The four Republican contests Saturday night pose a test for Donald Trump: How will he fare in closed caucuses and primaries, when only previously registered Republicans can vote?
One of Trump’s strengths so far has been his ability to turn out voters who wouldn’t usually show up in a Republican primary. He won’t be able to count on that today. Louisiana, Kansas, and Kentucky — and Maine, to some extent — only allow previously registered Republicans to vote.
On Super Tuesday, two of the four states Trump lost were Oklahoma’s closed primary and Alaska’s closed caucus, both of which went to Ted Cruz, suggesting a potential weakness for the front-runner. He’ll have to confront that today.
In Louisiana, voters had to be registered as Republicans by February 4. Two recent public polls in the state have Trump holding a decisive lead— a Trafalgar Group poll from early this week puts him at 44 percent, ahead of Cruz with 26 percent and Rubio with 15 percent.
But the closed primary, say Louisiana Republicans, gives Cruz a shot.
“I’m thinking advantage Trump, but given that this is only the second purely closed party primary, I’m thinking that Ted Cruz will be competitive to Trump,” says Louisiana Republican pollster John Couvillon.
Both Cruz and Trump held rallies in Louisiana on election eve. Rubio cancelled a scheduled event there.
Brian Trascher, the co-chair for Trump’s Louisiana efforts, says the closed primary could make a difference and is something they’ve been preparing for. “He’s bringing people out who don’t normally vote,” he tells National Review, and he says his team there made efforts to make sure that the people who come to Trump events or go to his website or call his campaign offices are registered Republicans so they would be eligible to vote today.
“If you want to switch back after, that’s fine,” Trascher says they tell those people.
In Kansas, people also had to be registered Republican by February 4. Kansas typically votes in a similar fashion to Oklahoma, which could give Cruz an edge. Rubio, Kansas Republicans say, also has a solid amount of support and could fare well there. Rubio spent all day on Friday in Kansas, holding three events. Cruz was there earlier this week and will speak at a caucus site today, as will Trump, who cancelled his appearance at CPAC outside Washington, D.C., to go hold a rally in Wichita.
The Wichita caucus has become a nexus of activity, with both Cruz and Trump now scheduled to attend it, and it will be a useful test of the closed primary theory. Presumably, a number of Trump supporters will move from his rally next door to the caucus. The question is whether those who show up will all be registered Republicans who are eligible to vote. (The Kansas GOP will give provisional ballots to anyone who they cannot find on the list of registered Republicans.)
Kansas Republicans say it’s hard to know what to expect there today. “We’ve never had candidates actually work the state like this before,” says Clay Barker, the executive director of the Kansas GOP. It’s a fact that likely means increased turnout. The state’s proportional allocation of delegates makes it beneficial for all the candidates to compete there — it provides them both an opportunity to rack up delegates themselves, but also to prevent their rivals from gaining any kind of significant lead. Polls conducted there in the past two months give Trump the edge.
Kentucky is a bit of a wild card. To caucus, voters had to be registered Republican by the last day of 2015. But it’s also the first time the state has held a caucus instead of a primary — a change put into effect to allow the home state senator, Rand Paul, to run both for re-election and for the presidency. That leaves Kentucky Republicans expecting lower turnout than anticipated, as it’s not a familiar set up, and there won’t be any local races to get more people out the door — state Republicans did not vote to move up any of the other contests.
Still, Republicans there expect Trump has the edge. The only public poll in the race, conducted at the end of last month by Western Kentucky University, found Trump leading with 35 percent, Rubio with 22 percent, and Cruz with 15 percent.
Maine poses less of a hurdle for Trump on the closed caucus front. Yes, voters who were registered members of another party had to switch their registration to Republican by February 19. But unregistered voters or voters who are unenrolled, meaning they claim no party identification, can sign up to vote on caucus day.
“Mainers have an independent spirit, they don’t like to necessarily attach themselves to various organizations,” says Maine Republican Party chairman Rick Bennett. In light of that, for unenrolled or unregistered voters who want to participate today, “we actually have the town clerks and registrar on site at each of our caucus locations for one hour prior to the voting beginning” to enroll them in the GOP.
That could be good news for Trump: According to the most recent data from the secretary of state’s office from September of last year, unenrolled voters constitute a plurality of active registered voters — 37 percent.
There has been no public polling in the state. Both Trump and Cruz held massive rallies there in the past few days. Trump has the endorsement of Governor Paul LePage, who commands a lot of loyalty among state Republicans, but Mainers say they’re not sure it will help tilt the vote. Cruz drew so many people to a rally earlier this week they had to change the venue, and Maine Republicans say his support among Christian groups could help him do well.
One thing Maine Republicans agree on: They’re expecting high turnout. In the past, Maine has been a convention state, meaning choosing delegates was a long process that had little effect on the ultimate outcome. This time, the contests falls at a crucial time in the race where candidates are looking to rack up delegates, and the state’s 23 delegates will be bound by the caucus results.
How Trump does tonight across these four states will be indicative of how he will fare down the road, when there are a number of upcoming closed primaries. If he pulls off wins, it will be indicative of both his ability to win over traditional Republican voters, but also his organizational capacity in making sure supporters were registered. A poor showing from the front-runner tonight could expose a weakness in his campaign — one that the other candidates will certainly exploit.