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Republican or Democrat, here's what you need to know about the Colorado caucuses 

With Iowa and New Hampshire voters this week giving us our first snapshot of where each White House hopeful stands, when will we get our chance? March 1, aka, Super Tuesday. And what you think might be a quick trip to a polling place is nothing of the sort here in Colorado.

Instead, be prepared for a night of discussion among your neighborhood party members, where you'll find yourself pitching for your favorite candidate, hearing from others about theirs, and maybe even having to fend off the aroma of home-baked cookies luring you over to another candidate's side.

Unless you're a diehard political party member in Colorado, chances are low you've participated in the state's early voting process. Frankly, to many, it's baffling.

If you're an unaffiliated voter who didn't choose a political party by the Jan. 4 deadline, well, you're out of luck to participate at this stage in the game, but you can still observe. But if you're a young Democrat or Republican, new to Colorado, or are just thinking about participating in your first caucus this year, consider this a rundown of what you need to know.

Because the Colorado GOP canceled its traditional presidential preference poll (more on that later), Super Tuesday will be a little less super for Republicans when it comes to the presidential race this year. But Democrats who are feeling the Bern or craving some Clinton have a long road ahead before their candidates win or lose. So, we'll start with the Dems.

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Will the 2016 presidential race in Colorado be a primary like New Hampshire, or a caucus like Iowa?

Well, it's kind of a hybrid, and in Colorado it has four steps.

The first happens this year on March 1, Super Tuesday, when nearly a dozen other states hold early nominating contests. Colorado has a round of precinct-level caucuses in neighborhoods around the state. This is the first chance for a candidate to get knocked out of the running.

Now that Martin O'Malley has withdrawn from the race, the top-tier Democratic candidates are Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. Presidential contenders need to meet a minimum of 15 percent to send enough delegates to represent him or her at the next level. And it could happen right in the living room of one of your neighbors.

The second step is for locally designated delegates to travel to conventions in all 64 counties where another poll for president takes place.

Then at seven congressional district conventions, parties will take a poll to send delegates for each presidential candidate on to the state and national convention. Then, finally, at the state convention on April 16th in Loveland, the same thing happens: more polling.

Bottom line: March 1 is your chance to get in early and will be the first place to make your voice heard. Good news: you won't have to travel far. Unless you yourself are selected to attend the next steps, your delegates will carry the banner for your candidate from here, all the way to the national convention, which takes place in Philadelphia.

So can someone actually win on March 1?

In a way. A straw poll for president will be taken to show where each candidate stands. The precincts report to the counties and the counties report to the state. Along the four-step process Democratic Party officials will live-Tweet and release on social media the number of delegates each candidate has.

"We won't declare a winner or a loser," says Colorado Democratic Party Chairman Rick Palacio about the March 1 caucuses. They'll just say Candidate X has this amount of delegates and candidate Y has that many.

Palacio likens the process to a high-school track meet: The first lap is the precinct caucus — where you know who's ahead, the second lap is the county conventions, the third lap is the congressional district convention, and the fourth lap is the state convention, which somebody actually wins.

Then why are these March 1 precinct-level caucuses so important for presidential candidates?

The numbers each candidate garners on March 1 in these neighborhood gatherings will help show the level of support and enthusiasm each candidate has in Colorado. Also, candidates that fail to crack 15 percent of support in the precinct caucuses will have lost the state.

And how does the presidential precinct caucus system actually work?

These March 1 presidential precinct caucuses in Colorado are typically meetings where local party poobahs gather to oil the Democratic machine. The meetings are sometimes held in the homes of loyal party worker bees, but they can also take place in public spaces — schools, churches, community buildings, whatever. If you go to one of these precinct caucus meetings, you'll help illuminate the support for your favorite candidate by selecting delegates to attend the party's state convention.

All this sounds quaint and community oriented, like a big neighborhood discussion where hearts and minds are changed through debate and discussion. Right?

Pretty much. The point is persuasion: You're going to hear a lot from people trying to get you to pull for their candidate, and you're going to want to be able to convince others why they should send a delegate on behalf of the candidate you support. You might be there for a few hours.

