Kirby Wilbur, Chairman of the Washington State Republican Party, is the busiest man in the state today. With the Washington GOP caucus a little over 24 hours away, his cell phone is a perpetual jangle of incoming calls.
Given the perfect storm of the spotlight on the Washington caucus for the first time in memory, no GOP primary, and the pressure on the WSRP given earlier caucus disasters in Iowa (Who won?), Maine (When do we caucus when it snows? Which ones count?), and Nevada (How long until the votes are tallied? Anyone? Anyone?), I held out little hope of an interview. The guy is busy.
Turns out, Wilbur is never too busy for a Husky.
“Of course I called you back,” Wilbur told me about 10 seconds into our call, “As soon as I heard you were a Husky. Now, if you were a Cougar? No way.”
A history major from the UW class of ’81 is trying to make history this Saturday.
In 2008, roughly 14,000 people attended the Washington GOP caucus. Fast forward four years, and Wilbur and his team are hoping for a turnout of 40,000 to 60,000. “I believe we can do 50,000 or north of that,” predicts Wilbur. Turnout that size would shatter all previous records.
Josh Amato, Director of Communications for the WSRP, agrees that monster turnout is possible. “We’re very excited,” he said. “We’re making sure our voters are aware that the primaries have been cancelled and the caucus is their chance to vote.”
Amato continued,”This is a completely different caucus than those in the past, a whole different animal.”
Indeed, coordinating a caucus can be beastly.
The WSRP is facing what could be the largest caucus they have ever seen in an election season with more press scrutiny than ever before. For that reason, Wilbur and his team are taking steps to manage the many moving parts.
“We’ve been very careful,” Wilbur says. Instead of a secret ballot (like the kind UW Election Eye saw in Colorado and Nevada), the WSRP “decided to be transparent,” Wilbur explained, by opting for a public straw poll vote. “Having a good vote count was more important” than keeping the vote private, said Wilbur.
To increase ballot security, each caucus will have triplicate carbon copy sign-in sheets. To participate in a caucus, a voter must sign in when they arrive at their precinct location, indicating that they are a registered Republican and which candidate has their vote.
Once all voters are signed in, the precinct chair moderates a discussion where voters have a chance to speak on behalf of particular candidates to persuade others to change their minds. If someone opts for an alternative candidate than the one indicated upon arrival, the sign-in sheet must be initialized by both the voter and the precinct chair.
One copy of the final sign-in sheet remains with the precinct chair, one is sent to the county chair, and the third goes to Wilbur’s team at WSRP headquarters in Bellevue, Wash. Unused forms are voided by the precinct chair and returned as well. Final tallies are then called in to the state headquarters. Wilbur expects that results will begin to be released by 3 p.m.
Despite this careful planning, Wilbur is realistic about the complex nature of a caucus. “We know they’ll be some glitches because we’re human,” said Wilbur.
Higher numbers, higher stakes.
In addition, another change to the caucus landscape is the run up: all four candidates — Gingrich, Paul, Romney, and Santorum — have campaigned in Washington leading up to the caucus. “We have never had candidates campaign in the state [during the primary season],” says Wilbur.
“Ron Paul has been in the state six months, Mitt Romney for one or two months,” says Amato. Both Gingrich and Santorum have visited periodically, with Santorum capitalizing on momentum gained during his three-state sweep in early February.
While that earlier momentum allowed Santorum to boast a lead in Washington two weeks ago, a breaking report from Public Policy Polling shows Romney reversing that surge with help from victories in Michigan and Arizona. Romney is now the frontrunner in Washington with 37%, 32% for Santorum, 16% for Paul, and 13% for Gingrich.
That said, Public Policy Polling cautions about counting Santorum out: he tends to outperform polls.
But will he?
As the data shows at the graph on the left, a significant percentage of both Romney and Santorum supporters say they might end up supporting someone else. Shifts from these two camps could mean all the difference in the outcome.
No matter what, Saturday promises to be memorable.
“I’ve been doing this a long time,” said Wilbur. “I’m excited because this time it’s historic.”