- From 1912 to 1988, and since 2004, Colorado used the current system for delegate selection, with no preference vote binding.
- Even in 1992, 1996, and 2004 delegates were bound by vote, but were free to vote conscience on second ballot.
- In 2012, Santorum won the non-binding straw poll but Romney received more delegates at conventions.
- A 2012 rules change at the RNC required any state that held a straw poll to bind their delegates, Colorado chose not to hold the straw poll, to enhance grass-roots participation.
If you’ve been on the internet this morning, you’ve seen the scathing headlines: “Republicans cancel presidential election in CO…” and “Fury as Colorado has no Primary or Caucus,” among others. The problem is that this is not exactly true. Colorado only briefly flirted with a binding primary, but even then the delegates were selected by a caucus-convention system. From 1912 – 1988, and 2004 to the present the delegates were not bound by a preferential vote. This year was no different.
In Colorado, a caucus is held to elect delegates to county assemblies and the county assemblies elect delegates to state and district assemblies where the delegates to the RNC are chosen. That is how it has worked over the past four presidential cycles, and it is nothing new for this year.
First, a little recent history. Conservative Review spoke to Florence Sebern, a member of the 2012 RNC Convention Rules Committee from Colorado. Sebern outlined how the Colorado Republican Party started holding non-binding straw polls to coincide with their caucuses in 2008. Sebern explained the process: “Prior to 2012 RNC rules changes, Colorado's presidential preference poll (instituted in 2008), did not bind delegates. Delegates could choose to pledge, via the National Delegate Notice of Intent form. A pledge bound delegates through the 1st round of voting.”
The New York Times description of the caucus system in Colorado in 2008 and 2012 confirms this account. In both instances they describe how the delegates are unbound from the results of the straw poll.
So why the change this year? According to Sebern, RNC rules instituted in 2012 said that any state that holds a preference poll in conjunction with their caucuses must bind delegates according to the results. The new rule was 16(a)(1):
Any statewide presidential preference vote that permits a choice among candidates for the Republican nomination for President of the United States in a primary, caucuses, or a state convention must be used to allocate and bind the state’s delegation to the national convention in either a proportional or winner-take-all manner, except for delegates and alternate delegates who appear on a ballot in a statewide election and are elected directly by primary voters.
The caucus system was not fundamentally changed. What was changed was that a meaningless straw poll was not conducted — one that wouldn’t bind the delegates anyway.
With the national rules change now governing, Sebern helped to lead the fight to end the short-lived presidential straw polls to keep the power of selecting delegates with the grassroots. Sebern wrote in an op-ed about the change:
Colorado’s caucus system is the way grassroots activists — We the People! — participate in and impact our political system.
Caucus is a meeting of neighbors, affiliated with a political party, who come together to discuss candidates, issues, ideas, elect leadership and delegates. It’s the basic building block of our Colorado political system. It’s an open door to local political activism. It’s an opportunity for all voices to be heard.
Caucus encourages one of the best aspects of politics: the opportunity to have a civil conversation with our neighbors who we may — or may not — agree with.
Caucus allows all voices to be heard and all concerns to be discussed.
In that same op-ed, Sebern explains that there were three short-lived primary cycles, and that the grassroots changed back to a caucus and saved the taxpayers money.
Colorado had a presidential primary in 1992, 1996, and 2000. We changed back to a caucus system and saved taxpayers $6 million dollars. Interestingly, voter participation declined during those primary years. Primaries may not be the only reason for a decline in voter participation (understanding the importance of civic engagement and quality candidates are certainly part of the “formula”), but they also don’t offer the neighborly experience that caucus does.
Donald Trump, and his media allies, have suggested that Colorado fundamentally changed their caucus system in the summer of 2015 to benefit Ted Cruz. In fact, the caucus system was not fundamentally changed. What was changed was that a meaningless straw poll was not conducted — one that wouldn’t bind the delegates anyway.
Even in 1992, 1996, and 2000 with the binding primary, delegates were selected by the caucus method. On a second ballot, at the national convention, those delegates could vote for whom they pleased.
Since the 2004 primary and caucus season — and from 1912 to 1988 before that — here is how the system worked: Republicans met in local precinct caucuses, which they did this year. People ran for delegate to the county assemblies (convention), often stating which presidential candidate they would support during the assemblies. The county assemblies picked delegates to district and state assemblies. Candidates running for national convention delegate could, optionally, bind themselves to a candidate or say what candidate they would support. The assemblies would elect the delegates.
In 2012, Rick Santorum won the non-binding presidential preference straw poll in Colorado. The result was: Santorum 40.3 percent, Mitt Romney 34.9 percent, Newt Gingrich 12.8 percent, and Ron Paul 11.8 percent. Romney ended up with more delegates, however; the delegate count was Romney 13, Santorum 6, and Paul 5.
The process described above is what happened this year. On March 1, thousands of Coloradans met at precinct caucuses. They elected delegates to the county assemblies. Those county assemblies sent delegates to state and district assemblies (conventions). There the delegates were selected. Exactly as they had been in 2004, 2008, and 2012.
Here’s how the chairman of the Colorado GOP explained it to Conservative Review, "The four step caucus process used this year was identical to the process employed in 2012 with the exception of the non-binding straw poll being eliminated," said Colorado GOP Chairman Steve House. "The process was open to all Colorado Republicans and all campaigns had ample opportunity to encourage their supporters to attend caucus, county assemblies, Congressional Assemblies, and the State Convention."
Donald Trump’s real fight is with the people way back in 2002 that fought to get rid of the binding primary, not Ted Cruz.
Robert Eno is the Director of Research for Conservative Review and also is a Contributor. He is a conservative from deep blue Massachusetts but now lives in Greenville, SC. He is also a fill in radio host and appears on television. Follow him @robeno and feel free to email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.