Washington State caucuses could foreshadow Super Tuesday

The Republican presidential caucuses in Washington State are being held Saturday, three days before Super Tuesday. Mitt Romney is leading in polls, but Rick Santorum is strong there too.

Eric Gay/AP
Republican presidential candidate, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum speaks during during a campaign rally at the New Life Assembly of God, Thursday, March 1, in Spokane, Wash. The Washington State GOP caucuses are being held Saturday.

Super Tuesday with its 10 presidential primary elections and caucuses is just around the corner.

But just ahead of that political full-course meal comes an important appetizer: Republican caucuses in Washington State.

It’s a beauty show or more like a straw poll since actual delegates will be chosen at a state party convention and county caucuses later. But Sunday’s headlines will declare somebody a winner, and there’s nothing like a win to add momentum to a candidate’s push toward a big multistate contest.

The Monitor's Weekly News Quiz for Feb. 24-March 2, 2012

All four of the remaining candidates have trekked to the Pacific Northwest to campaign, and it was no accident of the calendar that state party officials moved their caucus date to just before Super Tuesday.

"This is the first time any one GOP presidential candidate has paid attention to us in recent memory, and my memory goes back to the 1970s," state Republican chairman Kirby Wilbur told CNN. "We used to be the ugly sister invited to the dance, but no one asked to dance. Now we are the princess."

At a campaign event in Bellevue, Mitt Romney said, “There are a bunch of states that are going to make up their minds on Tuesday, but you guys are first, and so your voice is going to be heard.”

Going into Saturday’s caucuses, Romney had a clear lead, according to a Public Policy Polling survey: 37 percent to 32 percent for Rick Santorum, 16 percent for Ron Paul, and 13 percent for Newt Gingrich. That’s a reversal from PPP's previous poll which had Santorum ahead of Romney 38-27 percent.

“If Romney does end up winning Saturday night it will be a large Mormon vote that puts him over the top,” PPP reported Friday. “We find that 14 percent of likely caucus goers are Mormons and 64 percent of them support Romney to 15 percent for Ron Paul and 13 percent for Santorum. Romney actually trails Santorum 35-32 with non-Mormons.”

Generally speaking, Washington is two states politically.

West of the Cascade Mountains, which includes the Seattle area, is moderate-to-liberal, and Washington Republicans are more mainstream – a demographic Romney has concentrated on.

East of the Cascades is Spokane and farming communities – more conservative areas likely to favor Santorum and Paul.

“There is still some hope for Santorum,” reports PPP. “Caucuses are unusually difficult to poll and although our polling of the ones in Colorado and Minnesota last month picked up that Santorum had momentum in the race, they didn't gauge the full extent of it. If he out performed his poll numbers by a similar margin on Saturday he could still pull out a win in Washington. There's also some evidence that his supporters are a little more likely to turn out.”

State Republican officials expect 40,000-60,000 people to take part in Saturday’s caucuses – far more than participated in 2008.

The anticipated turnout, plus this year’s hard-fought GOP candidate winnowing leaves no clear prediction of the outcome.

“I see no reason why Newt Gingrich would win,” former state party chairman Chris Vance told Politico. “I can see Santorum winning. I can see Paul winning. But I think the likely outcome is the same thing we’ve seen in other states where … because the conservatives are chopped up among three candidates, I would guess the most likely outcome is Mitt Romney wins a plurality in the straw poll.”

The Monitor's Weekly News Quiz for Feb. 24-March 2, 2012

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