USA 2012: Colorado and Minnesota caucuses and Missouri primary

After Nevada’s caucuses on February 4, the race for the Republican nomination in the United States stayed west of the Mississippi with a mini Super Tuesday featuring caucuses in Colorado and Minnesota and a non-binding ‘beauty pageant’ primary in Missouri.

In Nevada, the Republican Party’s frontrunner Mitt Romney scored a triumph over his three remaining challengers taking 50% of the vote in a caucus state, and this despite a very conservative base of caucus-goers (8 in 10 were conservatives, the highest since Iowa on January 3). This win followed a 14-point win over Newt Gingrich in Florida’s primary at the end of January, which had allowed Mitt Romney to avenge his thumping at Gingrich’s hands in South Carolina 10 days prior. Newt Gingrich has tried to position himself as the ‘other guy’ in the race, to make this contest a choice between him – the alleged conservative alternative – and Romney – whose conservative credentials are often placed in doubt by others. His success in South Carolina and second place finishes in both Florida and Nevada have allowed Gingrich to retain this mantle. But Gingrich has so far failed to prove that he’s not a sectional candidate a la Mike Huckabee, with a base limited almost exclusively to the South. The February contests, none of which take place in the old Confederacy, are a tough spell for Gingrich. But these contests are generally seen as favourable to Mitt Romney. He had carried Nevada, Colorado, Minnesota, Maine and Michigan in 2008 – all these states vote (or voted) this month. In 2008, he won over 60% in Colorado’s caucuses and over 40% in Minnesota’s caucuses.

Outside Iowa (and Nevada, to a lesser extent), caucuses are unpredictable affairs. Their setup means that they attract far more limited turnout and its results are conditioned by those who attend caucuses, who are generally very heavily conservative. A candidate’s organization on the ground, with a strong ability to motivate base supporters to go out and caucus, are crucial factors in caucus politics. Barack Obama had understood that in the 2008 Democratic contest, and it perhaps proved determinant. In this race, Mitt Romney and Ron Paul dominate the field in terms of ground organization and GOTV capabilities. In contrast, Gingrich’s campaign in these caucus states was horrible.

In the 2008 Republican caucuses in Nevada, Mitt Romney had two things going for him: firstly, the fact that a quarter of the caucus-goers were Mormons like him. Secondly, the heavily conservative electorate suited Mitt Romney’s 2008 profile as the anti-McCain non-Evangelical conservative candidate. In Nevada this year, he didn’t really lose any of those two advantages. But in Colorado and Minnesota, both states he won easily in 2008 over McCain, his 2008 victory was apparently reliant pretty exclusively on the second condition (conservatism). Despite winning conservatives in Nevada pretty convincingly, conservatives have been 2012 Romney’s weakness. Furthermore, conservatives in Colorado and Minnesota tend to be different from those in Nevada. Nevada’s conservative base does not care all that much about ‘culture war’ issues and tend to be concerned about things such as taxes, the deficit and guns. Colorado and Minnesota Republicans tend to be far more socially conservative – though not Southern Baptist. In fact, the CO and MN GOP tend to be pretty conservative despite Minnesota’s liberalism and Colorado’s centrism. Minnesota Republicans include Michele Bachmann and Colorado Republicans included Tom Tancredo and Marilyn Musgrave.

The Missouri contest was a non-binding ‘beauty pageant’ primary which will not count in assigning delegates. In other words, it can be seen either as an irrelevant joke or a glorified straw poll. A caucus in March will be the one assigning delegates. The primary is made unique by the fact that Newt Gingrich is not on the ballot, although he will be on the caucus ballot. It was a contest between Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum, with Ron Paul also on the ballot.

