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The Vote That Won't Count: Missouri Republican Primary Co-Opted by Caucus

The presidential primary is set for the Feb. 7 ballot, Super Tuesday, but Missouri's March 17 caucus will help choose the Republican presidential nominee.

Even with presidential hopeful Rick Santorum’s visit to St. Charles County, Missouri is looking like an outsider in the presidential candidate selection process.

Among those calling Missouri’s Feb. 7 presidential primary “meaningless" is Politico blogger Reid J. Epstein. One Republican presidential frontrunner, Newt Gingrich, won’t even be on the Missouri ballot.

The state’s Republican primary is nonbinding. The Republican nominee will be chosen at a March 17 caucus rather than the primary.

State Republican officials chose to go with a March caucus after the state Legislature failed to move the primary, as reported by the St. Louis Beacon.

The national Republican and Democratic parties ruled that only four states could have primaries or caucuses before March 1. The national Republican officials threatened to cut any state’s number of delegates in half if the state violated the rule.

Despite holding a March caucus, Missouri continues with its presidential primary.

“We have to hold the Feb. 7 presidential primary because it’s state law,” said St. Charles County Election Authority Director Rich Chrismer, a Republican. “The state Legislature tried to move it to March, but the governor vetoed it.”

Democratic critics say that the Republican legislators failed to pass a special session measure to move the primary to March, according to the St. Louis Beacon's Jo Mannies.

But Chrismer said the nonbinding primary isn’t necessarily meaningless.

“I hope they (voters and delegates) look at the results of the primary when people go out to vote," he said. "The primary should be telling the voters how the caucus should go."

In fact, that's normally how caucuses operate, said Bryan Spencer, chairman of St. Charles County’s caucus organizing committee.

"There's always been a caucus, and there's always been a gentleman's agreement that whoever wins the primary is the candidate elected in the caucus,” Spencer said.

He said that one candidate decided to ignore that gentleman’s agreement and highjack the caucus.

Pat Buchanan supporters did exactly that during the St. Louis presidential primary caucus in 1996.

“It was called the Raucus Caucus,” Spencer said.

However, Republican Party leaders opted to use the presidential primary results instead of the caucus. The event caused state Republican leaders to return to the primary election to choose a nominee, wrote the Beacon’s Jo Mannies.

Democrats also have an opportunity to vote for their nominee in the primary. Despite having four candidates on the ballot, it’s a foregone conclusion that President Barack Obama will be the Democratic nominee, Chrismer said.

The St. Charles County Election Authority director said a caucus could be seen as a less democratic process than a primary. Generally, far less people turn out for a caucus than a because it can be a daylong event.

“They may have 5,000 to 10,000 people turn out across the state at the caucus, but for a presidential primary, we’d have 10,000 voters turn out in St. Charles County alone,” Chrismer said.

He said he prefers that everyone have a chance to vote and have it count.

“But the caucus is a legitimate process, or they wouldn’t be doing it,” Chrismer said. “We had caucuses in St. Charles County until 1998.”

One argument is for caucuses is that more interested and informed parties attend the caucus, Chrismer said. But there is an opportunity for well organized campaigns to divert the caucus, as Buchanan’s did in 1996.

Voters at the caucuses held in each county will select delegates to attend one of eight congressional district conventions on April 21, according to an article in the St. Louis Post Dispatch that explains how the Missouri Caucus will work.

The election costs the St. Charles County nothing, Chrismer said. The state of Missouri picks up the tab.

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