Some folks mark off a corner of the room for a candidate and try to lure neighbors over. "There's definitely movement ... it's on the margins," says Jim Matson, a former Democratic precinct captain in Colorado Springs who has participated in the process. "People can advocate, and if they can sell it, they can bring others to them."

It's familiar friends-and-neighbors politics and some might not be above saying "we have cookies," to bring others over to their corner, Matson says. "It's very retail, very personable, and kind of quirky."

El Paso County Democratic Party director Annie Schmitt says while the presidential race will take up much of the oxygen during the caucuses, plenty of local issues will be hashed out, most likely in the form of resolutions.

Someone, for instance, might propose a resolution asking the city for an earlier closing of the Martin Drake Power plant, or someone in Pueblo might recommend passing a resolution asking city officials to preserve the historic brick structure that once housed its power plant.

Anyone who shows up to a caucus can bring a resolution, it simply has to be in writing. If passed, resolutions go on to the county assembly and those that pass there go to the Democratic state convention. 

"This is where legislation and bills start," Schmitt says. "Somebody came to caucus a number of years ago and said, 'I want to be able to have medical marijuana in Colorado,' and then it got pushed up to the state level."

Got it. I'm going to my caucus. How do I know when and where to show up?

On March 1, the caucuses will begin at 7 p.m. at locations determined by your local county Democratic Party and will happen somewhere near where you live. The Colorado Democratic Party will publish locations on its website when they're available. And the party has a summary of exactly what to expect, and the mathematical formulas involved in delegate selection, on their website here.

In 2008 the Obama-Clinton caucus crush was a record breaker. What are expectations for Democrats this year?

Yes, 2008 was a big year for the precinct caucuses in Colorado because officials moved the date up to coincide with 21 other states that were holding primaries or caucuses that day. They called it "Tsunami Tuesday." Lynn Bartels, the current Secretary of State spokeswoman who at the time was a reporter for The Rocky Mountain News, recalls a cover photo of her newspaper showing raised hands all over the place when someone asked who the first-time caucus-goers were.

Over in Arapahoe County, precinct captain Jean Greenberg says she's been telling folks at House District meetings to gear up for the caucuses, but the same people just keep showing up. "It's the diehards," she says. "But I haven't been able to get a lot of precinct people who really need to know what's happening to come." She says she's losing sleep over it.

What does she expect on March 1 at her precinct?

"I've heard everything from nobody to everybody," she says. "As far as I know, we have absolutely no idea."

There have been years in the past when just one person might show up to a particular precinct caucus. 2014 was pathetic in some parts.

Mary Beth Corsentino, chair of the Pueblo County Democrats, says a contingent for Sanders formed seemingly out of nowhere and filled a room in a pubic library one day over the summer. "Not party regulars by any means," she said of the group. "They said they were unaffiliated." But when she told some of them they had to register as Democrats if they wanted to participate in the caucuses, "that was a kind of shock to them," she says.

Bernie Sanders was an independent for a long time, but now he's running for president as a Democrat. What's an unaffiliated Sanders supporter to do?

There are more voters in Colorado who choose to be unaffiliated than to register as Democrats or Republicans. People opt not to declare themselves as members of a major political party for a variety of reasons. Being unaffiliated does keep you from participating in the precinct-caucuses. With so many Coloradans registered as unaffiliated, there's no telling which candidate — Democrat or Republican — might be the most attractive.

Some Sanders supporters in Colorado were hoping they could reach out to unaffiliated voters and sway them over to the Democratic side with the lure of a Democratic socialist from Vermont.

"A lot of the Bernie Sanders fans are independents who have registered with the Democratic Party for the first time," said Michael Gibson, a volunteer organizer for Sanders on the Western Slope. "He's got a huge following among independents."

Gibson says there was a big push in Colorado to persuade those feeling the Bern to become Democrats so they could be part of the early process, or at least make these voters aware of that Jan. 4 deadline to do so.

"A lot of people — if they don't know about that — are going to feel like they are disenfranchised," he said back in December.