Results and Conclusions

Colorado

Rick Santorum 40.31%
Mitt Romney 34.85%
Newt Gingrich 12.79%
Ron Paul 11.75%
Others 0.3%

Minnesota (98% reporting)

Rick Santorum 44.99%
Ron Paul 27.08%
Mitt Romney 16.85%
Newt Gingrich 10.79%
Others 0.29%

Missouri (non-binding)

Rick Santorum 55.68%
Mitt Romney 25.58%
Ron Paul 12.28%
Uncommitted 3.95%
Others 2.52%

After his come-from-behind triumph in Iowa, former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum had it pretty tough in January. He finished a distant third in South Carolina, taking 17%, and also placed third in Florida with 13%. A few days ago in Nevada, he polled only 10%. Despite the momentum his Iowan victory generated, Santorum was unable to keep that short-lived big mo’ from eroding. Rick Santorum, on paper, is a terrific candidate for the GOP primaries: experienced, reliably conservative, no skeletons in the closet and a well-managed campaign. In practice, however, Santorum’s problem is that he has little funds, weak or nascent state organizations and he is not Southern unlike Gingrich. His poor showings in the other January contests after Iowa threatened to descend his operation into irrelevancy. He risked being left behind as Gingrich took the mantle of the conservative anti-Romney. However, Santorum was able to focus his efforts on these three states – especially Minnesota and Missouri’s symbolic primary. Beyond his wildest dreams, Santorum roared back into contention by scoring some pretty monumental blows to Romney. A landslide in Missouri’s beauty contest – 56% of the vote against a mere 26% for Mitt. A much wider than expected margin in Minnesota, taking 45%. More spectacularly, beating Romney by a significant margin in Colorado with 40% of the vote.

Mitt Romney is the real loser of the night. His campaign had been worried about Minnesota and Missouri, and they spent election day furiously spinning the two contests into irrelevance for their campaign. Romney ignored Missouri – his landslide loss there is more understandable and less humiliating. He came to Minnesota only once and it was not his main target – still humiliating, but more understandable. Still, distant third place in a state he got 41% in four years ago… pretty horrible, no? But even further than that, Colorado was Romney’s backyard. He had won it with over 60% of the vote in 2008. The demographics in Missouri and Minnesota didn’t play Romney’s way, but Colorado is full of very affluent and educated suburbanites who form Romney’s backbone thus far. It has a not-insignificant Mormon vote in the GOP caucuses, giving Romney a tiny boost over his rivals, all things being equal. His campaign efforts were largely focused on Colorado, and the polls in the state seemed to be going his way.

There was a late Santorum surge which no casual observer saw coming and which experienced observers saw only very late. Caucuses outside Iowa are notoriously hard to poll, so only PPP ventured out to poll the contests in Minnesota and Colorado. A first poll in Minnesota had shown a three-way tie with Santorum ahead and a last-minute poll out of Minnesota gave Santorum a 9-point edge over Romney. In Colorado, a final last-minute poll by PPP showed Romney with a 10 point lead over Santorum, who had closed the gap. The Colorado poll results averaged out two days of polling, meaning that the final day’s sample was pretty pro-Santorum. That was the only hint of what was coming. Even on election night, most analysts were still pretty certain that Romney would win Colorado, but I did find it hilariously prescient that in his speech, Mitt said that he was confident of ‘finishing number one… or number two… in Colorado’.

Rick Santorum’s recipe for success seems to have been heavy conservative turnouts. GOP caucuses are full of conservatives, and in a lot of cases full of conservatives who are motivated to go out there. Mitt Romney is not the type of candidate who you would go out caucus for after dinner, even if you’re a supporter. He does not motivate turnout. In fact, a 538 analysis picked up by Newt shows that turnout of GOP voters (independents are not counted, given that they are obviously far more likely to vote in contested GOP primaries than uncontested Democratic primaries) so far has tended to decline vis-a-vis 2008 in the places where Romney performs best. Gingrich says that Romney ‘supresses’ turnout, which is perhaps not the best way of putting it, but Romney has not won so far by motivation of his electorate or swing voters, rather he has won by apathy of swing voters and opponents towards his rivals. In Colorado and Minnesota, Santorum – and Paul to a lesser extent – proved capable of motivating turnout, especially among conservatives.

