Colorado, Minnesota and Missouri will host their voting contests on Tuesday, marking the first day in the 2012 cycle to see contests in multiple states. Colorado and Minnesota will have caucuses, and Missouri will hold a primary, though that state will also hold another voting contest - a caucus - in March.
A total of 76 delegates are at stake; 36 in Colorado, 40 in Minnesota and zero in Missouri. Missouri will hold off awarding delegates until its caucuses on March 17. Colorado and Minnesota will allocate delegates on a proportional basis, meaning that each candidate is likely to receive part of the full slate.
The first multi-state voting day is important because it offers a clearer glimpse into each candidate's strategies than previously seen. In the first five voting contests, the campaign plan for candidates was relatively straightforward. Spend time in each of those states leading up to each of the contests, and plan to be in said state when the results are being counted. Having multiple contests, though, offers multiple choices, and these choices indicate where candidate's believe they have the best shot.
The meaning of a loss in a state where a candidate has chosen to concentrate his efforts, forgoing spending time in the other states voting that day, becomes heightened in these scenarios.
In 2008 Romney won both of those states: Colorado with 60 percent of the vote and Minnesota with 41 percent. In Missouri he placed third in 2008, coming in behind John McCain and Mike Huckabee who took first and second place.
Colorado's caucuses are only open to registered Republicans. The state counts 1,097,688 registered Republicans, about 30 percent of the voting eligible population. The state does not permit vote by mail or absentee voting. In 2008, 70,006 ballots were cast in the GOP caucuses - about 2 percent of the voting eligible population. In addition to Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum and Ron Paul - the four remaining GOP candidates, those who have already dropped out - Michele Bachmann, Jon Huntsman and Rick Perry - are also on the ballot in Colorado.
Though Colorado has been trending towards Democrats in recent years - Denver was the site of the Democratic National Convention in 2008 and Barack Obama won the state that year with 54 percent of the vote - it is still considered a swing state, and will be very important in the general election. The Republican base in the state is considered to be very conservative, an important factor to keep in mind given the caucus registration policy.
The county to watch will be El Paso County, where the traditionally conservative city of Colorado Springs is located. A large percentage of Tuesday's vote will come from this county. McCain defeated Obama in El Paso by a margin of almost 20 percent - 58.9 percent to 39.5 percent. Romney won the county in the 2008 caucuses.
Unlike Colorado, Minnesota's caucuses are open to all voters who are eligible to vote in the general election. The state does not have voter registration by party and permits voters to register on the day of the voting contest. Like in Colorado, the caucuses do not permit vote by mail or absentee voting.
Minnesota has 3,087,082 registered voters. However, turnout is generally low in the state's caucuses. In 2008, 62,529 votes were cast in the GOP caucuses - 2 percent of the eligible voting population. Romney, Gingrich, Santorum and Paul are the only names on the ballot in Minnesota's caucuses, though they do tabulate write-in votes.
Minnesota leans Democratic. The state's two senators and its governor are Democrats, and Obama won the state with 54 percent of the vote in 2008. However the state does have a strong conservative faction. In 2008, the city of St. Paul was the site of the Republican National Convention.
The area of the state to watch is the area known as the collar counties - the counties surrounding the twin cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul. This area, traditionally a Republican stronghold, is the only section of the state carried by McCain in 2008: He won with 54 percent of the vote. Romney carried this area in Minnesota's caucuses in 2008.
The other part of the state to watch is the northern most area. While not as populous as the collar counties, counties in this part of the state such as Itasca and Beltrami were strongholds for Mike Huckabee in 2008. If either Gingrich or Santorum is able to carry a strong victory in those areas, it would boost their overall standing at the very least and could result in a larger piece of the Minnesota delegate pie.
While Missouri's primary will not bear any delegates, the candidate who claims victory in the state will certainly get a boost in momentum. Santorum has been campaigning particularly hard in this state, and his chances of success could be elevated by the fact that Gingrich's name will not be on the ballot.
The contest Tuesday marks the beginning of a bit of a lull in the campaign. Maine will wrap up its week of caucuses on Feb. 11, ushering in a two-week break from voting contests. After Maine, the next primaries will take place on Feb. 28, in Arizona and Michigan.