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Caucuses 101: What you need to know about Minnesota’s vote Tuesday

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney
REUTERS/Mark Leffingwell
Mitt Romney shakes hands with supporters after speaking Friday at an appearance in Denver.

Note: This story first appeared in MinnPost on Monday. 

If you’ve heard that presidential preference straw polls will be conducted by both parties at the beginning of the caucuses Tuesday night, you heard half right.

A straw poll will be taken in the opening minutes of the Republican caucuses. But on the DFL side, it ain’t no straw poll; it’s a binding vote that could make a difference in the still unlikely case that the Dem nomination ends up being decided at the convention. Most of the DFL’s national convention delegates will be apportioned to presidential candidates according to the vote at the Tuesday caucuses. The details on how that works are below, and beware, they are eye-glazing. But first, a few more general facts and thoughts about Super Tuesday 2008.

It is, by a wide margin, the biggest event in U.S. primary election history, in the number of states participating (24 states, including five of the 10 most populous are holding primaries or caucuses for one party, the other or, in most cases, both) and in the number of delegates up for grabs. According to this helpful table compiled by Congressional Quarterly, 51 percent of all the Dem delegates and 44 percent of the Repubs will be chosen from Super Tuesday states.

On the other hand, the pundits tell us that Super Duper Tsunami Tuesday will not necessarily end the contest for the nomination on either side. Several of the candidates have begun reserving TV ad buys for the post Super Tuesday states.

Minnesota hasn’t played a consequential role in a presidential nominating contest since the 1950s (which was also the last time Minnesota held primaries instead of caucuses). In the last cycle, Minnesota’s caucus date did fall on Super Tuesday of 2004 (March 2 that cycle, 10 states on that day, Minnesota was the only caucus state). While the race for the Dem nomination between Sens. John Kerry and John Edwards was winding down, there was still at least a choice — in the morning. But as the primary results came in, Edwards (who lost all nine primaries, most by wide margins) announced his withdrawal in the early evening, just as the Minnesota caucuses were convening. At the caucus I attended, most participants had already signed in and indicated their presidential preference when some late arrivers told us that they heard on the radio on the way over that Edwards was out. Other Minnesota caucuses didn’t get the news.

Candidates in Minnesota
This year, it seems Minnesota caucus goers will at least get into the action while there’s still a race on (it seems unlikely that any of the remaining contenders will drop out by 7 p.m. Central Time tomorrow). And the candidates are giving Minnesota some late attention. Barack Obama and Mitt Romney campaigned in the Twin Cities Saturday, and Hillary Rodham Clinton visited the state Sunday. GOP candidate Ron Paul is expected to travel to Minnesota today.
Minnesota moved up on the calendar this year, in hopes of being relevant. But as things now stand, it would be easy to argue that Minnesota would be a lot more consequential if it was scheduled a week or two later. Who knew?

Still, the DFL says that with 88 Democratic delegates, Minnesota is tied (with Missouri, if you must know) for seventh-largest of the Super Tuesday states. Woo hoo, tied for seventh. Take that, Iowa, with your measly 41 delegates. (Those 88 Minnesota Dem delegates are 2.17 percent of the national total.)

On the Republican side, Minnesota, which has the honor of hosting the national convention, has been allotted 41 delegates. (That’s 1.64 percent of the national total. Both parties assign delegates based on party strength in a particular state.) But if (and this still seems unlikely) the presidential nomination is actually decided by the delegates at the national convention, Minnesota’s Republican delegates will not have been chosen based on the presidential preferences of the caucus-goers Tuesday night.

Between 7 and 8 p.m. tomorrow, Republican caucus goers will express their presidential preferences in a straw poll. The results will be tabulated and reported to the media. They could, conceivably, have some infinitesimal impact on the perceived momentum of one of the candidates. But it will not directly influence the delegate selection process.

How GOP, DFL delegates selected
Minnesota’s 41 GOP delegates will be chosen as follows:

Three spots are reserved for the party chair (Chairman Ron Carey is backing Mike Huckabee) and the Republican national committeeman and committeewoman, they are both supporting Romney); 24 are chosen (three each) by the eight congressional district level conventions that will held in March and April; the final 14 delegates will be chosen by the Republican state convention, May 29-31, in Rochester.

Presidential preferences may or may not have anything to do with those selections, but no one is bound to follow the outcome of tomorrow night’s straw poll.

The secret presidential preference ballot taken by incoming DFL caucus attendees, on the other hand, will be binding on most, but not all, Minnesota national convention delegates. Caucus attendees can cast that vote between 6:30 and 8 p.m., and if that’s all they want to do, they don’t have to hang around for the rest of the caucus, which could be important in the big endorsement contests in the U.S. Senate race, and the contested races for U.S. House, especially in the Third and Sixth districts.

Results of the presidential vote will be reported on the website of the Secretary of State.

The results will not translate directly into proportional allocations of delegations, but it should be close. Here’s how it works:

First of all, 47 delegates will chosen at the congressional district level. Congressional districts have been allotted between five and eight delegates, depending on the DFL voting strength within the district. (District 5, the Minneapolis district and DFL stronghold, gets eight delegates. Districts 1, 2, 6 and 7 get the lowest number, five delegates each.)

Within each district, delegates will be awarded to presidential candidates in proportion to their vote in the preference ballot within that district. If the district has five delegates, roughly every 20 percent of the vote that a candidate receives will translate into a delegate. The actual identity of the delegate will be decided at the congressional district conventions in March, April and May. For example, if Clinton is entitled to three delegates from the district, her supporters at that district convention will elect three delegates from among themselves.

The same process will occur at the DFL state convention, where 25 more pledged delegates will be awarded, based on the statewide results of tomorrow night’s preference ballot. If Obama received a narrow majority of the preference ballots and is entitled to, let’s say, 14 of the 25 delegates, 14 Obama supporters will be elected by the full body of Obama supporters at the state convention, June 6-8 in Rochester. The other 11 pledged delegates would be elected by Clinton’s supporters and would be expected to support her on the first ballot of the national convention.

Minnesota has been allotted 16 super delegates, who are not required to commit to any candidate. Of these, two are elected at the state convention and the other 14 are given delegate spots by virtue of public or party offices they hold or, in one case (Walter Mondale), standing as a party icon. The other ex-officio delegates are the six DFL members of Congress, the party chair and co-chair, the five Minnesota members of the Democratic National Committee.

At present, three Minnesota super delegates have endorsed Obama; four are for Clinton, according to her campaign; the rest are uncommitted so far as I know.

Minnesota’s Independence Party will also hold caucuses Tuesday, and will ask its members who they support for president. The IP is trying to draft New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg into the race as a third party candidate (he was elected mayor as a Republican, but has been considering a third party run).

And there’s yet another caucus for Minnesota coming up. The Green Party caucus will be held March 4.

Eric Black, a former reporter for the Star Tribune, writes about national and state politics, foreign affairs and other topics. He can be reached at eblack [at] minnpost [dot] com.

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Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by Kristina Gronquist on 02/05/2008 - 05:25 pm.

    Great overview of the caucus process, and thanks, Eric, for mentioning third parties! I like the process that the Green Party follows because it is the most inclusive.

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