BISMARCK - U.S. Rep. Kevin Cramer has launched an online straw poll to let North Dakota Republicans express their preference for a presidential candidate, after state GOP officials scrapped their customary informal caucus because of a change in national convention rules.
"North Dakota Republicans are being left out of the 2016 presidential preference process, so this straw poll will provide the next best thing," Cramer said in a statement Wednesday.
Unlike Iowa, the North Dakota GOP does not have a binding caucus where party faithful cast ballots in local precincts to oblige delegates to vote for certain candidates at the Republican National Convention. Nor does the state have an early presidential primary election like New Hampshire's next Tuesday.
In the past, North Dakota Republicans have held a non-binding presidential straw poll in mid- to late spring, state GOP chairman Kelly Armstrong said.
But a change in RNC rules requires that all presidential caucuses and primaries be binding, which conflicts with state party rules that allow delegates selected at the state convention to vote their conscience at the national convention, which this year is July 18-21 in Cleveland.
Armstrong, a state senator from Dickinson who was elected party chairman in June, said that when party officials started putting the paperwork together last summer for the RNC, "we realized we had a pretty big issue."
The state party's 47 district chairmen decided there wasn't enough time to develop binding caucus rules by the Oct. 1 deadline, so they canceled the informal caucus, he said.
"Most of them knew making this decision wasn't necessarily going to be popular, but it really was the responsible thing to do," he said, adding they didn't want to risk the state's delegates not getting seated at the RNC. "As much as anything, it was really a bad timing issue for the state."
Former state GOP chairman Bob Harms said North Dakota delegates have wrestled with the binding rule as early as 2012. He said he opposes a binding caucus or primary, in part because a candidate may drop out of the race afterward, and he sees unbound delegates from North Dakota as being more valuable if one candidate doesn't have enough delegates locked up by the national convention.
"Then we're free agents," he said.
Harms said the problem isn't with the state party's rules but rather with RNC rules that penalize or prohibit states like North Dakota from trying to compete in early primaries or caucuses. North Dakota holds its primary June 14, more than four months after New Hampshire's.
"What we ought to be doing is changing the rules on the national level so we don't have to take the crumbs that the early states leave us," he said.
Armstrong said he plans to form a committee after the November election to develop binding caucus rules.
Cramer said the state party should have moved ahead with a binding caucus, though he said he understood the timing issue and doesn't blame Armstrong.
"I would have done it, even loosely," he said. "It's about the process and the early momentum it's created."
While the results of his informal straw poll won't be binding, he hopes they will be instructive to the state's delegates and attract enough attention to influence the crowded GOP presidential race.
The online poll at www.northdakotastrawpoll.com requires participants to provide their name and email address - which Cramer said won't be used for fundraising - and a ZIP code to try to weed out those from outside the state who try to vote.
"At the very least, it'll be a lot of fun," he said.
The North Dakota Democratic-NPL Party will hold district caucuses June 7 to elect delegates to the Democratic National Convention July 25-28 in Philadelphia. The votes will bind all 18 delegates but not the five superdelegates, party operations manager Alison Tate said.
Reach Nowatzki at (701) 255-5607 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.