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Why New Hampshire Conservatives Just Held An Iowa-Style Caucus

This weekend in Hopkinton, several hundred conservatives took part in something new for this state: a caucus. The group behind the event wants grassroots activists to play a larger role in choosing the Republican nominee in 2016.

In a presidential primary, voters cast their ballots and they’re done.

A caucus is different – which is why Jeff Chidester, emcee for the New Hampshire Grassroots Presidential Selection Caucus, held Saturday at the Hopkinton Fairgrounds, kept reminding participants to stick around. 

“Somebody once asked me to describe what a caucus is like," Chidester said to the crowd. "I told them it’s like the end of the movie ‘Carrie,’ when the doors slam shut and no one can escape and Carrie gets very mad." 

A reference to the fiery climax of a classic Stephen King horror film maybe wasn’t the best way to keep hundreds of people inside a barn, but this much is true: a caucus does need its participants to stay. After each round of votes, the lowest-polling candidates are eliminated, and their supporters move to the remaining hopefuls until there’s a winner.

That winnowing process is why the group behind Saturday’s event, the 603 Alliance, chose to hold a caucus rather than a straw poll, which is usually an exercise for individual presidential campaigns to test their organizing muscle.

The 603 Alliance wants New Hampshire conservatives to do ahead of primary day what people do in a caucus - move as a group and back a single candidate. “The whole concept was that the conservative and constitutionalist grassroots activists would be heard," says organizer and former state representative Fran Wendelboe. "That we wouldn’t split our votes so that we would be meaningless and the establishment’s choice would be the one that would come up the middle to win.”

Credit Brady Carlson / NHPR
Texas US Senator Ted Cruz speaks to supporters at the 603 Alliance caucus in Hopkinton, October 17, 2015.

It should be noted that there was never a question of who would win this caucus. Texas US Senator Ted Cruz took the stage to loud cheers of "We want Ted!" and "We choose Cruz!" He won won more than 70 percent of Saturday’s caucus vote, according to his campaign.

It helped that Cruz was the only candidate to appear in person – though several other campaigns, including those of Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina, mobilized supporters to participate.

But Cruz is clearly hoping successes like this caucus victory, and another over the weekend in North Carolina, will position him as the consensus choice for conservatives as the other candidates hoping to play that role falter.

To that end, he portrays himself as the one GOP candidate who always stands up for conservative causes, such as the recent effort to end federal funding for Planned Parenthood. “Millions of conservatives across this country rose up," Cruz said. "Once again I was proud to lead that fight, and once again there was this simple question: where were they?” 

Cruz also wants activists to know his campaign is built for the long haul: he recently announced his field operation now has local chairs in every county in the first four voting states – and unlike a number of his rivals, he has plenty of cash on hand:  

“$13.8 million dollars," he told his supporters. "Three million dollars more than Jeb Bush." The crowd cheered, and then Cruz continued: "That is the power of the grassroots.”

Unifying this group of grassroots activists behind a single candidate could prove difficult. State representative Al Baldasaro spoke to the caucus in support of Donald Trump, who was eliminated in the first round.

Cruz’s supporters then tried to encourage the Londonderry Republican to join them, chanting “We want Al to vote for Ted!” 

But Baldasaro stayed put, saying it’s just too early in the process to ask anyone to switch sides.  “The push should be after the primary," he said. "Many of us Republicans are all going to come together under one roof no matter what.”

In other words: caucus or not, for New Hampshire’s conservative grassroots, there’s still one more round of voting ahead.

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