The U.S. Virgin Islands is this week's most interesting election

Unlike in Nevada, the GOP race is actually competitive between Trump and Haley.

February 8, 2024, 10:37 AM

Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada … and the U.S. Virgin Islands?

The same states usually kick off the presidential primary calendar every cycle, but this year, a newcomer is crashing the Republican party. Unlike in the general election, U.S. territories get a say in whom each party nominates for president, and the Virgin Islands is holding its Republican caucuses on Thursday. That makes it the third state or territory to hold a binding GOP nominating contest this year, after Iowa and New Hampshire.*

And as we learned in 2020 when former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg won the Democratic caucuses in American Samoa, the territories sometimes march to the beat of their own drum in presidential races, making the Virgin Islands a more interesting race to follow on Thursday than Nevada (where former President Donald Trump is the only major candidate on the ballot). That's doubly true when considering the quirky way the Virgin Islands will vote and announce its results.

But despite its prime placement on the calendar, the U.S. V.I. GOP caucuses haven't gotten a lot of attention, from either the media or the campaigns. That's partly due to the Virgin Islands's distance from the mainland, but also the fact that only four delegates are at stake (compared with 26 in Nevada).

At the end of the day, even if former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley notches a win in the tropical territory, it's not going to fundamentally change anything about the GOP race.

First, the basics: Despite being called "caucuses," the election is more akin to a party-run primary. Unlike in Iowa, voters don't have to show up at an appointed time in the evening and stay for what is essentially a party meeting before casting their ballot. Instead, they can show up at any time that polls are open to cast their ballot.

There are three polling places, one on each of the territory's three main islands, and they're a lot more interesting than your typical library or high school gymnasium. Republican voters can cast their ballots at La Reine Chicken Shack on St. Croix; Lovango Rum Bar on St. John; and Bluebeard's Castle, a resort on St. Thomas.

The last polls close at 6 p.m. Atlantic time, and the results will be announced around 8 p.m. Atlantic (that's 7 p.m. Eastern) at a results party at the brand-new Morningstar Buoy Haus Beach Resort on St. Thomas. (I could not convince my boss to let me cover it in person.)

Uniquely, the caucuses will be conducted using ranked-choice voting, whereby each voter will rank their first choice for president, then their second choice for president, etc. rather than simply voting for one candidate. The candidate with the fewest first-place votes will then be eliminated and their votes redistributed to their voters' second choices; this process is repeated until one candidate has received a majority.

Of course, this would be a lot more interesting if there were more than two candidates left in the race, making it likely that either Trump or Haley will receive a majority before any instant runoffs take place. But there are still four other candidates on the ballot, including Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and businessman Vivek Ramaswamy. Given the nature of ranked-choice voting, voters could decide to rank those candidates first to make a statement and their vote would still count. The Virgin Islands Republican Party will release the results of each round of voting, so there will be plenty of data to pore over other than just who wins.

Ranked-choice voting is generally opposed by mainland Republicans, many of whom blame it for the loss of GOP candidates in Maine and Alaska. But Dennis Lennox, the executive director of the Republican Party in the Virgin Islands, explained the decision to use it by noting that general elections in the Virgin Islands go to runoffs when no candidate wins a majority, so the territory has a culture of requiring majority support.

"But when you're doing a caucus, you can't say, 'Come back two weeks later,'" Lennox said — hence the need for ranked-choice voting.

Nevertheless, the party's use of ranked-choice voting, and its decision to hold its caucuses so early, still caused quite a bit of drama. The Republican National Committee determined they were violations of its rules and knocked the territory down from nine delegates to four as a penalty. Local party committee members also claimed that Lennox and Virgin Islands Republican Party Chairman Gordon Ackley didn't consult them before adopting the plan, and the committee members attempted to oust the pair from their positions. However, the RNC eventually ruled that they didn't follow proper procedure in doing so, so Ackley and Lennox remain in charge.

Lennox still defends the decision to move up the election date. "We want to make the Virgin Islands as relevant as possible. We don't get to vote in the general election, so this is our opportunity," he said. And to hear him tell it, it has worked. "We've never seen anything like this [level of campaign activity] before in the Virgin Islands on either side of the aisle," Lennox said.

However, campaigning on the Virgin Islands looks pretty different than it does on the mainland. No candidate has visited the territory in person, something Lennox defends because "it takes a day to get down here, then you have to hop between separate islands, then it takes a day to get back." (He's exaggerating a bit — it's a three-and-a-half-hour flight from Charlotte, North Carolina.)

Instead, the candidates send surrogates, or sometimes they use Zoom to speak at events personally. Haley has done that twice, including on Monday night, and Lennox said she also has a senior staffer physically on the ground. Trump has not addressed Virgin Islanders himself, but according to Lennox, surrogates for his campaign have held three in-person events in the territory.

Typically, campaign events don't move the needle very much, but retail politics could be more important than usual in the Virgin Islands given its tiny electorate: As of December, there were only 2,107 registered Republicans in the entire territory. And turnout in the caucuses is likely to be much lower. Lennox declined to predict how many people would vote, but he's setting expectations low: "It's a nice island with a lot of distractions."

That small electorate also makes the winner hard to forecast. There have been no public polls of the contest, and although Trump holds a commanding lead in national polls, those only sample the 50 states and the District of Columbia, so we can't know for sure if they're representative of Virgin Islanders.

But while the result is in genuine suspense — more than we can say for most other Republican primary contests this year — it also won't really matter. With just four delegates to its name, the Virgin Islands would be worth fewer delegates to Haley even in victory than New Hampshire was to her in defeat.

Granted, a Haley win could produce much-needed favorable headlines after her embarrassing performance in the Nevada primary on Tuesday. But the territory's unrepresentativeness means that, even if Haley wins, it won't signal a groundswell of national support that could carry her to the nomination. Just ask President Bloomberg.


*Nevada's primary was on Tuesday, but no delegates were at stake. Delegates will be awarded there based on Thursday's caucuses, which don't start until 5 p.m. Pacific time — three hours after polls close in the Virgin Islands.

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