One grassroots organizer for Sanders in Glenwood Springs, Barb Coddington, says she had some success in urging unaffiliated voters to switch by the Jan. 4 deadline. At least they told her they were going to, anyway. How many? Not many. She could probably count them on both hands.

"I certainly don't know if they followed through," she says.

Exactly how many unaffiliated voters actually switched to the Democratic Party in Colorado so they could caucus for Bernie is an open question, but the Secretary of State's office will, at some point, have a tally that will show how many voters did make a switch before Jan. 4.

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And what about the Republican caucuses this year?

In August, GOP leaders in Colorado chose not to hold a traditional presidential preference poll on March 1. Why? They didn't want to tie the hands of delegates who will go to the Republican National Convention in Cleveland.

Party officials said new rules by the RNC would bind Colorado delegates to the candidates who won the straw polls going into Cleveland. They wanted our GOP delegates to be free agents, so they scrapped the poll. It's disputed whether the rules would have bound delegates to a candidate if that candidate dropped out, and there was a time when some party people called for the GOP to re-instate the straw poll, but that didn't happen.

So this means there won't be any official presidential straw polls at neighborhood caucuses across Colorado on March 1.

Not everyone is happy about it, for sure, but the move didn't lead to a complete meltdown. Party officials point out that the vote was unanimous among an executive committee that is a good mix of Tea Party liberty-types and establishment Republicans.

For his part, Colorado Republican Party Chairman Steve House downplays the significance of nixing the straw poll. He describes previous ones merely as "media events."

In 2008, for example, Mitt Romney won it in Colorado, while John McCain went on to become the nominee. And in 2012 Rick Santorum won in Colorado, and, like Romney, didn't get the nomination.

"So Colorado picked these two guys, they didn't get any delegates because of it [and] delegates are not bound in a caucus process," House says. The only way they would be is if we had a presidential primary, and this state does not do a presidential primary.

"So we decided this year — we had the option to do a straw poll and bind our delegates — and through lots of discussion back in August, the executive committee made the decision not to bind the delegates and hold the straw poll because it just wasn't sensible in an election year that we potentially will have a convention with multiple candidates on the first ballot. We didn't want to be bound."

So are the March 1, 2016 GOP caucuses important beyond presidential politics?

Oh, yes. And if you want to see steam shoot out the ears of a Republican Party leader in Colorado, try to say otherwise.

The precinct caucuses are about party building, and there's much to be done at the local level during these neighborhood political gatherings.

Registered Republican voters will help select their neighbors to positions of power in the party structure. They'll help form the state's Republican organization for the next two years by electing precinct captains, district captains, and other positions on up to convention delegates.

The caucuses are also a place where you can meet candidates for local and state office, and also just get a sense of what's going on politically.

"I call it the grassiest of roots," says Denver GOP County Chair Sue Moore. "If you want to get involved and you want to know what's happening, that's the place where it all starts."

In Elbert County, for instance, the area is so heavily Republican that the races for two open seats on the county commission are likely to be decided in the GOP primary, says Tom Peterson who heads up the Elbert County GOP. "So that is one strong draw" for the precinct caucuses, he says.

In Boulder, the new county Republican Party chair there, Peg Cage, says she's heard concern in the past that some people just showed up to the caucuses during presidential election years so they could hit the straw poll and then split, blowing off the local stuff altogether.

She wonders if perhaps not having a presidential poll this time around will bring out those who are more committed.

I've been a registered Colorado Republican, but I've never participated in this process. Tell me more.

These are neighborhood events at the homes of local party leaders, or in community centers, schools or churches near your home. You'll hear speeches from candidates (or their supporters) for state, local and national office, depending on your location.

This year there's a contentious GOP primary for U.S. Senate in the race against Democrat Michael Bennet, so that will likely be a big focal point.

Most importantly, though, in most counties caucus-goers will be electing delegates to the next level, which is the county convention. Some counties might take an unofficial straw poll to see where local Republicans stand on the current announced crop of GOP candidates for U.S. Senate.

But that's really a county-by-county thing.

In El Paso County, "Individual caucus chairmen will be free to conduct a straw poll of their attendees, but the county party doesn't currently have plans to aggregate those results," says Daniel Cole, the county GOP director.

