Second thoughts on state caucus date change? Nope

Last summer, Ron Carey, chairman of the Republican Party in Minnesota, met with his DFL counterpart, Brian Melendez, at a Twin Cities Starbucks.

The two men, who disagree on so much, shared a concern: With so many states rushing to get to the front of the primary and caucus line, the presidential nomination process likely would be over by the time Minnesotans gathered on the state’s quasi-traditional caucus date, the first Tuesday in March. They decided it would be better to be a small player Feb. 5 on Super Duper Tuesday than risk being a complete nonfactor later.

After consulting party executive committees, the secretary of state, party lawyers, all agreed that the state statute, which requires party caucuses to be held on the first Tuesday in March, was meaningless. The courts have rule that parties, not states, control when party events are held.

So the date change was made. Minnesota became part of Super Duper Tuesday, the day that 24 voting jurisdictions will be involved in the presidential candidate selection process.

Most of the attention of the candidates — and the national media — will be focused on primaries in New York, Illinois and California. Massachusetts and New Jersey also figure to be toward the front of the parade.

State small fish in big political sea

Minnesota?

“A minnow in a sea of whales,” said retired University of Minnesota professor Hy Berman, who says he’s never seen a race so competitive as this.

Ron Carey
 GOP Chair Ron Carey

At the time the decision was made to flee the first Tuesday date — in this case, March 4 — no one could have predicted that the presidential contests would be so historically unpredictable. There is a chance that even after Feb. 5, neither party will have a clear-cut presidential candidate.

Had party leaders not been so jumpy, had they decided to hold onto the March 4 date, Minnesota would have been holding caucuses on the same date that just four other states — Texas, Ohio, Rhode Island and Vermont — are holding primary elections. This could prove to be Super Crucial Tuesday.

Minnesota’s voice would have been important in that small group. Candidates would have appeared in the state. Television stations’ airtime would have been filled with commercials.

Party activists downplay second-guessing
“Woulda, shoulda, coulda,” said Brian Sullivan, a Republican Party leader and a supporter of Mitt Romney, whose recent victories in Michigan and Nevada made it seemed more certain that the Republican race will be still alive after Super Duper Tuesday. “You can’t look back now and second-guess the decision, and it’s still very possible that everything will be over after Feb. 5.”

Rick Stafford, former chairman of the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party and a party activist both in Minnesota and nationally, was the person who pushed for the change. It was the right decision then, and it’s the right decision now, especially for DFLers, he said.

“What you’re doing is strictly second-guessing,” said Stafford, a Hillary Clinton supporter. “But the fact is that if we had stayed with the March date, the races would have been over. I still believe our race (Democrat) will be over after Feb. 5. We’re essentially down to a two-person race now. It may be different for the Republicans because they still have so many viable candidates. They still might not know in March.”

The risk of not moving the date was huge, Stafford and Sullivan both said.

Brian Melendez
 DFL Chair Brian Melendez

Had the races been over by the time Minnesotans were supposed to caucus, few would have bothered to show up to participate. Empty caucus rooms would have been a big loss for both state parties.

Big turnouts for caucuses generate excitement, large mailing lists and, ultimately, revenue for the state parties.

Even if Minnesota is not seen as a big player on Feb. 5 nationally, even if the television networks have their reporters elsewhere, even if the candidates don’t have the time or resources to make more than token appearances, caucus night will be a big deal in the state, Stafford said.

“By being the big kahuna locally, people will pay attention,” Stafford said. “The local media will pay attention. There will be excitement in Minnesota. We could get 100,000 Democrats participating. That’s important. If we had stayed until March 4, it truly might not have mattered. Nobody would have participated.”

Parties abandoned primaries after embarrassments
Minnesota long has wrestled with its place in the presidential selection process.

Once upon a time, there were early primaries in the state. But then, according to Berman, pesky voters went against the wishes of party bosses and Minnesota became a caucus state.

In 1952, it was Republican voters who messed with the wishes of the party power structure. The insiders wanted Minnesotans to support favorite son Harold Stassen, who had almost won the nomination four years earlier. Instead, the masses liked Ike. They mounted a write-in campaign for Dwight Eisenhower, who won the state’s primary.

In 1956, it was the DFL bosses who got embarrassed by the rank and file. The bosses wanted Adlai Stevenson to be the state’s choice. DFL primary voters, however, were smitten by a Tennessee populist, Estes Kefauver.

