Explainer: Your Guide to the February GOP Caucuses

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney campaigns in Sparks, Nevada, the day before the 2012 Nevada Republican Caucus.

After the raucous and high-stakes campaigning that marked the first month of the Republican primary contests, the caucuses over the next few weeks are a little, well, meh. Only the results in Nevada are binding as far as the delegate count is concerned. But the local gatherings, and their turnout, will give us some sense as to the mood of the party base in a very different set of states. 

We start the down-and-out west in Nevada, where unemployment is country’s highest. Then to the critical swing state of Colorado, where turnout in the Republican-only will be an early indication of the anti-incumbent energy there. And there’s Minnesota, home of former candidates Tim Pawlenty and Michele Bachmann, where unemployment is below 6 percent and voters don’t register by parties at all. And finally Maine, where independent voters outnumber both Democrats and Republicans and can join the non-binding president polls.

And as for their ultimate political punch? Mitt Romney won all four caucuses in 2008, but by the end of the first week of February, he’d dropped out of the race.


Nevada - February 4, 2012


The Caucus Voters: Participation is restricted to Republicans who registered before January 20. Voters must be physically present the evening of the caucus to cast a vote, except for members of the military and their families stationed outside their home county on caucus night.

What Happened Four Years Ago: Mitt Romney had a huge victory here in 2008, winning 51% of the 44,315 votes cast. Ron Paul was the next closest contender with 13.7 percent, beating John McCain by 434 votes. In November, President Obama won Nevada by 12 points, helped by 54-41 edge among independent voters.

Unemployment rate: 12.6 percent in December 2011.

Voter Registration: In January 2012, 42 percent Democrats, 35 percent Republican, 16 unaffiliated independents

What’s at Stake: 28 delegates, which will be awarded proportionally depending on the margins in the caucus.


Colorado - February 7, 2012

The Caucus Voters: Republicans who joined the party at least two months before the caucus, that is, by December 7, 2011. Voters must be present to participate in the caucuses, which begin at 7pm local time. No absentee voting is allowed.

What Happened Four Years Ago: Just over 70,000 Republican voters turned out in 2008, and Romney got 60 percent of their votes. John McCain was a distant second at 18 percent and Huckabee finished third at 13 percent. In November, after President Obama accepted the Democratic nomination in Denver, he won Colorado by nearly nine points, helped with 13% of Republican voters and 54-44 edge among independent voters.

Unemployment rate: 7.9 percent in December 2011.

Voter registration: In January 2012, 32 percent Democrats, 32 percent Republican, 35 unaffiliated independents

What’s at Stake: The caucus results are non-binding, but the local delegate elections area helpful boost for candidates vying for Colorado’s 36 delegates up for grabs.


Minnesota – February 7, 2012


The Caucus Voters: Minnesota does not party registration, so the threshold for participation is “general agreement with the principles of the political party,” as the Secretary of State’s office puts it. That means self-identifying independents can participate alongside Republicans. Voters must be present at 7pm the evening of the caucus – no absentee voting is allowed.

What Happened Four Years Ago: Mitt Romney won the Minnesota caucuses with 41 percent of the vote, compared to John McCain’s 22 percent and Mike Huckabee’s 20 percent. In the general election, Obama won Minnesota by ten points, helped by a 17-point edge among independent voters.

Unemployment Rate: 5.7 percent in December 2011.

Voter Registration: Minnesota does not register voters by party affiliation. In exit polls in 2008, 40 percent self-identified as Democrat, 36 percent as Republican, and 25 percent as unaffiliated independents. There was not extensive exit polling in Minnesota in 2010, but some polling trends suggested Republican gains in 2010 ahead of the midterm elections.

What’s at Stake: The presidential straw poll does not award any of Minnesota’s 40 delegates, but a win certainly boosts a candidate’s shot at winning over delegates.   


Maine - February 4-11, 2012


The Caucus Voters: Registered Republicans who show up in person can vote, but unaffiliated independent voters, who make up the largest share of voters in Maine, can also sign up to join the Republican Party and participate on site, beginning at least an hour before each caucus. But voters can’t switch parties on site – to participate in a Republican caucus, voters needed to change parties at least 15 days beforehand. The State Republican Party has recommended that local caucuses happen over the week of February 4-11, and the state party will announce the results at 7:30pm on February 11 in Portland.

What Happened Four Years Ago: There were fewer than 5500 votes cast in the Maine caucus over three days in February four years ago, and Mitt Romney won more than half of them. John McCain followed with 21 percent, and Ron Paul had 18 percent. Barack Obama won the state by 17 points in November, helped by 60 percent of self-identified independents.

Unemployment Rate: 7.0 percent in December 2011.

Voter Registration: In November 2011, 28 percent Republicans, 33 percent Democrats, and 36 percent unaffiliated independent voters.

What’s at Stake: The caucus results are non-binding, so the Republican Party’s “presidential straw poll” name is spot-on when it comes to these caucuses' political impact. The spoils are momentum and perception in Maine, which has 24 delegates. 


Roll over the map to see how the GOP candidates fared in contests held so far, and how many delegates they picked up in primaries and caucuses.