Santorum won straw poll, but does it mean much?

Bragging rights don’t necessarily translate to delegates
The Colorado Statesman

Colorado Republicans made headlines last week when former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum won the state’s presidential preference poll at the Feb. 7 caucuses — he also won contests in Minnesota and Missouri that day – but when it comes to picking this year’s GOP nominee, did he win anything beyond bragging rights?

It’s too soon to tell, say state Republican Party officials. It all depends on how thousands of delegates elected at precinct caucuses last week eventually vote at a series of assemblies that begin next week and don’t conclude for nearly two months.

Santorum surprised the competition in Colorado by winning 40 percent of the vote, ahead of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney at 35 percent, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich at 13 percent and Texas Congressman Ron Paul at 12 percent.

But the straw poll — conducted for only the second time since it was inaugurated during the 2008 caucuses — didn’t have much, if anything, to do with each precinct’s subsequent vote for delegates headed for county, congressional district and state assemblies. Unlike Democrats, who pick delegates from among supporters for each election year’s highest contested race — in 2010 it was between Senate candidates, in 2008 the presidential nominees vied for votes — state Republicans keep the votes separate.

“Colorado’s early caucus was definitely a table turner,” said state GOP Executive Director Chuck Poplstein.

By moving the date up from March 6 — the date originally set by the Legislature, which would have landed Colorado’s Republican contest on Super Tuesday, when 10 other states were voting — the state GOP put Colorado Republicans squarely in the sights of candidates scrapping for delegates and the national media, eager to gauge who’s ahead in an extraordinarily fluid race. (Democrats stuck with the March 6 caucus date this year.)

Because of an accelerated calendar — due to the state’s primary election moving from August to June — and the prospect that the presidential nomination might not be decided by the time the GOP holds its state assembly on April 14, state Republicans lucky enough to get tapped as delegates should be hearing plenty from presidential candidates and their campaigns.

“This year’s preference poll gave Republican voters a voice in the primary they’ve never had before,” Poplstein said. “If this thing continues to go, they’re going to get a second bite at the apple. When’s the last time we’ve had this much attention?”

In other words, the race to win Colorado’s 36 votes at the RNC is just getting started.

Poplstein predicted that all four presidential candidates could show up to court delegates at the GOP’s state assembly in Denver. That’s when the party picks 12 delegates and 12 alternates to August’s Republican National Convention in Tampa, in addition to naming a national committeeman and committeewoman, who also get to vote for the party’s presidential nominee. The party picks three delegates from each congressional district at CD assemblies on April 13 and also sends its chairman with a vote at the RNC.

The Republican presidential campaigns that focused unprecedented attention on Colorado for a brief period earlier this month haven’t entirely pulled up stakes in the state — not if they want Colorado delegates at the Republican National Convention, anyway.

Poplstein said the state party has heard from all four presidential campaigns, all wanting to know how to contact the delegates elected at caucuses. “There is a scramble to find out who the delegates are in the counties,” he said, adding that counties are just now verifying their lists and should be posting delegate names on their respective websites. “They’ve got to go county by county — it’s still a long way,” he said. “As each step goes, we’ll know more.”

Jefferson County Republican Derec Shuler, who won election as a county and state delegate from his Golden Gate Canyon precinct last week, said he hasn’t gotten any calls from presidential campaigns yet, but expects them to start rolling in any day now. “Not that I’m looking forward to it,” he said with a laugh.

Shuler, an unsuccessful state Senate candidate from Denver in 2010 recently moved to the foothills, where he said the higher concentration of Republicans made for a very different contest for delegates. “In Denver, it’s, ‘Please raise your hands, we need delegates’” he said with a chuckle. “Down here it’s more competitive.”

He described himself as “still one of those on-the-fence Republicans, still looking for somebody to feel good about. All the candidates have some big weaknesses I’m concerned about,” he said.

“A lot of us are hoping someone else might throw their hat in the ring,” he said, but then quickly added with a laugh that he doubts that will happen. “The fact that Romney can’t seem to close the deal to the base of the party says a lot about his appeal to the base. There’s some concerns there.”

He said it wouldn’t bother him if Colorado’s delegation to the RNC voted differently in August than the way things looked on caucus night in February.

“The value I bring to the table being a state delegate is the ability of being in tune with what’s going on in the political world and keeping an open mind,” he said, noting that he’s considering a run for RNC delegate.

The process is made more complicated because every county sets its own rules for picking delegates — some elect delegates to the state assembly straight from precinct caucuses, others select state delegates at county assemblies — and counties have “wide leeway,” says Poplstein.

That’s the reason some counties just send a couple delegates from each precinct to the county assembly while others send more than a dozen. In addition, each precinct’s number of county delegates can also vary by county based on criteria that can include the precinct’s raw population, GOP registration numbers or performance in the last election.

“We let all the counties do it differently,” Poplstein said, noting that some methods work better in smaller, rural counties and others seem to fit bigger, urban ones. Every county is allotted a certain number of delegates at the state assembly — based on each county’s vote for the Republican at the top of the ticket in the last election — and the state party doesn’t impose strict rules on how they’re picked, “as long as they all come to the same conclusion,” he added.

It’s complicated further by a tweak the state party instituted this year — allowing delegates to run pledged to a particular presidential candidate at each step, although only some counties asked precinct delegates to use that designation at caucuses. Moving up the ladder, elections should yield a clearer picture of delegate strength, but it won’t be clear who is winning Colorado until the second weekend in April.

Last time around, Colorado Republicans voted overwhelmingly for former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney but by the time the dust had settled, Arizona Sen. John McCain, the party’s eventual nominee, wound up with Colorado’s entire slate of delegates. That kind of wholly contrary result is unlikely to happen this year for at least two reasons, Republican observers say.

First, unless a candidate can deliver a series of knockout blows over the next month —Arizona and Michigan hold primaries on Feb. 28, followed by a March 3 caucus in Washington state and then Super Tuesday on March 6, when 10 states vote — the GOP field is unlikely to dwindle as rapidly as it did four years ago. (Romney dropped out of the race two days after winning Colorado, and by the time Republicans met for the state assembly, only Paul was still vying for delegates.)

Second, Colorado names its RNC delegates more than a month earlier this year than it did in 2008, so there’s a greater likelihood the fight for the Republican nomination will still be underway.

The earliest county assemblies start Feb. 21, when Custer and Delores counties hold theirs. The bulk of them don’t get going until mid March, though. Among the larger counties, Broomfield assembles on March 5; followed by Denver and Douglas counties on March 10; Adams and Arapahoe counties meet on March 17; and the busiest day will be March 24, when Boulder, El Paso, Jefferson, Larimer, Mesa, Pueblo and Weld counties convene.

Ernest@coloradostatesman.com