Sunday, March 18, 2012

Montana Republican presidential delegate selection -- looking back at 2008...

For Montana Republicans active in party affairs, the news out of Missouri this weekend had to bring back memories from four years ago, when our own delegate selection process was the occasion of similar ground wars played out county by county in party meetings across the state, and culminating in dramatics on the state convention floor at Missoula.

To review the events of 2008, the season started with a newly instituted winner-take-all caucus held on Super Tuesday in March. The front-loading of the primary and caucus schedule had long ago made Montana’s process irrelevant -- a June primary, followed shortly thereafter by the state party convention at which a slate of delegates is elected to attend the Republican National Convention. Not since 1976 had Montana played any kind of role in selecting the presidential nominee, let alone attracted attention from candidates seeking the party’s nomination.

Because Montana does not have voter registration by party, the state GOP had chosen to have a limited participation caucus, whereby only those who were officially on record with the state as being a Republican (elected officials and precinct committee members) were eligible to caucus. The move was not without controversy, drawing criticism from Republicans not eligible to vote at the caucuses and gleeful charges of “elitism” from Democrats. The caucus did achieve the goal of attracting volunteers to sign up for hundreds of empty precinct positions across the state, which existed in no small part because of the changing way that politics today is candidate-driven rather than party-driven.

Mitt Romney won comfortably that night, as the only major candidate who had dedicated resources and organization to filling precinct positions with supporters. An unintended consequence of the caucus experiment, however, was that Ron Paul’s grass-roots organization filled enough spots to allow the Texas Congressman to come in 2nd, narrowly edging Sen. John McCain, who had been endorsed by his former Senate colleague, Conrad Burns, and comfortably defeating Gov. Mike Huckabee.

When Romney dropped out of the race, party rules dictated that the delegates would go back to being uncommitted, doubtless with the expectation that politics as usual would run its course, with a Montana delegation made up of party regulars who would vote for the presumptive nominee -- who had for 30 years always long determined by the time of the June primary and convention.

But the caucus strategy, while creating buzz in the short-term, created headaches for the party down the stretch because of Ron Paul’s refusal to drop out of the race and because of the fervor shown by his supporters, who now filled much of the party apparatus at county levels. When McCain unsurprisingly won the Montana primary 76% to 21%, most assumed that the matter was settled, but those closer to what was happening on the ground knew better.

There was, at this point, a perfect storm -- John McCain was mostly unpopular with Montana Republican party regulars and had made a disastrous start by naming Lt. Gov. John Bohlinger as his campaign’s state chair. Bohlinger has largely been forgotten by Montanans at this point, even though he is still in office, but at the time he was in the middle of running for re-election with his running mate, Democratic Governor Brian Schweitzer. To say that the liberal former GOP state senator was persona non grata in the Montana Republican party would be an understatement.

In summary, there was a front-runner distinctly unpopular with the party faithful for reasons both national and local (McCain.) Furthermore, the mainstream candidates perceived as being the more conservative alternatives had dropped out (Romney and Huckabee,) and large numbers of their supporters who had signed up for precinct positions in order to vote for them in the caucus had long lost interest and dropped out of active party participation.

In county after county, the field was left to the usual party regulars who had once again resigned themselves to dutifully supporting the inevitable candidate... and of course the still enthusiastic supporters of Ron Paul. Reports from around the state as county parties held their annual meetings to elect delegates to the state convention, while difficult to quantify, showed that Ron Paul supporters were within reach of their goal -- control of the state convention, which would allow them to elect a slate of delegates who would vote for Paul at the Republican national convention. A bit of panic set in, since such an outcome would not only be a major embarrassment to the McCain campaign (which had been essentially absent on the ground in Montana throughout the primary season,) but it would also be a black eye for the state party.

As mentioned above, the state party had already sustained heavy criticism for holding a limited participation closed caucus in March, and what benefit and buzz it had generated (while attracting no visits from candidates, family members had come to Montana as surrogates) was probably more that outweighed by the damage control it had to engage in on the PR front. To now have Ron Paul end up with all of Montana’s delegates after voters in the Montana GOP primary had just overwhelmingly voted for McCain would have been a public relations disaster of the first order in what was already shaping up to be a very difficult year for Republicans in Montana.