The results in Colorado and Minnesota, more than anything else, show how deep Romney’s conservative problem is. He won those two states in 2008 because their caucus-goers were conservative and he was the conservative alternative that year. He lost those two states in 2012 because their caucus-goers were conservative and he was the moderate choice. Mitt Romney has a serious problem in appealing to his party’s conservative base. Conservatives don’t trust him, don’t like him and don’t want him as their nominee. If he wins, it will likely be because the conservatives have failed to coalesce behind a single candidate. We should still be careful about spinning MN and CO’s results way out of proportion, given that they were low-turnout caucuses where those who turned out were motivated social conservatives who hated Romney. Like McCain and Hillary in 2008, Romney may have a caucus problem, but we can’t really ascertain that he has a primary problem too. McCain lost Minnesota in a landslide, but he did not have any problems in next-door Illinois on the same day.

In a way, Santorum’s victory could be a positive for Romney in the long run. But only if Santorum is unable to build up true momentum and only builds up enough to further divides the conservative anti-Romney vote, allowing Romney to eek out uninspiring victories in crucial states along the way and emerging as nominee-by-default. Romney is still the favourite, he has money, loads of it, and he has shown no reluctance of going negative on his rivals. He has the means to bomb Santorum like he bombed Gingrich in Florida. On the other hand, Santorum is far more of a threat to Romney than Newt is. As previously outlined, he has relatively few negatives which could hurt him with the base but a good list of positives which make him a strong candidate. Santorum should shift his focus to winning Midwestern primaries, where Santorum’s populist tone on economic issues with stuff such as rebuilding America’s manufacturing base would play very well with Republican voters in upcoming big primaries such as Michigan and Ohio. Santorum also needs to try to marginalize Gingrich as much as possible, with the aim of forcing him out of the race as soon as possible.

Given Gingrich’s horrible caucus organization, his results are not surprising. But they make him the second big loser of the night. He has yet to prove that he is more than a sectional, Southern candidate. Gingrich seems extremely adamant about the fact that he’s staying in the race vitam æternam, but if his main financial backer, Sheldon Adelson, stops bankrolling him after a string of results such as these, his determination could prove short-lived. But this race is so unpredictable, Gingrich could mount a fantastic comeback followed a week later by a spectacular collapse back to today’s level.

Ron Paul performed well in Minnesota, up from 16% four years ago. In Colorado, however, his result was bit underwhelming, up only a bit from the 8 or so percent he won in 2008. Early indications out of Maine, whose week-long caucus mess ends on Saturday, are favourable to him and he could be looking at potential victories in Alaska, Washington and Montana.

Geographic Analysis

Results of the CO caucuses (source: uselectionatlas)

In Colorado, Rick Santorum’s victory was built on three main foundations. Firstly, he swept the sparsely populated counties of the state’s flat Eastern Plains. This is conservative, rural, agrarian, Evangelical country; but in the end it only provides a handful of votes. Secondly, and most importantly, Santorum won decisively in El Paso County (Colorado Springs), which cast the most votes of all counties. He won 47% to Romney’s 31%. Colorado Springs, a solidly Republican city, is driven by the military but also has a strong social conservative base as the headquarters of Focus on the Family, a socially conservative organization which endorsed Santorum. Evangelicals make up a big part of the CO GOP caucus-goers, perhaps up to nearly half of the entire electorate. They tend to be concentrated in the Eastern Plains but also non-touristic mountainous areas. Thirdly, Santorum’s victory was made possible by strong showings in the Front Range exurbs of Denver, which are to the right of Denver’s liberalizing suburbs, slightly less educated and less affluent. He carried Larimer County (Fort Collins) 44-30 and Weld (Greeley) 48-28. He also won the main population centre of the Western Slopes, Mesa County (Grand Junction) 47-35.

In the Denver area, Mitt Romney’s support was concentrated in urban Denver and in the educated, affluent and politically more moderate suburban counties of Arapahoe, Jefferson and Douglas. While his victories in Arapahoe and Douglas (45-34 and 47-33 respectively), he only won by a smaller margin of 39-37 in Jefferson County. Outside Denver and Boulder, however, Romney’s support was concentrated in low-vote locales including Mormon outposts (Conejos County, 79% for Romney, some counties along the Utah border) and liberal affluent ski resort places including Pitkin County (Aspen), Eagle County (Vail) and Summit County (Breckenridge).

