On March 3, 2012, the Washington State Republican Party Caucus was held at precincts across the state with registered voters (although not necessarily Republicans—you do not have to be a registered Republican to participate in the caucus although you do sign a pledge that you consider yourself a Republican). Like most caucuses, this one involved participants gathering together to pick delegates pledged to a candidate to go on to the county convention (and then the state convention). The Republican Party also held a presidential straw poll which was won by Mitt Romney, but those results do not affect the caucus delegates in any way.
The New York Times noted that the straw poll results might give Romney a boost prior to Super Tuesday:
"The victory gives Mr. Romney some momentum heading into the big contests this week on Super Tuesday, when 10 states vote. With 81 percent of the Washington votes counted on Saturday night, Mr. Romney had won about 37 percent, with Mr. Paul at 25 percent, Mr. Santorum at 24 percent and Mr. Gingrich at 11 percent."
Washington State rarely plays a significant role in the general election for the Republican Party (the last time the state voted for a Republican presidential candidate was Ronald Reagan in 1984). Still, after Florida’s 50 delegates, Washington’s 43 are the second largest group before the Super Tuesday contests. Ron Paul built up a strong organization in the state, and caucuses rely on energized and committed grassroots supporters such as his.
This year the system in Washington was a little different from the last presidential election. In 2008, the Republican Party in Washington chose its delegates through a combination of caucuses and a primary (49 percent of delegates were chosen through caucuses and the rest were chosen through the primary).
However, the economic downturn has affected not only Washington’s economy but also Washington’s politics. In 2011, Governor Christine Gregoire signed legislation that cancelled the 2012 presidential primary in Washington. The rationale behind the bill was that cancelling the primary saved the state more than $10 million as it considered how to make up a budget shortfall of $5 billion. Caucuses are sponsored by the Republican and Democratic Parties (the Democratic caucuses will be held on April 15) but the primary is paid for by the state.
The Washington secretary of state, a Republican, requested the legislation as a way to save money. One of the concerns with the legislation was that more people participate in primaries than caucuses, making them a more representative exercise. According to the secretary of state, less than 100,000 people took place in the 2008 presidential caucuses (for both parties) as compared to the 1.4 million voters who voted in the primary.
The legislation only affected the 2012 presidential primary, and the primary is due to be reinstated for 2016.