It is easy to write caucuses off as irrelevant in the presidential nomination process - and in a strictly practical sense they are, as no actual delegates to a national convention are actually secured. But caucuses and other non-binding referenda do nonetheless have a role to play, even beyond their much-acclaimed assignment as popular political barometer.
Rick Santorum dominated the stage Tuesday night, gathering victories in Minnesota, Missouri and Colorado, three states which hold caucuses; or in the case of Minnesota (a state known as much for its quirkiness as its excellent freshwater fishing opportunities and phenomenal snowdrifts), a non-binding primary.
There are a couple of reasons for Santorum's strong finish. First, many rank-and-file Republicans are itching for a solid conservative to throw against Obama in the mold of a Reagan or a Goldwater; Santorum seems to have successfully defined himself as that more conservative option to Mitt Romney. Newt Gingrich had, of course, tried to claim that mantle, but his unfiltered habit of communicating every thought that enters his (admittedly exceptional) mind, has most likely cost him that opportunity.
The main reason for Santorum's victories stems from that; Republican voters in non-binding contests, such as caucuses, tend to choose the most conservative candidate on the menu. The nature of such contests afford voters the luxury of prioritizing principles and convictions over more strategic qualities which tend to fall under the umbrella category of "electability."
Of course, conviction and electability are not necessarily mutually exclusive, and historically actually complement one another; nonetheless, voters, whose fear of a second Obama term may have otherwise trumped their concerns over Romney's fealty to conservative principles, tend to feel more liberated to put their hand up for a candidate on strictly ideological grounds when they know in the back of their minds that their decision carves nothing in stone.
So what, then, might last Tuesday's events, commonly derided as "beauty contests," actually accomplish, beyond consigning newly selected delegates to state and county conventions to a merciless deluge of haranguing by various candidates and candidate committees?
Non-binding or not, the caucuses serve as a campaigns evaluation tool; a way for candidate to officially ask: "How am I doing?"
The answer, in Mitt Romney's case is: "You could be doing better."
Tuesday's results show that many Republicans are not yet fully convinced of Romney's conservative bona fides. And given his overly-cautious approach to the issues, it is difficult at times to blame them.
The lesson Romney ought to absorb from this is that an enthusiastic projection of core conservative principles is required to earn the nomination. The results should force Romney to adopt a much bolder platform, one that offers comprehensive and systemic entitlement reform, specific program and departmental cuts, aggressive tax overhaul, and a clear program for dismantling the administrative state that has developed over the past 50 years, and restoring the systems of checks and balances and federalism upon which this country was designed.
Romney also needs to assure Republicans that he really is a conservative on other fronts as well. His silence on one of the most potent issues of the day - the HHS mandate forcing individuals and organizations (most notably Catholics) to offer and purchase health care plans that violate their most closely held moral and religious codes - is not helping in this regard. This is a defining issue, which can unite conservatives, and others, in principled opposition; while the specifics of this case are socially moral questions - revolving around services such as abortion and contraception - the overarching offense transcends one's personal views on those matters by attacking a fundamental pillar of the American system - the freedom of religion, and the right of an individual not to be forced to do something which violates his or her faith. It is an issue which a conservative ought to be chomping at the bit to engage.
Similarly, the 9th Circuit Court's recent usurpation of the voters of California affords Romney the opportunity to address the topic of judicial activism - a critical subject since one of the most enduring and consequential responsibilities of the post he is applying for involves nominating Supreme Court justices.
In short, the primary system, including the caucuses, is performing as it should, shaping and honing the candidacies of those who would aspire to be entrusted with the chief executive position in the entity that remains civilization's greatest political and economic achievement. Should Romney choose to learn from the results - and I believe he is capable - the nomination can still be his. If not, Santorum has emerged as a worthy alternate.
Kelly Sloan is a Grand Junction resident and Mesa County Director of Americans For Prosperity Colorado. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.