Friday, September 23, 2011

On Non-Binding Caucuses and Straw Polls

FHQ got a very astute email over the last weekend about the caucus procedure in Wyoming, and how FHQ categorizes some of the events on our calendar. Basically: Which ones make the cut and which ones don't? This is particularly problematic when it comes to the non-binding caucuses that are starting to pop up all over the early part of the 2012 presidential primary calendar.

Our policy here is that those contests matter. As I alluded to in the Colorado post in the wee hours of this morning, non-binding can be a misleading description. No, the results of the presidential preference straw polls that are held at the precinct level  are not binding on the ultimate allocation of delegates. If Romney were to get 60% of the vote in a precinct it would not necessarily mean that 60% of the delegates chosen in that precinct would move on to the county level. At the same time, it doesn't mean that those delegates are not aligned with or sympathetic to a particular candidate or campaign. It does not mean, then, that 60% of a precinct straw poll vote for Romney could not end up translating into no delegates to the county level or all the delegates from that precinct moving on to the county level. The two are not directly linked, but that doesn't mean that Romney and Perry and Paul and/or their surrogates are not working very hard to insure that their delegates are the ones to move to the next round.

In the end, yes, the delegates are not formally allocated until the state convention, but that doesn't mean that the fingerprints of the campaigns are not/have not been on the process from the precinct level on. It is a loophole in the Republican National Committee rules on delegate selection. Iowa and Nevada brought attention to that in 2008 and now a handful of state parties are using the rules -- not the toothless penalties in this case -- against the national party.

Having established that, one additional question remains from that aforementioned email: Why are Maine and Minnesota (and potentially Colorado) and their non-binding caucuses on the calendar and the precinct level straw polls planned for 10-25 days prior to the county caucuses in Wyoming not?1 The answer is that it has to do with several reasons. First of all, with such a wide range of dates on which these straw polls can take place the potential campaign effects are not as clear -- at least from the candidates'/campaigns' perspectives -- as if the precinct straw polls were on one uniform date. Yes, that appears to be a nitpicky point, but there is a reason that caucus states tend to hold precinct-level events on one day, more often than not. It is more efficient for them and as it turns out for the campaigns as well.

Secondly, and this is the bigger point, the straw polls in Wyoming are in isolation of the delegate selection process in a way that they are not in, say, Minnesota. As I mentioned above, concurrent with the straw poll in Minnesota, there is a process of selecting delegates to represent the precinct at the county level going on. That is not the case in Wyoming. An unknown number of precinct committeepersons -- those who can take part in the straw poll -- were elected during the August 2010 primary in Wyoming. Now, there is a process whereby others can become committee members outside of the primary process, but it is unknown how many vacancies exist and whether there is a cap on the number of committee members in the first place. Additionally, there is no filtering from the precinct level to the county level in Wyoming. In other words, all of the precinct committeepersons move on to participate in the county caucuses where part of the Wyoming Republican delegation will be determined directly. So, there may be Romney, Bachmann, Perry and Paul supporters who are precinct committeepersons, but there is no jockeying among them for a reduced number of county-level delegates.

Think of it like a game of musical chairs. If you, hypothetically, have 50 precinct participants who are up and walking around while the music is playing and then forty chairs are removed before the music stops, ten people will then have seats and can move on to the county level. That would be what would happen in Maine or Minnesota or Colorado from the precinct to county levels. In Wyoming, though, all fifty chairs are still there when the music stops and all the precinct committee members move on to the next round of music playing at the county convention level. Then the chairs begin to be removed.

As a result, the candidates are much more likely to pay attention to the placement of campaign loyalists in precinct committeeperson positions during the invisible primary -- to the extent they can add to that total or fill out vacancies -- but not really revisit the idea of delegates in Wyoming until the caucuses kick off in March.

But those two very important factors are why FHQ does not include the straw polls in Wyoming on our calendar.2

1 One additional point raised in the email was that FHQ mentioned early on that that 10-25 day barrier set up a range of dates for the precinct level straw polls to take place: from February 10-25. That is a range 10-25 days prior to the March 6 date on which the Wyoming county caucuses are set to begin. Recall, however, that some caucuses in Wyoming may not be able to be held until March 10. The guidelines in the Wyoming Republican Party delegate selection plan are fairly ambiguous in terms of how this 10-25 day time period is to be applied, and FHQ's initial range -- February 10-25 -- proves to be but one interpretation of what that range is supposed to be. Those later caucuses would, in another interpretation of the rules, have until February 29 to hold a precinct-level straw poll. Additionally, it appears as if the Wyoming Republican Party includes February 9 in the range of dates for these straw polls to take place. It is the party's set of rules, so FHQ defers to them. The dates on which the Wyoming Republican straw polls will take place is from February 9-29.

2 That said, now that I've brought these straw polls up, I may be forced to include them.

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TammyH said...

I would like to point out that precinct caucuses are open to all registered Republicans, not just the precinct men/women and anyone who is eligible, can be elected to serve as a delegate to their respective county convention. You don't have to be a precinct man/woman.

Wyoming is having a big push at the precinct caucuses for a non-binding straw poll.

Josh Putnam said...

I can certainly see that being the case. Do you have any documentation on that? It appears that -- as promised when the current delegate selection plan was released -- the details of the straw poll would not come until later. Later looks to be the November 12 party meeting.

Thanks for point this out.

I suspect that precinct caucuses, and thus the straw poll, will have more precinct committeeperson participation than rank and file Republican participation. That has been the historical precedent in most caucus states anyway. The elite/grassroots balance is tipped toward the state-level party elite. But we will have to see what efforts the Wyoming GOP makes to promote the straw polls. That there is no uniform date statewide hurts that effort to some extent.