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How the Colorado GOP changed the nomination game

Marc Piscotty/Getty Images

Colorado's Republican Party recently changed the rules governing its presidential caucus, expected to occur next March 1. Basically, the caucus will still go on, but there will be no presidential preference vote. We won't know which candidate "won"; participants will just be electing delegates for subsequent conventions. This decision, it turns out, has profound effects on who actually shows up, how the party nominates candidates, and how the candidates compete.

Caucuses are not high-turnout events. They typically require around a two-hour commitment on a work night, and tend to attract a small number of people who are highly interested in politics and happy to fight for their views. In most states, they don't get anything like the turnout the Iowa caucus gets; more typically, fewer than 5 percent of eligible voters will show up. And that's heavily driven by what's going on in the presidential race. If it's a contested nomination race, turnout will be higher.

The state party's decision in Colorado will likely substantially reduce turnout at the March contest. Indeed, that may well have been the purpose. As state Republican Party Chair Steve House said,

When you add in the straw poll during that [caucus] experience it inflates the number of people who come by a dramatic amount and all kinds of problems have ensued. And I think that's part of the reason why the county chairs on the executive committee especially were very opposed to doing it this way because they believe it will disrupt the overall process and won't gain us that much.

As is well understood in political circles, the fewer people show up at an event, the easier it is to control the outcome. It's most telling that a state party chair is describing high turnout as disruptive and problematic.

But this doesn't only affect the presidential race. Candidates for partisan office further down the ballot, from the US Senate on down to county offices, will also be vying for their party's nomination. And they'll be competing among those who actually show up on caucus night.

As one candidate, whom I'll refer to as "Ronald," notes, the change in party rules will likely change the character of the caucus-goers who show up: "I think we'll see far more 'party regulars' participate, or those who have previously caucused and understand the process of becoming a delegate to the county and state assemblies."

This is an important shift. With the straw vote, you might get a lot of Trump supporters in the room — people without a lot of history of activism within the party but who are still enthusiastic about their presidential candidate. Such caucus-goers would likely have less interest in down-ballot races and less understanding of the multilevel delegate selection system; they might not realize that to end up a national convention delegate for Trump, they'll need to run for county delegate and win, then run for district or state delegate and win, and then run for national delegate and win, all across several months of meetings. Without the straw vote, the people who will show up will be much more intense and knowledgeable party people.

Relatedly, says Ronald, "die-hard supporters of more 'fringe' candidates (Ron Paul in 2012) will certainly caucus." So you could end up with a disproportionate share of, say, Rand Paul supporters who are knowledgeable about caucus procedures and fiercely committed to their candidate and his agenda.

Most importantly, however, is that there will be a disproportionate share of caucus-goers who are interested in and knowledgeable about down-ballot races. "A few people might still be motivated to caucus by a presidential candidate or campaign," explains Ronald, "but more folks, I think, will come based on their previous caucus experience and the fact that they want to influence down-ticket races like mine — those are the folks we're reaching out to at this point."

The outreach is like that of most other campaigns, except on a more intimate scale: "If I've met with a voter several times, spoken with them on the phone, flooded their inbox with emails, knocked on their door, and mailed them literature, we've established a rapport wherein I can ask for someone's support and get them to caucus. Our campaign is also more than willing to organize vans or rides for people to caucus and become delegates." In the end, Ronald hopes to find 300 to 400 people in his district who will be elected county delegates and commit to vote to place him on his party's ballot.

The change in party rules doesn't necessarily make Ronald's job easier or harder — he still has several opponents seeking to do the same thing he's doing — but it does remove some of the uncertainty. Political scientist E.E. Schattschneider wrote decades ago about the "unearned increment" of politics — people who vote essentially at random and distribute their support among multiple candidates. That increment will be much smaller thanks to the removal of the presidential straw vote. This campaign will be waged among a small group of intense and informed people who won't be easily swayed. The trick for Ronald and others like him is to make sure they show up.


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