JEFFERSON CITY — Missouri Republicans decided Thursday to use caucuses to choose presidential candidates, bailing out of a planned February primary that had threatened to cause confusion for the 2012 election calendar.
The Missouri Republican State Committee voted unanimously to switch to a caucus process that will start in March in an attempt to avoid losing half its 52 delegates to the national convention and triggering a chain-reaction of states moving up their presidential contests.
County caucuses will be held March 17 to select delegates for the April 21 congressional district conventions and for the June 2 state convention. About half of Missouri's delegates will be bound to presidential candidates at the congressional district conventions, with the remaining bound to a candidate at the state convention.
The national Republican and Democratic parties have pressed states not to crowd into the early weeks of 2012 to hold their presidential primaries and have threatened to deduct half the national convention delegates for those that do. The national party rules allow Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada to hold contests in February and require that other states wait until at least March.
However, a Missouri law sets its primary date as Feb. 7 — and lawmakers convened in a special session have failed to push it back before this Saturday's deadline for states to inform the national Republican Party of their primary or caucus dates.
Despite Thursday's decision by Republicans, Missouri still is scheduled to hold a presidential primary election Feb. 7. But the outcome just won't be used to award the Republican delegates. That means Missouri taxpayers could essentially pay for a huge public opinion poll.
The secretary of state's office said Missouri's 2008 presidential primaries — which had competitive contests among both Republicans and Democrats — cost about $7 million and more than 1.4 million votes were cast. In 2004, only Democrats held a competitive election because Republican President George W. Bush was running for re-election. That presidential primary cost about $4 million, with roughly 543,000 people voting.
An early presidential primary scheduled in Missouri had threatened to cause ripples throughout the country.
Florida could set its primary date on Jan. 31, as part of an effort to be the fifth state to vote for presidential candidates, according to the Florida House speaker. A state commission responsible for setting Florida's presidential primary was expected to choose Friday.
Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina have said they could move their contests earlier if necessary to stay ahead of other states.
"Any states breaking the rules hurts them and hurts us as well," South Carolina GOP Executive Director Matt Moore said. "We're going to take a hard stand with the other three states in restoring order to the calendar."