For the past 25 years, the state of Washington has been largely irrelevant in the Republican Party’s presidential primary process. This year, things are different. Very different.
Let us count the ways.
First, Washington offers 43 delegates in the nomination competition — the second-most to date in the 2012 GOP presidential contest. Consider that in 2008, by contrast, 31 states had held their contests before Washington Republicans caucused on Feb. 9, and almost half (15) offered more delegates than the Washington GOP.
This year, 12 states will have voted and only one, Florida with 50 delegates, has or had more at stake to win. Some other states were scheduled to offer more delegates, but they were penalized by national party leadership (as was Florida) for moving earlier in the calendar than allowed.
For example, a great deal of attention is being devoted in the national press to the upcoming Feb. 28 primaries in Michigan and Arizona. However, because each state lost half of its delegates because of calendar reshuffling, Michigan and Arizona offer only 30 and 29 delegates, respectively. Washington offers more than a third more total delegates. Hello importance.
Second, the Republican primary schedule is less compacted than in years past. This is significant.
Nate Silver, who writes the New York Times’ electoral blog fivethirtyeight, noted the 2012 calendar has a much longer span of time between the opening Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary to “Super Tuesday,” a big electoral day when several states traditionally hold their contests.
Super Tuesday was created in 1984 when a number of states, many in the South, held their nominating contests on March 13 — two weeks after the New Hampshire primary. In years since, the length of time from New Hampshire to Super Tuesday has ranged from one to five weeks, with an average of three weeks. This year there are eight weeks between New Hampshire and Super Tuesday, which is scheduled for three days after the Washington caucus.
This glacial-like primary pace has provided time for countless dramatic moments. Mitt Romney has won big and lost big while he and his allies outspend foes in eye-popping numbers, Newt Gingrich won his first-ever statewide vote with a stunning comeback in South Carolina and then promptly fell off the map, Rick Santorum lost and won Iowa and then seized national momentum with a surprising three-state sweep on Feb. 7, and Ron Paul nearly pulled a rabbit out of his hat by coming close to beating Romney in Maine.
Last November, the Times’ Silver presciently said the GOP competition might turn out to be “The Buyer’s Remorse Primary” in that voters would have plenty of time to ponder upon the field, and perhaps choose differently than previous states. “[I]f you’ve enjoyed all the twists and turns in the Republican race so far,” Silver wrote three months ago, “the elongated calendar should leave plenty of time for a few more of them.” Um, yes.
Third, the national party’s chosen candidate, Romney, has yet to win over the party’s base, which tends to be Christian conservatives. As a result, the crew of “not-Romneys” — currently Gingrich, Santorum, and Paul — have made this a real race. In 1988, Washington Republicans in their caucuses chose Christian firebrand Pat Robertson, and the state is known for a politically active conservative Christian population. In 2008, Romney finished third here, so the not-Romneys see Washington as an attractive place this time around.
Chris Vance was the campaign manager in 1988 for the Bob Dole campaign in Washington state, later held a seat in the state legislature, and was Republican state chair 2001-06. On Saturday he said, “In every election since 1988, the mainline Republicans in this state have been fine with the establishment candidate. The thing that is driving the campaign is Mitt Romney’s inability to excite the average Republican. No one loves him. We’ll see if Rick Santorum can excite folks here.”
From 1988 onward, Republican presidential campaigns have been dominated by the Bushes (1988, 1992, 2000, 2004), Dole (1988 and 1996), and John McCain (2000 and 2008). All of them convinced the party’s wings of conservatives and moderates to back them. Washington’s caucus will either help to return to this form or be an important step in confirming an insurgent candidacy. Which way it goes will matter.
Fourth, for the first time in modern Republican presidential contests, Washington will politically own the day. In past years of competitive primaries, the state’s Republicans have always voted on a day shared with other states.
In 1988, Washington went on Super Tuesday with 16 other states. In 1996, Washington competed for attention with two other states — one of which was California, the Andre the Giant of delegates. In 2000 it was another Super Tuesday with 12 other states. And in 2008 it was another three-state affair.
This year, Washington is on an island, all by itself three days before Super Tuesday. And on a Saturday, which is traditionally a slow news day. If the state’s Republicans are ever going to be the epicenter of national politics, this is it. The gang at CNN had better be practicing their Puyallup and Sequim pronunciations and confirming that there is indeed a Vancouver in Washington.
Fifth and finally, Washington dumped its state-wide primary this year due to costs. After Robertson won the Republican caucuses in 1988, “leadership, state party officials, and legislators viewed it as an embarrassment,” Vance said. As a result, the GOP pushed hard to create a system that involved more voters in the process. The state obliged by instituting a primary in 1989, which allows voters to cast ballots without engaging in time-consuming caucuses.
The Democrats have ignored the primary for the 20+ years since, choosing to award presidential delegates solely based on caucus results. Republicans, however, have pursued a hybrid strategy of awarding half of their delegates based on caucus results and half based on primary results, with the two elections held on separate dates. It’s been confusing and a turn-off to candidates and campaigns.
This year, the state legislature cancelled the primary to save an estimated $10 million, so all 43 of the Republican delegates (except for three super-delegates who are essentially free agents) are riding on the caucus outcomes.
On March 3, the nation will at long last be focused on Washington’s Republicans. Game On.