COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo., January 31, 2016 — The Iowa caucuses are almost here. To most Americans, the caucus system is something of an enigma wrapped in a riddle. A dozen states use caucuses instead of primaries to select delegates to the party’s national convention.
The caucus is an older way to select candidates. It was the way that parties used to choose candidates before the use of ballots became widely adopted in the interest of making the process more open and fair.
What happens in Iowa Monday?
As the accompanying video explains, the caucus is a bunch of neighbors getting together at a designated location to discuss the relative merits of the candidates and to decide who to support.
There are subtle but important differences in the way Democrats and Republicans handle the caucuses, though. The video says that Republicans use a secret ballot; the Democratic Party process is different.
Democratic candidate campaigns send “precinct captains” to the caucus locations. These leaders attempt to collect as many supports from the assembled crowd as they can. A candidate needs 15 percent to be considered “viable.” The supporters of less-than-viable candidates, as well as the undecided, are then lobbied into one of the larger camps.
Eventually the caucus goers are won over—or they see which way the wind is blowing. Once they decide, Iowa delegates are now bound.
The Colorado caucuses, coming on March 1, are very different.
As in Iowa, each party handles its caucus in its own way. Colorado Democrats will select 77 delegates to their national convention; the Republicans will send 37.
What follows is a description of the Republican process, which has changed slightly in 2016.
The precinct caucus is very much different from the Iowa Democrat system. Precinct captains—usually just called precinct leaders—are not sent by the party or a campaign; they’re elected by those present.
Someone runs the meeting. Usually that’s a precinct leader, but it might not be. The caucus elects delegates to the county and state assemblies and may pass resolutions to forward to those assemblies to add to the party platform.
The delegates are selected to represent the voters in the precinct at those larger assemblies. A caucus may or may not ask the delegates who they support in the election process. Often there are other offices at the state and county level that are contested and who delegates will need to vote on.
It has been incorrectly reported that a rule change by the state GOP will give Colorado caucus-goers effectively no official voice in the presidential nominating process, as delegates will be free to support whichever candidate they feel is best.
This is the result of misleading and incomplete Denver Post reporting. The Post reported that there will not be a presidential straw poll at the precinct caucuses.
They quote ousted former GOP state chair Ryan Call saying, “It takes Colorado completely off the map” in the primary season. (There’s a reason he’s the former state chair.)
According to a new RNC rule instituted in 2012, state-wide, non-binding polls (“straw polls”) aren’t allowed. If the Colorado GOP held one, it could become binding. Precincts can still conduct polls—and probably will.
In neither of the previous two presidential years were the delegates picked at the precinct caucuses bound to a particular candidate. It was partly to avoid delegates being bound that the state GOP opted not to do a straw poll.
In the 2008 caucuses, Coloradans went for Romney; he dropped out just days later. In 2012, caucus voters went for Santorum.
In 2008, Romney delegates simply didn’t show up at the assemblies. In 2012, Ron Paul supporters organized well enough to get a disproportionate number sent to the national assembly.
The difference between the Iowa Democrat and Colorado Republican caucuses are significant. In the former, the decisions are made, the lines are drawn and the number-crunchers can start counting. In the latter, the delegates are pledged to the values and principles of the precinct and can change their mind at any stage of the process.