DENVER, Colo. – Sen. Bernard Sanders and Hillary Clinton wooed Colorado Democrats at their annual dinner in early February. And both candidates are airing TV ads this month, trying to stake a claim to a competitive caucus on March 1. But on the Republican side, Super Tuesday is less than super – or conclusive — in this swing state.
Rather than primaries, Minnesota and Colorado hold caucuses on March 1. As in first-in-the-nation Iowa, people gather in schools, church basements and neighbors’ homes to choose their presidential candidates – and to elect delegates to county assemblies.
While the process is complex across the board, state Republicans have made it more so. The GOP’s governing board voted last fall to steer clear of holding presidential straw poll at their caucuses. They took issue with new national requirements that delegates to the July convention be bound to candidates supported in that poll. As a result, none of the Republican presidential candidates are on the ground or the airwaves. Nor do they have field offices in the state.
“There’s less of a prize for them,” said Seth Masket, a political science professor at the University of Denver. “Whoever the winner is, it’s not very obvious. There’s not much incentive for the candidates to do anything here to win Colorado.”
Officials in both parties differ on the impact of the decision. “I think that they have wounded themselves and the importance that Colorado has in the presidential process,” said Colorado Democratic chairman Rick Palacio of the GOP’s process. “That’s unfortunate because Colorado is a new battleground state.”
But Colorado GOP spokesman Kyle Kohli downplayed the impact of not holding a presidential poll. “People are really fired up and engaged and want to be involved in the process,” Kohli said.
The Denver Post criticized the decision in a Sunday editorial . “Colorado Republicans who want to have a say in the future of their party have been stripped of any role in the most interesting and surprising nominating struggle in decades,” the editorial read.
On the Democratic side, a group supporting a candidate needs 15 percent of the total attendance to elect a delegate to the next level. “It’s like following the craziest recipe for the strangest meal you can imagine,” said Palacio.
Clinton and Sanders are taking the challenge seriously. Both spoke to the Democratic Party’s annual dinner Feb. 13; Sanders held a rally earlier in that day and returned Sunday. Clinton’s daughter Chelsea and former President Bill Clinton have visited the state. Sanders began airing ads Feb. 10, with Clinton following.
But the caucuses aren’t just about the presidential race. For instance, it’s the first step for GOP U.S. Senate candidates – there are at least 10 of them – hoping to make the state’s late June primary via the state assembly and, ultimately, to challenge Democratic incumbent Sen. Michael Bennet. There are also candidates for other offices and platform issues to discuss.
“There’s no doubt the presidential race is going to dominate the topic of conversation,” Kohli said.
And it doesn’t mean there won’t be discussion of the many presidential candidates on the GOP side. In fact, some counties will hold presidential straw polls, Kohli said.
“That’s not sanctioned by the party,” he said. “We won’t be counting them.”
Some, such as Palacio, suspect the GOP executive committee voted unanimously to avoid the straw poll in order to avoid embarrassment should caucus goers prefer, say, Donald Trump.
In 2012, Rick Santorum won Colorado’s caucuses, but Ron Paul supporters ended up being a significant force in the state’s convention delegation.
“If I had to predict, Donald Trump or Ted Cruz would probably be who their pick would be on March 1,” Palacio said.
Meanwhile, various Colorado GOP VIPs are lining up behind some of the candidates. U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner has campaigned with fellow Sen. Marco Rubio, whom Rep. Mike Coffman also supports. Former Gov. Bill Owens and state Treasurer Walker Stapleton originally supported former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Stapleton’s second cousin. And U.S. Rep. Ken Buck and former presidential candidate and U.S. Rep. Tom Tancredo are supporting Sen. Ted Cruz (even though Tancredo said last fall that he was leaving the GOP .)
In the end, the goal for candidates on either side in Colorado is national convention delegates – and neither party’s convention delegation will be fully selected until April state assemblies.
GOP presidential campaigns may not be all that visible to most Coloradans, but they will be working at the grassroots to seed the caucuses with supporters who will vie to get to the national convention, Kohli said.
Candidates for national convention delegates must submit an application 13 days before district or state assemblies. Those “intent to run” forms include a space to designate a presidential candidate they’ll be bound to or to elect to be unpledged to a candidate.
“I don’t think failure to have the straw poll necessarily means we’ll be totally ignored,” said Mario Nicolais, a lawyer and former state legislative candidate who is supporting Rubio. “They’re more interested in what kind of delegates and bounded delegates they can get out of Colorado.”
Republicans will send 37 delegates to the Cleveland convention. Of those, 34 will be elected at state or district assemblies. Democrats will send 79 delegates to their Philadelphia convention in July. Of those, 70 will be elected at state or district assemblies.
Caucuses, Palacio noted, are “just the first of four determining steps to determine national delegates.” Unlike Republicans, Democratic candidates aren’t bound to the candidate they support at the caucus or even district and state conventions, Palacio said.
Pat Waak, former Colorado Democratic chairwoman, is working to get voters to turn out for Clinton, but sees enthusiasm for both Democratic candidates. One of the advantages of the caucus system, Waak noted, is in energizing potential volunteers who will stay engaged through the Nov. 8 election.
“As cumbersome as the caucus process might be, it is a way to get people involved in the process,” Waak said. “For us, caucuses have always been an organizing tool as much as anything.”
Kelly Maher, who’s been active in GOP politics and is executive director of conservative nonprofit group Compass Colorado, said she thinks the organized and somewhat anti-establishment Sanders camp could wreak some havoc on the Democratic side similar to that Republicans have experienced.
“I think that’s what the left is heading for here with Bernie,” she said. “They’re about to go through the existential party crisis we had.”
And Maher isn’t bothered by the lack of a presidential straw poll. “The logic makes sense to me,” she said. “Is it necessarily a bad thing? Probably not.”
Waak is expecting plenty of people to show up at Democratic caucuses March 1. “We keep ratcheting up what caucus turnout will be,” she said. “I can’t believe it will be what it was in 2008, but I could be totally wrong. This is good. It’s good for the general election, too.”
But the Republican’s decision to avoid the straw poll is likely to limit caucus turnout on the GOP side.
“It’s usually a pretty limited group who will show up for presidential caucuses anyway, but the turnout is going to be even lower because of this decision,” said Masket, the DU political scientist.
And looking forward to the fall, that could be an advantage for Democrats, Masket said. “Setting up offices now and having that enthusiasm early does seem like a way to have a winning strategy later.”
Sandra Fish is a Colorado journalist who specializes in politics and data. Follow her on Twitter
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