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Why was the Missouri Primary Called a “Beauty Contest”?

St. Louis Gateway Arch

Photo by Bev Sykes

On February 7, 2012, Missouri held a presidential primary for the Republican candidates, the same day that Colorado and Minnesota had their caucuses. Rick Santorum won all three contests, surprising many who expected a better showing from Romney.

Many in the media referred to the Missouri primary as a “beauty contest,” because the primary did not count as it was non-binding, which means that the delegates that Missouri will send to the Republican National Convention in August will not be affected by the way voters voted in February. The Missouri Republican Party will hold caucuses beginning on March 17, 2012, that will actually decide which candidates the delegates will support at the convention in August.

So why did Missouri hold a primary that didn’t matter?

It turns out that Missouri state law stipulates that the presidential primary be held in early February. Missouri passed a law to hold a presidential primary in 1998 and changed the date of the primary to February in 2002. The confusion between the Missouri primary-caucus schedules resulted from rule changes by the Republican National Committee (see Flouting the RNC Rules) and party conflict in the Missouri state legislature.

The new RNC rules dictated that states other than Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, or Nevada had to wait until March to choose their delegates. If states flouted the RNC rules, they would be stripped of half their delegates at the Republican National Convention. The Missouri Republican Party did not want to go against the RNC rules and lose half their delegates. So the state legislature attempted to pass a bill to move the presidential primary, but Governor Jay Nixon vetoed it because he did not agree with provisions in the bill that he suggested would limit write-in candidates in local elections. Then the state senate considered abolishing the primary to avoid wasting state money on a contest that did not count but deadlocked on the legislation. And the presidential primary, costing Missouri about $7 million, went ahead in February as a “beauty contest” without actually choosing any delegates for the national convention.

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