“After that, the leaders of both parties got together and said, ‘That’s enough of these primaries,’ ” said Berman.

Minnesota became a caucus state, with party leaders believing they’d have a little more control over outcomes. Caucus dates have bounced around ever since.

Even now, in the heat of races that may last right into convention halls, Carey, the Republican Party chairman and volunteer head of the Mike Huckabee campaign in Minnesota, says the decision to move to Feb. 5 was the correct choice, even though the state will be overshadowed by all of those giants.

“It’s way too early to play Monday morning quarterback,” Carey said.”Even as confusing as it looks now, if we have a candidate winning two or three primaries in a row, March 4, won’t matter. Melendez and I saw all those states moving to earlier dates and decided that staying the status quo would make us irrelevant.”

But won’t CNN and the candidates ignore Minnesota?

“I prefer Fox,” said Carey.

OK, won’t Fox and the candidates ignore us?

“In this situation, it’s impossible to say what candidates will do,” Carey said. “As it is, the campaigns are making their schedules on a day-to-day basis. It has to be a logistical nightmare.”

As for candidate appearances, Carey laughingly added that any of them may appear if there’s a $250,000 fundraising check to cash in the wake of the visit.

It is possible, Sullivan said, that Minnesota might end up with a big voice come convention time, especially Minnesota Republicans.

On caucus night, DFLers will hold binding votes that will tie the final convention delegation to proportionately reflect the outcome of the caucus votes.

But Republicans are holding only a nonbinding straw poll. (The political cliché for this is “beauty contest.”) So, if the Republican nominee still is in doubt when the party’s convention opens in St. Paul, Minnesota would have 44 uncommitted delegates in play. That number, which seems so small on Super Duper Tuesday, could loom large on the convention floor.

Of course, Minnesota’s relatively small delegate counts could have loomed large the first Tuesday of March, too.

“Or could have meant nothing at all,” said Carey.

Doug Grow, a former metro columnist for the Star Tribune, writes about public affairs, state politics and other topics. He can be reached at dgrow [at] minnpost [dot] com.

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Comments (2)

  1. Submitted by Bernice Vetsch on 01/24/2008 - 09:55 am.

    If the party leaders want more control over who gets nominated, is this still a democracy?

    When that is added to the fact that the media (or their corporate owners) chose both parties’ “front runners” a bare four weeks or so into the campaign and then ignored in, or barred. some candidates from debates, we the voters are getting a double-dose of top-down selection.

    Anna Quindlen wrote in Newsweek a couple of weeks ago about a method called Approval Voting. At caucuses, in primaries and general elections, each voter could make an “approval” mark next to the name of each candidate s/he could “approve” of for the seat in question. In this system voters could feel free to “approve” not just the person anointed by his/her party, but their true first choice and a second and perhaps a third choice. The winner would be the person with the greatest total number of approvals.

    I could envision drastically different primary results if all those who in their hearts favored Dennis Kucinich, for instance, could “approve” him in addition to Edwards, Clinton or Obama instead of feeling Kucinich had no chance to win. Or Edwards, as the second choice of many Clinton and Obama voters, might gain “approvals” from enough of their voters to win.

  2. Submitted by John Olson on 01/30/2008 - 06:46 am.

    The consolidation of many caucuses and primaries on February 5 sends the signal that it is perhaps finally time to consider the possibility of a national primary. Oh yes, Iowa and New Hampshire would squawk the loudest, but the fact that Floridians who chose to vote on the Democratic side of the street have (at this point) no voice whatsoever in helping determine who should be nominated from the Democratic side is a travesty. It could have just as easily been the same for the Republicans, but at least the Republicans are smart enough to know that Florida’s voters are important.

    Regardless of political persuasion, all of us who are entitled to vote should have the right to do so without interference from party bosses who believe they have the “right” to determine their respective nominee over “average” voters such as myself. The paternalistic attitudes that both parties are capable of foisting on us is the singular reason why I will not make a financial contribution or answer my landline prior to an election.

    I would agree that this would make logistics for any national candidate far more challenging. However, if I am not a resident of Iowa or New Hampshire (I’m not), I am left to try and analyze the field of candidates through the traditional and nontraditional media.

    I’m not a caucus person. The last time I went to one–a long time ago–the participants driving the discussion had one issue that was THE litmus test. If you agreed with their views, you were OK. If you did not, you were shuffled aside.

    From my perspective, the caucuses are simply an extension of each party’s desire to predetermine their desired outcome to the best of their ability.

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