New rules passed during the Republican National Convention this week threaten a key part of Minnesota’s caucus system: the presidential straw poll.
New RNC rules adapted on a voice vote Tuesday will require states that use a nonbinding straw poll like Minnesota’s to either make it binding and require delegates sent to the national convention to follow its results, or switch over to the primary system used in most states.
Because current Republican National Committee rules prevent most states from awarding delegates before April 1, the straw poll associated with Minnesota’s February caucuses is largely irrelevant to choosing which candidates the delegates eventually end up supporting at the national convention. Delegates are now chosen by party activists at congressional district and statewide conventions and are not bound to vote based on how the straw poll turned out.
Take this February, for example. Rick Santorum technically won this year’s caucuses with nearly 45 percent of the vote. But when the state’s RNC delegation cast its votes on Tuesday, 33 of the state’s 40 delegates voted for Ron Paul, whose supporters deftly used the convention system to send a contingency of Paul delegates to Tampa.
Minnesota Republican Party officials have long favored the state’s caucus system and have rejected calls to switch to a primary election, which supporters say would remove barriers for voters who want to take part in the nomination process but might be scared away or otherwise inconvenienced by the caucus system. But that same system is a point of pride for those who participate in it, and especially those who use it to their advantage: In announcing Minnesota’s vote tally on Tuesday, delegation chairwoman and Paul stalwart Marianne Stebbins said: “Minnesota, where we are very proud of our state Republican Party, which runs a fair convention with integrity, casts 33 votes for Ron Paul.”
Minnesota uses the nonbinding straw poll to drive attention and attendance, Minnesota Republican committeeman Jeff Johnson said. Though most of the grunt work associated with picking delegates happens much later, the straw poll is “informational and kind of fun for delegates, gets press coverage and drives up attendance.”
States can seek an exemption to the new rule, and Johnson said he hopes Minnesota Republicans will do just that, especially if the party wants to keep its caucuses in February (but would thus be barred from awarding delegates under the April 1 rule).
“I would hate to lose our straw poll,” he said. “It’s part of the caucuses that I think people really like.”
Caucuses vs. primaries
University of Minnesota political science professor Larry Jacobs said Paul’s influence in the Republican presidential race this year could lead RNC officials to institute new national rules trying to take back some control over the nominating process. He said he expects to see similar measures pushed by Democrats.
The parties are “trying to get more control over what is happening around the country, and also to re-establish their centrality to American elections,” Jacobs said.
“What they saw in Minnesota [with Paul], they wanted to make sure it didn’t go any further,” he said. “In Minnesota, it was a revolution.”
Paul supporters seem to buy into the theory. From Tampa, Stebbins told the Pioneer Press that the new rules were a “power grab by Washington insiders.”
In terms of how the delegates are selected, most states have long-ditched the caucus in favor of the primary, though Minnesota is one of the few that has stuck with the system. February’s caucuses were administered cleanly and avoided the problems that struck in other caucus states. Despite low turnout, and the feeling among some Republicans and political observers, then and now, that Ron Paul’s support was outsized simply because his supporters were the ones who showed up, state Republican Party officials have resisted switching over to a primary election.
Johnson said a Minnesota GOP committee will eventually have to decide what to do with the system before the 2016 election, though those discussions will come much later. Though he’s a caucus supporter, Johnson said he anticipates renewed calls for a primary now that the new rules are in place.
“I think that discussion will continue and probably pick up some speed because of this change,” he said. “I like our caucus system and I hope we don’t lose it.”
Devin Henry can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @dhenry