Minnesota process for choosing party nominees for partisan elective office is byzantine. There’s a primary in August which functions like most other primaries. But before that time, almost all contestants for partisan office compete in caucuses, with three or four separate rounds spread out over several months, concluding with official party endorsements…that have no legally binding status, and for statewide offices have often proven inconsequential in determining the nominees. For instance, in 2010 former US Senator Mark Dayton didn’t participate in the caucus process, waited until the primary, and then spent several million dollars of his personal money to win a three-way primary against Democratic-Farm-Labor endorsee Margaret Anderson-Kelleher and former House minority leader Matt Entenza.*
The first step in the party endorsement process is currently set for February 7, 2012. This is also the current date of Minnesota’s presidential preference “straw poll,” which begins the official process of allocating delegates to the national convention based on the results of the Minnesota caucus. Or rather, it was the scheduled date, but that may change.
Dayton and the Republican-controlled legislature did not agree on new Congressional and legislative maps, so as has happened in the past the process has been taken over by a Minnesota judicial panel. And the Judicial panel has released a statement today that essentially tells the political parties “we don’t care about your caucus schedules, we’re adhering to the schedule laid out in the law.”
February 7 is only one week after the Florida primary, the last of the “big four” early votes (Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina being the others.) If no Republican has delivered a death blow to the rest of the field, then Minnesota and Colorado (also scheduled on February 7) will be important contests. In particular, Minnesota could be crucial to Michele Bachmann. It doesn’t seem likely, but if she is somehow able to rally and do well in Iowa, she might also perform well in South Carolina, and could then garner a big win in her home state. But if she’s on the bubble and needs a big win in Minnesota to keep her campaign alive, then this delay will probably hurt her more than it will her opponents.
On the other hand, if Mitt Romney has not taken control of the contest after Florida, he would be denied a chance for a high-visibility contest in a state he comfortably won in 2008. But it’s also hard to predict what would happen this time around. In 2008 McCain was the mainstream Republican choice, but he got only 22% in Minnesota, while Romney’s 41% was probably fueled in part by dissatisfaction among the caucus goers, who are much fewer but much more conservative than the Republicans who won’t attend a caucus but would vote in a primary.
If a Republican has pulled away from the field by the Florida primary, the Minnesota caucuses won’t have mattered regardless of their date. But with so many states moving around their dates so late in the pre-voting period of this campaign, and the field so volatile, it becomes more difficult for the campaigns to allocate their resources and the vagaries of timing will have greater influence on determining the Republican nominee.