Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Minnesota Precinct Caucuses

Minnesota's political parties held precinct caucuses yesterday. Those neighborhood party meetings get more attention in Minnesota's southern neighbor, Iowa, when they begin the parties' nominating process for president.

In a mid-term election year such as this one, Minnesota's caucuses involve the election of grass-roots party officers, and discussion of issues. And, most importantly for the electoral process, they elect delegates to higher-level party conventions, that endorse candidates for local offices, the Legislature, and Congress. Those delegates also choose another level of delegates, who will vote at each party's state convention.

The biggest election in that state this year is for governor. The Republican incumbent, Tim Pawlenty, is not seeking a third term. Each party's state convention will endorse a candidate for governor. The endorsed candidates do not automatically get on the general election ballot. Primary elections will be held later in the year to officially nominate candidates. But a convention endorsement helps a candidate either win the primary, or fend off a primary challenge entirely.

Straw votes for governor were held at Republican and Democratic (the party is called Democratic-Farmer-Labor (DFL) in Minnesota) caucuses. Those votes are a non-binding survey of opinion about the candidates but, because they are held among the group that indirectly chooses the delegates who will endorse a candidate, they have some value as a predictor of voting at a state convention.

Republicans showed a strong preference for State Representative Marty Seifert (see this post for background on the race). With 96% of the precincts counted, Seifert received 50% of the vote, to 39% for his main challenger, State Representative Tom Emmer. Because Emmer has pledged not to challenge an endorsed candidate in the primary, the straw-poll result gives a strong indication that Seifert will be his party's nominee.

The DFL vote was much less decisive (see background here). With 78% of the precincts having reported, two Minneapolitans are far ahead of the other candidates. Mayor R.T. Rybak garnered 21.8% of the straw vote, to 20.0% for State House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher.

Those numbers don't mean a whole lot, for two reasons:

1. Those percentages indicate that no candidate is anywhere near putting together the 60% supermajority that is needed for endorsement. If, on the first ballot, the leading candidate only has a small minority of the votes, the delegates will continue balloting until a consensus emerges. When that happens, candidates who were front-runners at the beginning of the process might be supplanted by a dark-horse candidate.

2. The heaviest (figuratively speaking) of political heavyweights in the race, former U.S. Senator Mark Dayton, is bypassing the endorsement process, and planning to run in the primary. That guarantees that the party convention in April will not decide the nomination.

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