Trump may loom large in retooled Minnesota GOP caucuses

Donald Trump in Iowa
Donald Trump's national strength makes him a wild card in the state's March 1 GOP caucuses.
Charlie Neibergall | AP 2015

He has no organized effort in Minnesota, but Donald Trump's national strength as a presidential candidate and his sustained muscle in Iowa polls make him a wild card in Minnesota's March 1 GOP caucuses.

Adding to this year's intrigue, Minnesota Republicans will play for keeps on caucus night for the first time. Their presidential preference poll will be binding, meaning the delegates Minnesota sends to the Republican National Convention will be awarded based on the caucus vote results.

It's not clear whether Trump can win here. He topped an unscientific poll Republicans conducted this summer at the Minnesota State Fair. A recent Minneapolis Star Tribune poll showed Minnesota Republicans favor Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz along with Trump over the rest of the candidates.

That uncertainty, though, may bring the crowds on caucus night. Excitement about the candidates and the chance to cast a meaningful vote could turn out Republicans in numbers rivaling 2008, the last time the White House was up for grabs, said Minnesota Republican Party Chair Keith Downey.

Minnesota Tea Party Alliance President Jack Rogers agreed Trump is creating a lot of interest in the March 1 meetings, part of the Super Tuesday caucuses and primaries held that day in 14 states.

"I think Donald Trump is one of the best to get people off the couch," Rogers said. "He is getting people out. He is getting people to move. That's a plus. That is a positive. Now does he, for example, represent my views? Not in the slightest."

Trump's "shock-jock" tone is concerning, Rogers added. He said he worries a President Trump would be more interested promoting himself than in fiscal responsibility and limited government.

Carleton College political science professor Steven Schier said he, too, expects a big turnout for the GOP caucuses, and that Trump is a big factor.

Marco Rubio and supporters in Minneapolis
A recent Star Tribune poll shows Minnesota Republicans favor Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz along with Trump over the rest of the candidates. Rubio held a fundraiser in Minneapolis earlier this month.
Tim Nelson | MPR News

"We're seeing high ratings for the GOP debates and I think the Trump effect probably is going to encourage some Republicans to participate in the Minnesota caucuses," he said. "But will they participate for Trump? That's far from certain."

Cruz came out on top last year in a straw poll of some 200 Republican Party insiders. He campaigned in St. Paul last month, trying to consolidate that support.

Rubio's campaign says it's pushing hard, too, for a strong showing in Minnesota on caucus night.

The state GOP changed its caucus rule at the urging of national Republican Party leaders in response to Ron Paul's sweep of Minnesota delegates at the 2012 state party convention, even though Paul came in fourth in the caucus night poll.

"I like the change, and I think it will bear fruit for us in terms of energy and excitement and turnout," Downey said.

While Rubio has been trailing Trump and Cruz in most polls, that could change quickly if Trump fails to convert excitement about his rhetoric into victories in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada, the four states that come before Minnesota and the rest of the Super Tuesday states.