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What if they gave a primary and nobody came? That could happen Tuesday in Missouri

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 8, 2012 - Updated with projected Santorum victory. Voter turnout appears to have been even lower than expected today in Missouri's presidential primary.

"If we hit 5 percent, we'll be doing good," said St. Louis County Democratic elections director Rita Days. That's only a quarter of what she had predicted last week. "It's a little discouraging."

Early returns showed Republican presidential hopeful Rick Santorum with a sizable edge, snagging over 50 percent of the GOP ballots, with Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney running a distant second.

Santorum was the only Republican presidential contender to campaign in Missouri, conducting several stops last week. He was projected as the winner before 9 p.m.

As the Beacon reported earlier:

Republican presidential hopeful Rick Santorum appears to be banking on a primary victory in Missouri, so much so that he has scheduled a victory night in St. Charles.

Santorum's campaign has announced that it will hold a "Primary Night Victory Celebration" at the St. Charles Convention Center beginning at 9 p.m.

The event appears to highlight how Santorum, a former U.S. senator from Pennsylvania, hopes that a strong showing in Missouri's nonbinding primary will boost his national chances of challenging the GOP frontrunner, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.

No delegates will be at stake in Missouri, where Republicans will dole out the presidential delegates in March caucuses. But a primary win might help raise the victor raise in stature heading into that selection process.

Meanwhile, the Missouri Democratic Party has launched a lower-key effort to boost participation by its loyalists. The party has sent out emails to thousands of identified supporters, emphasizing that casting a vote in Tuesday's primary will be mandatory for anyone who seeks to win a delegate spot for its presidential convention.

The Democrats are also seeking to differentiate from the GOP process by emphasizing that Democratic delegates will be awarded Tuesday. Who those delegates will be are part of a different process that begins in late March. But the Democrats aren't using the word "caucuses." Rather the county gatherings are called "mass meetings."

For more information about the primary or polling places, city voters can contact the St. Louis Board of Election Commissioners, St. Louis County voters can contact the St. Louis County Board of Elections, while St. Charles County can contact the St. Charles County Election Authority.

The Beacon's earlier story:

Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum was barn-storming Missouri on Friday, demonstrating that he believes a victory in the state's presidential primary next Tuesday is worth fighting for — even if, officially, it doesn't count.

And even some Missouri backers of the apparent national GOP frontrunner, Mitt Romney, concur.

"I think it may mean something," said U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., in a conference call with reporters earlier this week. "And I would encourage people to participate."

Blunt, who backs Romney, said he'd already cast his absentee vote. U.S. Rep. Jo Ann Emerson, R-Cape Girardeau, told Beacon Washington correspondent Rob Koenig in an interview that she has sent in an absentee ballot as well — although, unlike Blunt, she's not disclosing her preference.

Such mixed signals about Missouri's presidential primary — that folks should vote, even it isn't binding for Republicans — could be confusing to would-be voters.

For example, some Republicans have said privately that they're not sure if they'll vote on Tuesday if it won't help the party choose a strong nominee to take on President Barack Obama in the fall. They may prefer to wait until the March caucuses when the state's GOP delegates will be awarded.

But Blunt agrees with some analysts that a Missouri victory on Tuesday could help the winning Republican presidential candidate when the caucus process begins March 17.

"It may give some guidance to people who, a month later, meet in Republican caucuses to vote for delegates to the state and national convention," Blunt said. "And I'm sure that whoever is ahead will use that primary [result] as much as they can to their advantage as they try to persuade delegates."

Still, overall, Blunt — who was in charge of Missouri elections in the 1980s as secretary of state — would prefer that the state had dropped Tuesday's primary "and save that money."

The amount being spent on Tuesday's statewide election is not inconsequential. A spokesman for current Missouri Secretary of State Robin Carnahan put the estimated cost at $7 million.

Carnahan, a Democrat, agrees with Blunt that people should go to the polls Tuesday. Where she disagrees is on the consequence. Carnahan believes that the primary should count.

Leaders in both major parties, including Gov. Jay Nixon, a Democrat, tried in vain all last year to persuade the General Assembly to move the primary after the national parties declared that only a handful of states could hold primaries or caucuses before March 1. Those who violated the edict could see political penalties affect their representation at this summer's presidential conventions.

A bill did pass last spring, but Nixon vetoed it over unrelated provisions. During the special session last fall, the state House passed a fairly simple fix, but the matter died in the Senate during a philosophical debate over whether caucuses or primaries were best.

To appease the Republican National Committee, the state GOP decided to make the state primary non-binding and expand the role of the existing caucuses that begin March 17.

