Osage Beach, Missouri — When Missouri held its primary in early February, Rick Santorum’s huge victory – along with his successes in Colorado and Minnesota that same night – transformed him from a fading player to a top contender for the nomination.
Now, with the bulk of the Missouri counties caucusing today (thanks to a series of factors, the state’s primary was effectively a statewide straw poll that did not have binding results) , the pressure is on Santorum to prove his February triumph was no accident.
Chances are good that Santorum will once again win, although it is unlikely that he will replicate his feat of winning every single county, as he did in February. “Mitt Romney will win a big one that he can point to to say he won,” predicts one Missouri Republican strategist, suggesting that St. Louis county is one county Romney could perhaps win in. Still, even if Santorum loses a few counties to Romney, he will probably still get right around 50 percent of the vote, adds the strategist, only a few points down from the 55 percent Santorum got in February.
“I would suspect Santorum wins,” says James Harris, a Missouri Republican strategist. He notes that the Missouri electorate is highly conservative, pointing out the 2010 ballot measure that repealed the federal health insurance mandate institute by Obamacare. The measure easily passed, backed by 71 percent of voters. Mike Huckabee, too, did well in Missouri in 2008, finishing just a point behind John McCain, 32 percent to 33 percent, suggesting there’s an audience for Santorum’s social-conservative views.
The Romney campaign has been increasing their efforts in the state, including opening a state headquarters. (The windows are decorated with signs such as “Mitt Me in St. Louis” and “Show Me MO Mitt.”) Former Missouri senator Jim Talent, a top surrogate for Romney, highlights the fact that around a thousand people showed up to see Romney Tuesday in the Kansas City area as a sign of enthusiasm. “I think we’re going to get our share of delegates and be on the map,” predicts Talent. But, citing the confusion Republicans are having understanding the caucus system, he adds, “almost nothing would surprise me.”
Talent isn’t alone in thinking the caucus system is confusing. In 2008, Missouri’s presidential contest was a primary, not caucuses. Campaigns and the state party are scrambling to ensure voters understand the 2012 caucuses. Most counties will caucus today, but a handful have already held their caucuses or will do so later this month. Further complicating the matter is the fact that at the caucuses, the voters will pick delegates, not candidates. A caucus can pass a rule that binds delegates to a particular candidate, but it’s not clear how many caucuses will do so. Still, Missouri GOP communications director Jonathon Prouty predicts most caucus goers will know which delegate backs which candidates. “We fully expect that it will be very clear who the delegates are supporting, so caucus goers will have a pretty good idea of the candidate preferences of the delegates they’re voting on,” he says.
Both the drawn-out caucus calendar and the fact that it’s delegates, not candidates, being chosen mean there will be no official winner declared today. “We believe that the media on the ground will have a pretty good sense of what happened,” Prouty says, adding that the GOP won’t release any official results.
In Missouri’s system this cycle, the county caucuses are just the first step. In April, congressional districts will pick their delegates, while the state’s at-large delegates will be picked in June. The 52 delegates sent to the convention will be all be bound to a particular candidate. (Another twist in the Missouri process is that if the mood of state Republicans changes in April and/or June, the delegates chosen to attend the convention won’t necessarily reflect which candidate was popular in the March caucuses.) In other words, the final result for the Missouri contest won’t be known until June.
Karen Fesler, Santorum’s Missouri director, says the campaign intends to remain involved in the delegate selections in April and June. “We have our organization in place, and we’re going to keep that in place,” Fesler says in the campaign’s Missouri headquarters, where a handful of volunteers are calling up voters. She is cautiously optimistic about Saturday’s results, saying, “we hope we do well.”
Ron Paul, too, has been campaigning aggressively in the state in the days leading up to the caucus, attracting crowds of 1,500 to 2,500, according to his campaign. Paul finished third in the primary with 12 percent of the vote; it wouldn’t be surprising if he could increase his percentage, thanks to the fact that caucuses’ longer-time formats often lead to lower turnout. Newt Gingrich appears to have entirely written off Missouri, not campaigning in the state at all this week.
Campaigning in the old-fashioned Main Street Music Hall in Osage Beach yesterday Santorum stressed his gratitude for February results.
“I just want to thank you for the great support that you gave us,” Santorum said to supporters gathered in the approximately 900-seat auditorium, which was about two-thirds full. His campaign, Santorum recalled, had been “trucking along,” having trouble gaining momentum after Romney had been declared the winner of the Iowa caucuses, prior to his triple win in February. “nobody spoke louder or stronger than the people here in Missouri,” Santorum said, noting how he had gained over 50 percent of the vote in the Show Me state.
“Let’s just go out and make sure that tomorrow when we’re going through the delegate selection process that we follow through,” Santorum continued, “and make sure that the delegate votes reflect the overwhelming support that we got in the primary.”