"Our statutory duties related to the provision of caucus locations, the credentialing of eligible participants, and the processing of delegates elected to the four assemblies in March and April should keep us plenty busy," he adds. "We're going to have fun!"

But will there be any talk about the 2016 presidential race at the March 1 precinct caucuses in Colorado?

Of course. There will be more than one Republican in a room, so yeah, presidential politics is going to come up.

"They will be talking about the Republican candidates for president. They just won't be taking a preference poll," says Colorado GOP Chairman Steve House.

Now, some counties might actually take unofficial straw polls for president anyway just to see where people stand.

But these polls will not be sanctioned by the state or national party. County party officials might even put the numbers out on social media, but there won't be an official count by the Colorado GOP.

Sedgwick County Republican Party Chairwoman Claudine Kappius says she hates the presidential straw poll, so she's fine with not having one this time around.

"I think it's the worst thing that anybody ever tried to do," she says. She clarified that she meant the poll just didn't have much value to her.

The GOP candidates whom Colorado caucus-goers chose in recent elections, she said, didn't become the nominee.

In Pueblo, county GOP chairman George Rivera doesn't think not having a presidential straw poll this year will affect turnout. He believes enough Republicans are galvanized by the political moment to bring them out to the 2016 caucuses.

"They're pretty upset with what's going on with the country," he said. "People are upset and they're motivated. ... I just think we're going to have more involvement than we have had in the past. ... I think people still want to have their voices heard and express at least where they're at."

Will March 1 have any bearing on the presidential race for Colorado Republicans?

Yes, in a way.

If you go to a Republican precinct caucus on March 1, you'll be helping elect delegates to the next level.

The levels after the March 1 precinct caucuses are the congressional conventions and the state convention. These delegates selected March 1 at the precinct caucuses are people who will eventually go on to make up 34 of the state GOP's 37 delegates at the national convention held later this year in Cleveland.

So if you have a favorite presidential candidate, you'll want to make sure you elect delegates who also support that candidate.

And plenty of the presidential campaigns are trying to figure out the best strategy for getting their candidate help in Colorado on March 1.

But delegates aren't bound to a candidate even though they say they might support someone, right?

So this is interesting. That's technically correct — only if those trying to get selected as delegates to the national convention don't pledge their support for a candidate in writing on what's called an intention-to-run form.

If they do opt to put a candidate's name on this form then the delegate is bound to that candidate when and if they get to Cleveland, says Colorado Republican Party director Ryan Lynch.

But these potential delegates don't even have to fill out this form until after the March 1 caucuses.

So, on March 1, some Republicans running to become delegates to the national convention could promise to name a presidential candidate on their forms as part of a strategy to get elected as a delegate.

So if I'm not a diehard, party-building type, but I'm still a registered Republican and I want to participate, why should I spend time on March 1 to caucus?

Other than that it just might be your duty as a registered voter in a major political party to participate in local elections and make your voice heard about who should represent you and your party?

Well, if you want to nationalize it, if you have a favorite Republican candidate for the White House who you want to see nominated by the Republican Party, then you can get in on the ground floor early to find out who of your local potential delegates are also in your corner.

And, most importantly, you yourself can run to become a delegate.

Another big reason to get involved this time is to help decide who could run against Bennett for U.S. Senate.

In April, only three GOP candidates out of the dozen or so who have announced they're running will make it out of the state convention. That's because a candidate needs to crack 30 percent of the delegate vote in order to get on the GOP primary ballot for U.S. Senate.

"You very much can have an impact whether you run for delegate or you elect delegates who support candidates that you like," at the March 1 caucuses, says Lynch. "Your vote goes so much further in a caucus process simply by showing up."

OK, I'm going to the GOP caucuses. How do I know when and where to show up?

The state party has a link on its website, cologop.org, where voters can register to avoid lines on caucus night.

Registered Republican voters can sign in online to register at the state party website, but can also just show up without registering online. If you pre-register online, the party will e-mail you your caucus location.

Versions of these articles were published first by The Colorado Independent, online at coloradoindependent.com.

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