The Democratic National Committee has dropped its threat, in response to an appeal by local Democrats, so Tuesday's Democratic primary will count — although Democrats will hold caucuses in March as well.

Primaries Vs. Caucuses

Emerson, for one, believes that presidential primaries are superior to caucuses, where activists gather in a gym or meeting room. "I actually think the primary is a lot easer to do than caucuses" for individual voters, she said. "And the caucuses, I don't think necessarily reflect people's opinions as well as a primary does."

Caucuses tend to reflect more "who can organize better, who can get their people there better," she explained. For example, Ron Paul's organization "is great at that."

Emerson added that a primary is more reflective of "who might really win, as opposed to who can win the caucuses."

A similar debate was held among Republicans in Missouri in 1996, when party favorite Bob Dole — the eventual GOP nominee — found his allies under siege in the caucuses from insurgent Pat Buchanan. Buchanan's supporters packed several caucus sites, claiming a number of delegates.

Afterward, then-Sen. Christopher "Kit" Bond, R-Mo., declared that Missouri should stick with a presidential primary. Bond's mind hasn't changed. He told the Beacon in a recent interview, that a binding primary attracts more public interest and involvement, which arguably could generate more public support for the parties' nominees.

"I want to see a whole lot of people involved," Bond said. "We're talking about a national president. All the voters of Missouri ought to have a reasonable opportunity to register their voices, register their votes."

Low Turnout Predicted

The fracas over the count-or-not-count issue will likely affect Tuesday's voter turnout. Based on local election officials' estimates, Carnahan is making a statewide prediction that about 23 percent of Missouri voters will show up at the polls on Tuesday.

"It's been a slow trickle," said Mary Wheeler-Jones, Democratic elections director for St. Louis. As of Friday, about 1,000 absentee votes have been cast — a sharp decline from 2008, when Missouri voters in the city and elsewhere flocked to the polls to cast ballots in combative presidential primary contests on the Republican and Democratic side.

The voter turnout predictions locally are lower than Carnahan's: about 20 percent.

The state and local projections are far less than the record-setting 36 percent statewide — and even higher locally — who cast ballots in Missouri's 2008 presidential primary.

In the February 2008 vote, 1.4 million Missourians cast ballots — roughly 600,000 Republicans and 800,000 Democrats.

In St. Louis, Wheeler-Jones said almost 43 percent of the city's voters cast ballots in 2008 — more than twice what's predicted this time. The same is true of St. Louis County as well.

In the weeks just prior to the 2008 vote, Missouri saw a a flurry of last-minute appearances by all the major candidates. Obama barely edged out Hillary Clinton on the Democratic side, while Republican John McCain narrowly defeated Mike Huckabee. The victors weren't declared until late election night because the balloting was so tight.

This time, Santorum is the only candidate who has made a public appearance, although Romney has stopped by for private fundraising events.

Who's on the Ballot?

Some local jurisdictions have other measures on Tuesday's ballotsince a general February election is sanctioned by the state. Springfield, Mo., for example, has a hot ballot issue to require all public and private workers, or volunteers, to be verified as legitimate U.S. citizens or residents.

But for the most part, most voters in most areas will see only one issue — the presidential candidates — if they go to the polls.

Voters will have a choice of four presidential primary ballots: Republican, Democratic or Libertarian. The Constitution Party has no presidential candidate while the Libertarian Party has one.

President Barack Obama faces three little-known Democratic rivals, with the possible exception of anti-abortion activist Randall Terry of New York. Darcy G. Richardson of Jacksonville, Fla., and John Wolfe of Chattanooga, Tenn., are also on the ballot.

The real crowd of candidates is on the GOP side, where 10 contenders filed before last November's deadline. But all but a few have dropped out by now. The three active Republicans on the ballot are Romney, Santorum and Ron Paul.

Newt Gingrich did not file in Missouri, saying at the time that he chose not to do so because the primary wouldn't count.

The primary ballot won't allow write-ins, although Ted Schamburg of Fenton hopes to try. "I'm a Newt guy," said Schamburg, interviewed as he attended a GOP event Thursday featuring Republican congressional candidate Ann Wagner, and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who ran for president in 2008.

Said Schamburg: "I won't vote for Romney. Too liberal."

Huckabee said in a brief interview that he recalls fondly how he almost won Missouri's 2008 Republican presidential primary contest. He narrowly lost to eventual nominee John McCain.

Huckabee said that a Missouri primary can play a significant influence in the presidential jockeying. "Missouri is a state that is representative, a microcosm of America," he said. "It's indicative of the way the country tilts."

That could explain why Santorum believes it's worth the time, and money, to have a good showing on Tuesday. Even if officially, for Republicans, it doesn't count.

Jo Mannies is a freelance journalist and former political reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.