Two weeks ago, Rick Santorum held a rally in Tacoma, Wash., that drew 1,500 people. Later that week, Ron Paul amassed a crowd of 1,800 at an event in Seattle. Last weekend, Newt Gingrich held a series of events in Olympia that attracted about 500 attendees on short notice. And today, Mitt Romney is returning to the capital, two days before the state holds its caucuses on Saturday.
In other words, Washington State is relevant.
“This is the first time in history when we’ve had presidential candidates come to the state before the caucuses,” says Kirby Wilbur, chairman of the Washington GOP. The candidates crave a victory here, he argues, because “it’s like a public-opinion poll taken before Super Tuesday. If they win big, they’ll have a psychological boost.”
Ron Paul’s forces have been organizing there for six months, while Romney has been on the ground for about a month. Santorum and Gingrich, meanwhile, are relatively new to the scene. Still, Wilbur dubs Santorum the “wild card.” He points out that Santorum drew that crowd of 1,500 on a “cold, miserable, misty February night.” Indeed, according to a poll by Public Policy Polling released on February 21, Santorum led the crowd with 38 percent. Romney came in second with 27 percent, Paul came in third with 15 percent, and Gingrich placed fourth with 12 percent.
The campaigns have spent virtually no money on television advertisements in the state, though the super PACs have aired radio ads. So far, all the campaign cash has gone into staff and organizing, with the expectation that turnout will far exceed its 2008 total. That year, only 13,500 people turned out for the caucuses, as the nomination fight had already been settled in John McCain’s favor. This year, however, Wilbur predicts a turnout of 50,000.
“I’m getting a lot of telephone calls from people whose opening line is ‘I’ve never been to a caucus before, and I think I want to go this time; where do we go?’” says Jack Hamilton, chairman of the Kitsap County GOP.
In years past, Washington held both caucuses and a primary, and the state party split its delegates equally between the two. Last year, however, the cash-strapped state legislature canceled the primary to save money, endowing the caucuses with new significance.
“The only way of expressing your preference is through the caucus,” notes Hamilton.
Nonetheless, the caucuses are nonbinding. Because Washington doesn’t record party affiliations, all registered voters can participate, though they’ll be asked to sign pledges that they are, in fact, Republicans. Caucus-goers will meet at the precinct level. At their caucuses, they’ll identify their preferred candidates on sign-in forms, whose tri-carbon-copy sheets will provide a paper record of the vote, says Wilbur.
“We’re going to show that caucuses can be done,” he adds.
These precinct caucuses will elect delegates to county conventions, which will begin convening later this month. At the county conventions, delegates will elect their representatives to the state convention, which will select 40 of the state’s 43 delegates to the national convention.
Thirty of those delegates will be chosen by congressional-district caucuses at the state convention, while the remaining ten at-large delegates will be chosen by the convention as a whole. The party will bind the national delegates to their preferred candidates as stated at the state convention for one ballot. The three remaining delegates — the state-party chairman, the national committeeman, and the national committeewoman — will remain unbound.
Washington GOP officials aren’t sure who’ll win. Because of his organized and enthusiastic supporters, Wilbur expects “a strong Ron Paul presence at the convention.” But Luanne Van Werven, chairwoman of Whatcom County GOP, says the Gingrich, Romney, and Santorum campaigns have been picking up steam lately: “I’m just getting calls and requests from them [and their supporters] almost hourly.”
Lori Sotelo, chairwoman of King County GOP, says voters are still sorting out their differences: “Everybody is, of course, supporting their candidate, but there’s an interesting element to this that I haven’t seen before. It’s more ideologically driven. Folks are having a conversation about what conservatism is and what’s most important to them.”
Politically, the state is split in two: East of the Cascade Mountains are the more Republican areas, while west of them are the more Democratic enclaves. If you’re looking for a hint about Saturday’s results, Fredi Simpson, national committeewoman for Washington, says the place to watch is King County, the most populous in the state and the home of Seattle: “When they report, that’s probably going to be the direction of the state.”
But Mike Pederson, chairman of the Spokane County GOP, advises junkies to watch the more swing areas such as King’s southern neighbor, Pierce County, and Clark County, which borders Oregon.
Despite their internal disagreements, Washingtonians love the attention they’re getting this cycle. “We’re usually the ugly sister,” Wilbur jokes. “Now we’re the princess, and we’re enjoying it.”
— Brian Bolduc is an editorial associate for National Review.