Why and how the Maine caucus mess matters

There are those who say the 2012 Maine GOP caucus mess doesn’t matter. No matter who it turns out won, they are wrong. Here’s why:

1. The announcement of a winner on February 11, along with the announcement of the straw poll winner at CPAC (the Conservative Political Action Conference) affected media coverage, for a bit.

According to these announcements, Mitt Romney won both, after having lost three caucuses to Rick Santorum earlier in the week. Romney’s campaign badly wanted to avoid another caucus loss. The media’s assessments of momentum have real effects on how future stories frame candidates and on campaign contributions and on voters’ support.

2. The caucus mess led to upheaval within the Maine Republican Party and likely affected how others view the party and its leadership.

One sign of that is the censure vote by the Waldo County Republican party of party chair Charlie Webster. As the Village Soup reports:

A statement from the Maine Republican Party Feb. 16 that the results of the upcoming Washington County caucus, along with previously omitted figures from a number of towns that already caucused, will figure in the final statewide tallies got a lukewarm reception in Waldo County, where results from 17 towns went missing the first time around.

According to several members of the Waldo County Republican Committee, which took a vote of no confidence and called for the censure of party chairman Charlie Webster earlier this week, there are no plans to withdraw the group’s complaint.

Statements from Mr. Webster have added fuel to the fire, including his initial contention that towns that had not held caucuses would not be counted and  the explanations for missing results involving some town reports not getting through the e-mail spam filter. One journalist notes that Webster said that the Republican “party was unable to contact every single town because it does not have on file a GOP chairman for every town.”

One only need to look at comments in Maine newspapers to see that this has upset some Republicans and others.

3. Within and outside of Maine, supporters of Ron Paul are very unhappy.

Although national polls show Ron Paul getting between 10 and 16% in Republican presidential nomination preferences, his supporters are extremely energetic and loyal. They also include a fair number of young voters. They already believe that the Republican Establishment (and the national press corps) don’t respect them and Representative Paul. Turning them off does not seem like a good political move for the party.

4. The caucus mess could energize Ron Paul supporters to make sure they are involved in the state conventions and this can influence the national convention.

The Maine GOP caucuses are non-binding straw votes — “beauty contests” — that are not directly connected to picking the delegates to the state convention who pick the delegates to the national convention, which actually selects the presidential nominee. This is probably the biggest reason why some say the caucuses don’t matter.

In fact, Paul’s campaign says that their emphasis is on winning the national delegates, not on the final caucus vote. Feeling wronged should help the campaign do so — in Maine and beyond.

Now, often national delegates don’t matter all that much. Before 1972, convention delegates were most affected by negotiations between candidates’ operations and state political party leaders. After that, primaries and other mechanisms played a much larger role in picking delegates, but by the time the convention rolled around, it was absolutely or pretty clear who was going to be the nominee.

But this may not be true in 2012. Ron Paul has every incentive to win and hold onto his national convention delegates so that he can influence the selection process and party platform at the Republican National Convention.

5. All of this may lead the Maine GOP to abandon its caucus system for something else.

One option would be to do what the Maine Democrats do, which is to have caucuses that are related to picking delegates to the state convention.

Another is to adopt primaries over caucuses. Primaries are run by the state and the town clerks (and therefore cost taxpayers money), but allow more people to weigh in, either in person or by absentee ballot. However, primaries don’t have the advantage of bringing people together and getting them involved in party governance and likely also future campaign activities.

Amy Fried

About Amy Fried

Amy Fried loves Maine's sense of community and the wonderful mix of culture and outdoor recreation. She loves politics in three ways: as an analytical political scientist, a devoted political junkie and a citizen who believes politics matters for people's lives. Fried is Professor of Political Science at the University of Maine. Her views do not reflect those of her employer or any group to which she belongs.