JEFFERSON CITY, Missouri — Undeterred by a downpour on a Saturday afternoon, a well-dressed woman scurried from her car into the foyer of Westminster Christian Academy and paused, a bit perplexed. Is this where the Republican presidential caucus was supposed to be, she wondered.
Yes. But she was a couple hours too late.
Two-hundred-seventy-eight others had arrived before 10 a.m., spent several hours counting — and re-counting — their votes in a repeated show of raised hands and already had departed before the rain even started. The woman was left out of Missouri's Republican presidential selection process. But she had plenty of company in that regard.
A total of 17,576 people — less than one-half of 1 percent of Missouri's registered voters — participated in the local Republican caucuses that occurred between March 13 and April 10, according to figures provided to The Associated Press by the Missouri Republican Party.
That's far fewer than the 252,185 people who cast Republican ballots in February's non-binding presidential primary. And way fewer than the 588,844 people who voted in the 2008 Republican presidential primary, when the results actually counted toward awarding Missouri's delegates to the Republican National Convention.
The low turnout for Missouri's 2012 caucuses should provide sound proof that primaries are better — and deter any major political party from relying on caucuses in the 2016 presidential election, said Missouri Secretary of State Robin Carnahan.
"Choosing a president is serious business and people want to have a say in it," said Carnahan, a Democrat. She added: "It's really just a shame in a year where there was such interest in the Republican Party about who their nominee was going to be that it was such a confusing process."
To recap: The caucus system was not the first choice of the Missouri Republican Party. By law, Missouri's presidential primary is scheduled for February. But in an attempt to avert a rush to the front of the presidential selection process, the national Republican Party threatened to cut half the delegates of states such as Missouri, unless they moved their primaries back.
The Republican-led Legislature passed a bill in 2011 to delay the primary until March 2012, but Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon vetoed it while citing objections to unrelated parts of the bill. Nixon then added the issue to the agenda for an autumn special session. But divisions arose among Republican senators, and the second attempt to delay the primary failed to pass. To avoid getting penalized by the national party, the Missouri Republican State Committee chose to use a March caucus system as the starting point for selecting its presidential delegates — leaving the $7 million February primary as a nonbinding public opinion poll.
The Republican Party declined to provide the AP a county-by-county breakdown of the participation rate in its caucuses. But it did provide some highs and lows. At the upper end, 2,914 people participated in the caucuses in St. Louis County, the state's most populous jurisdiction.
Just seven people showed up for the Republican caucus in Mississippi County — not even enough to cover the five delegates and five alternates that caucus participants were to select for the April 21 district convention and the June 2 state convention. The small group at the Mississippi County caucus ended up electing a slate of delegates that included some people not actually present.
Perhaps not surprisingly, few Republicans are clamoring to use the caucus system again when selecting a 2016 presidential nominee.
All three of this year's Republican candidates for secretary of state — state Sens. Scott Rupp and Bill Stouffer and state Rep. Shane Schoeller — said they would use the position as Missouri's chief election official to encourage a return to a binding presidential primary.
Like the woman left out in the rain, Rupp and Schoeller were among those unable to participate in this year's caucuses. Schoeller said he went to the Greene County caucus but had to leave after a couple hours — before the group elected delegates — to attend a previously scheduled campaign event on the other side of the state. Rupp said he had to miss the first attempt at the St. Charles County caucus because of a family wedding and missed the makeup caucus because the Legislature was in session.
Had Republicans relied on a primary election to bind their presidential delegates, Rupp and Schoeller could have spared the few minutes necessary to cast ballots or voted absentee, an option not available at a caucus.
In retrospect, many Republican officials may wish the caucuses of 2012 never occurred.
State Republican Party Chairman David Cole said in a written statement to the AP: "In the future, we will encourage even more voters to participate by working to return to a binding primary for the purpose of selecting Missouri's delegates to the national convention."
EDITOR'S NOTE: David A. Lieb has covered state government and politics for The Associated Press since 1995. He can be reached at http://twitter.com/DavidALieb.
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.