Ron Paul did best (33%) in Gunnison County which includes both a college (in Gunnison) and a ski resort.

Results of the MN caucuses (source: uselectionatlas); incomplete map

Rick Santorum swept Minnesota quasi-entirely, leaving out only four counties for Ron Paul. His strongest support was concentrated in rural areas, especially in parts of southwestern and northwestern Minnesota which have a large proportion of Evangelical Protestants. Mitt Romney had performed comparatively poorly in the bulk of these areas in 2008, when he won statewide, and this year he was utterly trashed in the vast majority of these counties, where the GOP caucus-going electorate is extremely conservative. But in terms of overall weights, these areas are fairly minimal.

Rick Santorum performed well – and so did Ron Paul actually – in Minneapolis’ famous exurban counties, including Michele Bachmann’s home-turf (the 6th district). Minnesota’s right-wing exurbia, which stands out from the liberalizing suburbs of Chicago, are marked by mega-churches and a politically significant Evangelical community. Romney had performed well here in 2008, he was swept out this year, performing below his statewide average and a distant third at best. Even in the more moderate and affluent inner suburbs of Minneapolis, Romney at best broke 20%, but Santorum still dominated.

Mitt Romney could not even place second in the Twin Cities, both of which were won by Santorum by a smaller yet still significant margin. He won Hennepin (Minneapolis) 36-29.5 over Paul and won Ramsey (St. Paul) 36-34. Santorum also carried two other large urban centres, Olmsted (Rochester) 40-29 and the Iron Range city of Duluth (St. Louis County) 45-29.5. Paul was victorious in Blue Earth County, which includes the college town of Mankato, winning 51 to 30.

Results of the MO primary (source: uselectionatlas)

Missouri’s beauty-pageant primary is ultimately meaningless for Santorum’s campaign, but because it has been reported on by the media, Santorum’s big win there has created some sort of narrative about him winning “the heart of America” and similar stuff like that. Whether or not he can win the meaningful caucus, in which Gingrich will be on the ballot, is still unknown given that Missouri’s demographics are closer to Gingrich’s Southern conservative base than Santorum’s emerging Midwestern conservative base. Still, Santorum’s landslide in the primary carried him over Romney in every single county in the state, a spectacular feat. He far surpasses Mike Huckabee’s close second performance in Missouri’s meaningful 2008 primary, in which he had won 31.5% to McCain’s 33% on the back of strong performances in the culturally Southern Ozarks of southwestern Missouri, the Dixiecratic Bootheel and the old plantation region of Little Dixie in central Missouri.

Rick Santorum still won these culturally Southern regions by huge margins, doing especially well in the Evangelical Ozarks and parts of Little Dixie along the Illinois and Iowa border. But in addition to these conservative bases, Santorum was able to extend his appeal – rather spectacularly – to places where Huckabee had not done as well. He defeated Romney by large margins in the reliably Republican German Catholic counties of the Missouri Rhineland, where McCain had won four years ago. Even more surprising was his ability to defeat Romney in what should be Romney’s backyard: the affluent, more moderate suburbs and exurbs of St. Louis and Kansas City. He won St. Louis’ exurbs in St. Charles County 56-25, in a county which had been one of Romney’s best counties in 2008. But he also won the older, more moderate affluent suburbs of St. Louis (St. Louis County) 53-29 and won the city proper 45-26. He also carried Jackson County (Kansas City) and Boone County, which includes the liberal college town of Columbia.

Slightly amusingly, Mitt Romney’s best result in Missouri came out of Pemiscot County (37.3%), which makes no sense whatsoever. Pemiscot was the only county to vote for Wallace in 1968 and it is a traditionally Dixiecratic county in the Bootheel. Of course, barely anybody (413) voted.

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Posted on February 9, 2012, in Colorado, Minnesota, Missouri, Primaries, leadership contests or internal party votes, U.S.A.. Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

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