As per long-standing state GOP rules, an official delegate slate chosen from those who had applied to be national convention delegates was drawn up, with the selection being done by a committee made up of long-time party workers and luminaries. In Montana, which hadn’t had a competitive situtation in over 30 years (the Ford-Reagan nomination battle in 1976,) delegate selection had long been a formality -- delegates are chosen with the party long knowing who the nominee is going to be, and knowing that they would be loyally voting for that nominee. It is just a matter of who has the privilege of attending the national convention to cast those votes.

Such a process, however, assumes that those involved in the process are playing by those understood but unofficial rules. As the state convention approached in 2008, it became clear that Rep. Paul’s supporters felt no moral obligation to respect the results of the primary, and were going to go for broke at the convention, fielding an alternative slate of delegates. It should be made completely clear that while there was some subterfuge (the well-organized Paul people knew who each other were, but were always careful to avoid openly stating that their intent was to gain Montana’s delegates for Ron Paul,) they were completely playing by the rules.

The McCain campaign had made it clear to the state party that only one outcome would be acceptable -- having all of Montana’s delegates go to McCain. Truth to be told, this directive from the McCain campaign, complete with vague threats of adverse financial implications for the Montana GOP should the state party apparatus not deliver for McCain, was a bit rankling, coming as it did from a campaign that had expended no energy or resources in the state, and it had to be tempting to let the chips fall where they may -- allowing the campaign that had devoted considerable grass-roots effort in the state over the last 6 months to carry the day at the state convention. At the end of the day, however, a Ron Paul win at the convention would have hurt the Montana GOP more than it would have hurt McCain, so the temptation couldn’t be seriously considered.

Both campaigns had parliamentarians in attendance at the convention, ready for a fight, and former U.S. Congressman (and current GOP candidate for governor) Rick Hill was chosen by the party to chair the meeting at which the floor vote would take place. In a decision felt to be controversial by Paul supporters, all of those running as part of the official delegate slate were lined up to speak at a microphone to the chair’s right, and all of the others (i.e. the Paul supporters running for to be national convention delegates) were lined up at the microphone to the chair’s left, and an official delegate list was circulated by the state party to make sure everyone knew who the “right” choices were.

There were, of course, moments of shenanigans, such as a list of delegates being circulated that contained the names of the most prominent Republicans running for national convention delegates, but with the less well-known names on the official delegate slate being replaced with the names of Ron Paul supporters. Had it not been exposed as being misleading (it implied that this list was the official list, causing confusion that had to be clarified from the podium.)

All in all, the proceedings were were orderly and civilized (probably much to the chagrin of any Montana Democratic Party informers who may have been in the room,) especially considering that neither side had any way of being able to predict the outcome. Mere nose-counting, even if possible, wouldn’t have sufficed to predict the results, since at both the county and state level, votes in the Montana GOP process are weighted by precinct and county, depending on the number of people who had voted in the last GOP primary in that precinct or county -- the more Republican voters there are, the more weight the precinct or county gets in the vote. Vote counting in a competitive selection process is thus a Byzantine affair requiring not only counting votes but calculating in weighting factors -- that day’s vote tabulation accordingly took nearly 5 hours.

Carrying the day was the official delegate slate, who did go on to vote for McCain at the national convention later that summer, and while the final tally from the Montana GOP convention wasn’t publicized, the vote was reportedly quite close. A Ron Paul win was probably prevented only because several large Republican counties such as Yellowstone County happened to hold their elections later in the process leading up to the state convention, after the threat of a Paul takeover had become clear because of results in counties that had met and voted early on. Enough of the old-time precinct committee members trudged out to dutifully vote at the later county conventions in order to carry the day. They ended up sending just enough delegates who would vote for the official GOP delegate slate. It was hardly a labor of love, given the distinct lack of enthusiasm for McCain, but the alternative was, again, an unthinkably bad PR disaster for the GOP in Montana.

The Montana Democratic Party’s rules make the Montana Democratic presidential primary binding on delegates for the first ballot, and are divided proportionately -- the contrast between their “democratic" rules and the GOP’s “insider” rules (had Paul forces captured the convention and elected their own delegates) would have been stark. They would have made the most of it at every level. It isn’t particularly difficult to imagine them using it successfully enough to have swung the state into then Sen. Obama’s column (who lost the state by only 49%-47% -- one of the closest state results in the country in the 2008 presidential election.)

Next up: Montana’s delegate selection -- a look forward. (Attentive readers can see where this is heading... a not particularly popular presumptive nominee who is perceived to be a moderate, conservative alternatives who will have dropped out or been sidelined by June, a never-say-die Ron Paul campaign that has continued to learn the finer points of party organization...)

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