Monday, May 23, 2011

GOP Caucuses and 2012 Scheduling: A Decision-Making Calculus

FHQ got a good question this afternoon in response to our Minnesota post about the impact delegate binding rules may have on the scheduling of Republican caucuses in 2012.

Reader MysteryPolitico asks:

How many other states hold caucuses that aren't binding? I remember in 2008, you had early February caucuses in ME, AK, MN, ND, KS, and WA. Is Minnesota the only one of those with caucuses that aren't binding towards delegate allocation? Because if not, then I guess some of those other states might end up sticking with early February as well, since they're not going to suffer any delegate penalties for it.

I would assume that if there are several non-binding caucuses in early Feb., that IA and NH would still consider that a threat, and move their contests into January, to maintain their first in the nation status...
In other words, if you are one of the traditional Republican caucus states, especially one that does not bind delegates at the precinct level, why not roll the dice and go earlier than other states? Well, it isn't really rolling the dice. As the caucuses in Iowa and Nevada demonstrated in 2008 -- on the Republican side -- if the state does not allocate delegates in the first step of the nomination process, then that state can circumvent the Republican National Committee rules on delegate selection. Iowa and Nevada were not doing anything to weasel out of the rules, but they were the only two states that held contests prior to the first Tuesday in February 2008 that were not penalized half their delegation to the Republican National Convention in St. Paul. The January primary states -- even New Hampshire -- obviously suffered that fate, but other caucus states like Wyoming were also penalized. Approximately half of the delegates to the Republican convention from the Equality state were allocated in the January 5, 2008 precinct caucuses and Wyoming Republicans were penalized as a result.

The question, then, is why don't the Iowas and Nevadas1 on the Republican side move up into February -- like what Minnesota Republicans have fallen into based on the law in the Land of 10,000 Lakes -- and hold penalty-free precinct caucuses? Furthermore, why would the other caucus states not change their rules to bind delegates to the national convention based on the congressional district or state conventions?

Why indeed? Let's look at the decision-making environment confronting these states. But first, about which states are we talking? The caucus states break down into two categories: 1) states that allocate delegates in the first step of the caucus process (Alaska, North Dakota, Washington, West Virginia and Wyoming in 2008) and 2) states where that mechanism is triggered at a later -- congressional district and/or state convention -- stage (Colorado, Maine and Minnesota in 2008). If that first group maintains its rules from 2008, going early is not an option. If any member of that group alters its delegate selection process and delays the binding of delegates, it could technically move up penalty free, joining the second group.

But does it really matter? Would states in this situation either change their rules or attempt maintain former February dates or move up into February or earlier in 2012? FHQ will take the first one on at the outset. Does it really matter? Not really. Candidates are not going to go out of their way to trek out to non-binding contest states with nothing on the line. Also, states have, by and large, heeded the rules change warnings from the national party and acted to comply. But Minnesota is outside of the window and Republicans there have shown no urgency to move. The Maine GOP has shown no signs of wanting to cross the national party either. So while, hypothetically, states could do this, there really isn't any real motivation to do so. Such a caucus essentially operates as a very small state straw poll.

But let's suspend our disbelief for a moment and consider a scenario where all the caucus states move up, delaying delegate allocation to a later date in the process. Presumably, the carrot here is some measure of influence over the overall nomination process. Under what circumstances would these states have influence when they have nothing to give the candidates? That's a tough one. The decision would be easier if more information was known; specifically when other (primary) states will hold their contests. The only scenario where small, non-binding caucus states have any sort of influence is if 1) they hold a collective caucus on one date and 2) that date does not coincide with the date of a primary state (penalized or not). One could add in the additional condition that this collective straw poll precedes all the other primaries as opposed to being sandwiched in between a couple of primaries.

That, however, is a difficult task to coordinate given the constraints that state parties have in changing their rules. In many cases, such rules changes within state parties can only take place at a state convention. And in several states 2011 Republican conventions have already been held and the window has closed. If they those states could pull it off, though, it would likely serve as sufficient enough a threat to Iowa and New Hampshire and force them to move.

But that's a pretty big if.

UPDATE: One other option that may be appealing to the remaining caucus states -- that may tempt them into February -- is if it looks as if the proposed caucus date guarantees a stand-alone date for the precinct caucuses. If a state has the only event going on in a given week, then the candidates will be there -- binding or not.

1 Iowa and Nevada are not the best examples here because both are exempt from the Republican delegate selection rules governing the other states. Additionally, in an attempt to make the contest more influential, Nevada Republicans have made the precinct caucus stage binding on the delegate allocation process; a change from 2008.

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