Rick Santorum speaks to supporters at his primary night rally at the St. Charles Convention Center in St. Charles, Missouri, February 7, 2012. REUTERS/Sarah Conard
“Santorum revives campaign with wins in Colorado, Missouri and Minnesota,” announces the headline in the Washington Post. I know what you’re thinking: Rick Santorum, the guy who barely won the Iowa caucuses and immediately returned to his status as also-ran, just won primaries in three large swing states. That must mean he is again competing with Mitt Romney for the Republican nomination. That’s certainly what the Post wants you to believe. “Rick Santorum had a breakthrough night Tuesday, winning GOP presidential contests in Missouri, Minnesota and Colorado, all of which is expected to breathe life into his struggling campaign and slow Mitt Romney’s march to the Republican presidential nomination,” reads the lead.
It sounds like a big deal, but did you catch the weasel word? It is “contests.” A “contest” is not necessarily a primary in the lexicon of campaign reporting. So many states have their own unique practices that we can only use vague terms to describe them. Even contest is arguably inaccurate, since a contest implies that a real competition took place in which the contestant who finishes in first actually wins something.
But that is not the case in Colorado and Minnesota’s caucuses, or Missouri’s primary. That’s because Santorum, the nominal winner of the “contests” doesn’t actually win anything. The caucuses are non-binding, and the Missouri primary is called a “beauty pageant” because it allocates no delegates. All three states will allocate their delegates months from now in obscure state party meetings, such as conventions held at the congressional district level.
The first impulse of media coverage is to hype every story, and that’s surely how some will react to these non-events. The Washington Post, for example, runs through all the conventional wisdom—Santorum will get a boost going into Super Tuesday, Gingrich is on the wane as the conservative alternative, Romney is still unpopular with the Republican base—before getting to the real point, which it saves for the fifteenth paragraph. “Together, the three states voting Tuesday will eventually award 128 delegates. But Missouri was a ‘beauty contest’ with no delegates at stake, while Minnesota and Colorado were nonbinding events, with delegates to be chosen this spring.” In other words, this major news is a big nothing.
That doesn’t make the conventional wisdom wrong. Romney is indeed not all that popular with the conservative base. But we already knew that, and a close reading of the exit polls in Florida’s primary showed it still to be true despite his victory there.