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The Maine Republican Party last weekend (Saturday, September 10) voted at their State Central Committee meeting to hold caucuses as a means of beginning the presidential delegate allocation process between Saturday, February 4 and Saturday, February 11.1 Since the Maine process does not directly allocate delegates during the initial step of the caucus process, the state party will not be vulnerable to the half delegation penalty for holding a non-compliant contest. Iowa and Nevada were the only pre-February states during the 2008 cycle to avoid sanction from the Republican National Committee for the same reason.
As Alexander Burns at Politico points out Maine is one of a handful of caucus states considering this option -- and recall the dates of caucuses in Alaska, North Dakota and Washington are still unknown -- and it remains unclear what the individual or collective impact of Minnesota or Maine or even Colorado or Louisiana holding such early caucus meetings. The RNC really has no recourse. These states would not be in violation of the 2012 Republican delegate selection rules and are thus free to hold the early meetings. That said, the true impact of the moves can be answered only by the campaigns actions. If the candidates stay away, then none of these states will be of consequence in the grand scheme of the nomination race. But with the contest looking like a protracted delegate fight -- at this point in time -- between Rick Perry and Mitt Romney, it will be difficult to keep the candidates away from states where delegates will not be on the line, but where the initial stages can influence subsequent steps in the process and thus the ultimate allocation of delegates.
FHQ has a few thoughts on this situation.
1. One really needs go no further back than the 2008 cycle to see how the non-binding, initial stages of a caucus/convention process can have an outsized impact on the final allocation of delegates. Many recall how Mitt Romney scored a large-margin victory in Nevada on the same Saturday as the 2008 South Carolina primary. The latter had drawn most of the attention from the Silver state and Romney coasted to victory with Ron Paul a distant second. The Texas congressman may have been well back of Romney in the tally, but the Paul delegates from the precinct level were able to organize their efforts enough to wreak havoc on the subsequent steps in the process. The Nevada Republican Party eventually canceled the state convention and the state central committee allocated the delegates via conference call. In other words, underestimate the potential impact of these early contests at your own risk, especially in the context of a competitive, two person race.
2. FHQ semi-jokingly tweeted the other day in response to the news that Mitt Romney was heading to Arizona to campaign that if the RNC was utilizing the same penalties the DNC has adopted and used over the last two cycles, Romney would not be out in Arizona. No, instead the former Massachusetts governor would stay well away from the Grand Canyon state in order not to lose any delegates he may win in the contest. The Democratic Party not only [planned to] stripped half the delegations of states violating the timing rules for primaries and caucuses, but candidates campaigning in any such rogue state ahead of the non-compliant contest there would lose any delegates won in the primary or caucus.
The Democratic Party muddled the effectiveness of that penalty to some degree by changing, rechanging and then changing again the penalties because of the Florida and Michigan situation. But the main reason the penalty did not appear to work was that Republican candidates, unfettered by those rules, were campaigning vigorously in both states. If the candidates can be kept out of a state, then the state has no attention and thus no motivation to be early in the process. [Just as a side note, think of how severe a Republican candidate-centered penalty like that would affect things in an early state with winner-take-all allocation by congressional district. That could end up being a large number of unpledged/should have been pledged delegates, and thus an effective deterrent to the leapfrogging problems of 2008 and 2012.]
3. Finally, there is some precedent for this sort of thing in a Republican nomination race: 1996. In that year, Hawaii, Alaska and Louisiana all held caucuses -- and in Louisiana's case a binding caucus -- prior to the Iowa caucuses. Phil Gramm was knocked out of the race due to Louisiana, candidates visited Alaska and because Bob Dole, from neighboring Kansas, was running, Iowa was minimized. That put a huge amount of pressure on the Republican candidates in New Hampshire. Why the traditional first two states did not jump the other states in 1996 is still an unanswered question, and honestly I don't know that that provides any window into what the early states might do as a result of the presence of these early, non-binding caucuses early in the calendar in 2012. But it has happened before. However, it was in the frontloaded, not hyper-frontloaded (2000-2008), as FHQ likes to call it, era.
The key with this is not to look to the RNC for answers. They won't have any. The rules don't cover it. Follow the candidates and look to the reactions in the earliest of states; particularly Florida now.
1 Below is the email response FHQ received from Maine Republican Party Chairman Charles Webster earlier this week regarding the Pine Tree state Republican caucuses. At this time FHQ cannot confirm the date of the 2012 state convention where the delegate allocation will actually take place.