states merely to nod their approval and endorse the presumptive nominee.
But things didn’t work out so smoothly for Romney. When all the results were in, it turned out he only won New Hampshire, trailing former Pennsylvania U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum by a handful of votes in Iowa and losing big to former House Speaker Newt Gingrich in South Carolina, throwing the contest back up for grabs, and thrusting Colorado’s GOP presidential straw poll on Feb. 7 into the national spotlight.
“It’s a testament to putting ourselves in that position,” said Chuck Poplstein, executive director of the state GOP. “We thought moving it up would give us a better chance of having a better say in the process, and that’s exactly what you’re seeing happening.”
As the four remaining Republican presidential candidates battle it out for the chance to take on Democratic President Barack Obama — the fourth candidate, Texas Congressman Ron Paul, though he hasn’t won a contest yet, can count on a solid slice of avid support for his no-nonsense brand of libertarian conservatism — Colorado’s caucuses could be a chance for Romney to reclaim the lead by repeating the dominant win he scored in 2008, or state Republicans could prolong the fight by tapping another candidate.
On Feb. 7, tens of thousands of registered Republicans will convene in schools, church basements and community centers statewide. While the precinct caucus stands as the first step in the candidate nominating process for county, state and federal offices, it’s also an occasion for parties to organize themselves at the most grassroots level by electing precinct captains — the bulk of every county’s party central committee — and considering resolutions that could become planks in party platforms. But this year, a nonbinding presidential preference poll, conducted by secret ballot before most of each caucus’s routine business gets underway, will be the focus of a national battle set to descend on Colorado next week.
Colorado Republicans voted in late September to move up the caucus date from March 6 — that’s when Democrats will be holding theirs, although those promise to be quieter affairs without a presidential or statewide contests — with an eye toward standing out from a crowd of 10 other states registering preferences on the March date, known as Super Tuesday.
Poplstein said he doesn’t expect any confusion as the parties caucus on different dates this year for the first time. “While the Democrats are sitting there waiting until their date, Republicans have the spotlight early, and we’re getting attention. The Democrats don’t have that — we’re getting the momentum,” he said.
Only five states will have reported GOP presidential results before Colorado and Minnesota, which hold caucuses on the same night, though the ranking gets complicated. Maine Republicans start caucusing on Feb. 4 but don’t post results until Feb. 11, and Missouri’s Feb. 7 primary doesn’t pick delegates. As it stands, only the Jan. 31 Florida primary and the Feb. 4 Nevada caucuses stand between the Republican candidates’ scattered early finishes and Colorado’s chance to weigh in.
“The minute Florida’s over, you’re going to see everyone flip a switch over here,” said Poplstein. He added that all four GOP presidential contenders are ramping up activity in the state but warned that Coloradans ain’t seen nothing yet. “If something happens in Florida,” he said, and then paused, considering the enormity of what could soon descend on the state. “Some things could happen that could explode it here,” he said. “That’ll all depend.”
The only public polling conducted so far in Colorado — albeit nearly two months ago, an eternity in this Republican primary — showed Gingrich with a wide lead over Romney among likely GOP caucus attendees, even though the state is considered Romney territory. A Public Policy Polling survey released on Dec. 6 had Gingrich nearly 20 points ahead of Romney, with Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann — who has since withdrawn from the race — and other candidates down in single digits.
In 2008, during his first presidential run, Romney clobbered the competition with 60 percent of the vote in the Colorado preference poll, ahead of eventual nominee Arizona Sen. John McCain’s 18 percent and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee’s 13 percent. Ron Paul trailed with 8 percent of the vote, followed by a passel of contenders who failed to break 1 percent support. (Colorado’s 2008 caucuses fell on Super Tuesday, and Romney dropped out of the race the next day after McCain swept most of the other states.)
But that was when Romney was considered the more conservative of the candidates, a mantle claimed this time around by all three of his remaining competitors. This year, none of the campaigns are ceding the state’s 36 delegates for a nomination some expect could drag on until the Republican National Convention in late August.
All four campaigns are starting to organize in the state, Poplstein said, although with most of the attention so far back east, Colorado has yet to see the enormous advertising barrages that are currently pummeling voters with closer contests. Paul’s is the only campaign to have opened an office in Colorado, though Romney has so far claimed the lion’s share of high-profile endorsements and has the most visible organization in place.
Details are sketchy, but GOP officials say to expect visits by all four candidates in coming weeks. Paul would be the first to land in Colorado, with three scheduled events on Jan. 31. Romney will be here Feb. 6 and 7, with a fundraiser planned for one night. Santorum and Gingrich both plan to campaign in Colorado, Poplstein said, though their campaigns didn’t respond to requests from The Colorado Statesman for details.
While the presidential preference poll results will yield the numbers that make headlines, Republicans won’t pick delegates empowered with nominating a candidate until later assemblies in March and April, although the process starts at caucuses. From there, each precinct sends a predetermined number of delegates on to county assemblies — where some counties have fewer delegates than usual because they’re allocated based on the 2010 vote for the Republican candidate for governor, when nominee Dan Maes drew an historically low vote — and those assemblies elect delegates on to the next steps, congressional district assemblies and the state confab on April 14 in Denver.
Colorado gets to send 36 delegates — and 33 alternates — on to the RNC in Tampa, Fla., at the end of August, and that’s where delegates finally get to vote for a presidential nominee. Each congressional district picks three delegates and an equal number of alternates to the RNC, and a dozen delegates and alternates will be elected at the state assembly. In addition, state GOP chairman Ryan Call and the two Republican National Committee members are automatic RNC delegates.
This year’s caucuses will be high-wire acts for a few reasons, Republicans say. Since once-a-decade reapportionment and redistricting wasn’t finalized until December, county clerks didn’t finish drawing precinct lines until recently, so party stalwarts used to gathering at the usual place with the usual bunch of neighbors might find themselves thrown into another precinct that meets somewhere else. To help Republican voters navigate their way to the right meetings — caucuses start promptly at 7 p.m., party officials stress — county parties and the state GOP have set up online caucus locating systems tied to voter addresses. GOP officials are encouraging voters to visit www.caucus.cologop.org to find caucus details.
Poplstein said traffic to the site — which also allows Republicans to register in advance for caucuses, though that isn’t required — has exceeded expectations. “There’s been a ton of traffic to the site,” he said. “After New Hampshire, we got a big spike; after South Carolina, we got a big spike.”
He said Republicans expect turnout to be on par with 2008’s record attendance of 70,000 — that night, roughly 120,000 Democrats showed up and handed Obama a 2-to-1 victory over his rival, then-Sen. Hillary Clinton — but added that organizers will be ready if the crowds are even bigger.
Legislative candidate Rick Enstrom told The Statesman he anticipates tremendous crowds at GOP caucuses this year.
“Everybody here is champing at the bit, has the wind at their back,” he said during a Jefferson County Republican Party meeting last Saturday in Lakewood where precinct committee people gathered to prepare for the big night. “I know — mixed metaphors — but they’re ready to roll!”