For the next week, the Republican presidential campaign will be back where it began a month ago – in the wild and wacky world of the caucuses.
From this Saturday (Feb. 4) to next Saturday (Feb. 11), caucus action will be taking place across the country, from Nevada to Maine, with Colorado and Minnesota in between. Only a non-binding primary in Missouri Feb. 7 interrupts the “all caucus, all the time” flavor of this stage of the GOP nominating process.
Although these states until now have been in the shadow of the highly publicized January events, they will offer more delegates (128) than Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Florida taken together.
For candidates of all stripes, caucus states are nice to campaign in because they are comparatively inexpensive. No large media buys are needed to reach hundreds of thousands of voters. In caucus states, it’s about turning out activists for party-run affairs that are often held for a few hours at a limited number of sites.
As a result, caucus turnout is quite low when compared to primaries, to the point that more votes were cast in this year’s New Hampshire primary (about 250,000) than in the 2008 edition of the Colorado, Maine, Minnesota and Nevada caucuses combined (less than 200,000).
Mitt Romney swept all four of these caucus contests in 2008. But that was before the rise of the “Tea Party” movement. It emerged in 2010 as a highly visible force in Republican politics in states such as Nevada and Colorado. And the movement’s continued existence could change the dynamic in caucus states from four years ago.
Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum, and even Romney, should draw a share of Tea Party votes in the week ahead. But it would be no surprise if the main beneficiary of this new-found energy is Ron Paul. He has the most enthusiastic group of supporters of any of the Republican candidates. And in the low turnout universe of the caucuses, an energized cadre of voters can have outsized influence.
It is why it is no surprise that Paul is pursuing a caucus state strategy these days. While he has been significantly outpolled in the primaries, the caucuses reward candidates with passionate support. That has been the case from Democrat George McGovern in 1972 to Republican Pat Robertson in 1988 to Democrat Barack Obama in 2008. They all excelled in the caucus states, winning delegates that particularly in the case of the two Democrats, were crucial to their winning their party’s nomination.
It has often been said that primaries measure the vote-getting appeal of the candidates, while caucuses test their organizational ability. That is why Romney did so well in so many of the latter in 2008. But the caucuses also reward passion, and that in 2012 is what the supporters of Ron Paul appear to have in abundance.