The media tend to fixate on who “won” every contest in the presidential primary process. By winning they mean coming in first, no matter how slim the margin. That’s why they’ve obsessed over whether Rick Santorum or Mitt Romney actually edged out the other by fewer than 100 votes in the Iowa caucus.
It doesn’t matter if it’s not a winner-take-all event, or even if it allocates no delegates at all. It doesn’t matter if the electorate is tiny or unrepresentative. Every result has been over-hyped. When Michele Bachmann won the Iowa straw poll and when Herman Cain won the straw poll in Florida, each was covered as if it was a predictive event. Of course, Bachmann finished in sixth in the actual Iowa caucus and Cain had dropped out by the Florida primary.
Every contest is considered an indicator because—reporters tautologically assure us—it will create a media narrative, or determine who has momentum. And yet momentum has not determined the results in these primaries. Santorum got a positive narrative from his surprise tie with Romney in Iowa but he went on to finish fourth in New Hampshire. Romney was supposed to be a steamroller after his commanding victory in New Hampshire, but Newt Gingrich emerged to win South Carolina. And Gingrich faded after South Carolina. As Jonathan Martin wrote in Politico on Saturday: “This election has proven momentum-proof to date.”
But the very same day his colleague James Hohmann led a story thusly: “Mitt Romney landed a much-needed one-two punch Saturday, reasserting himself in the GOP presidential race with a win in the straw poll at the Conservative Political Action Conference and later emerging triumphant in the Maine caucuses.”
Let’s not go crazy here. Romney beat Santorum 38 percent to 31 percent at CPAC, and he squeezed out a win in Maine over Ron Paul, 39 to 36. In other words, Romney won a vote at a conference that has no bearing on the Republican nomination, and he barely avoided losing a state he should have locked down to a crank who wants to return to the gold standard.
It’s certainly true that Romney remains the favorite for the Republican nomination, and Santorum’s surge from his victories in Tuesday’s symbolic beauty contests was over-hyped. At CPAC, the nation’s largest annual conservative confab, Romney’s speech was well received, and there’s no evidence that he stuffed the conference with supporters just to win the straw poll. Romney is more widely accepted on the right than he has been to date. If Santorum can’t beat him at CPAC, how can he beat him in primaries where the electorate will be less intensely conservative? Pollster Tony Fabrizio, who ran the CPAC straw poll, said that voters who were more conservative were more likely to support Santorum and more moderate conservatives were more likely to support Romney.
Meanwhile, in the repetitive cycle of non-Romneys, Santorum is supplanting Gingrich (this already happened once in the run-up to Iowa) as the conservative alternative. He also finished just behind Romney in a CPAC related national poll of randomly selected conservatives. That poll was taken Tuesday and Wednesday, and Fabrizio said it showed no difference in results between the two days. He added that it would have been interesting if it had been conducted Thursday and Friday, as the voting at CPAC itself was, because Santorum’s momentum from his Tuesday wins would have taken a couple of days to crescendo.
In Maine Romney barely beat Ron Paul in a state he should have easily carried. In 2008 Romney won Maine with 52 percent of the vote. Southern Maine is near Massachusetts and Romney holds a regional advantage there. If Romney can’t win Republican contests in New England, he has a serious problem.
Neither CPAC nor the Maine caucus allocates delegates to the Republican National Convention. Confusingly, what happens in Maine is that attendees hold a symbolic presidential vote, whose results get reported by the media. Then, just like in Minnesota and Colorado, where Santorum won on Tuesday, separate votes are held for delegates to state conventions. At those later state conventions they will select delegates to the RNC. There is, of course, some correlation between whom caucus-goers support for president and which delegates they select. But there isn’t a totally equal relationship.
Furthermore, delegates are not bound to stick with the candidate they currently support. They may not even be able to if, say, their candidate has dropped out by the time their state convention is held. Even then they will be selecting RNC delegates who are not bound to the candidate they endorse.
A highly organized campaign with intensely dedicated supporters, such as Paul’s, may over-perform in the delegate selection process relative to the presidential beauty contest. That’s why Paul is declaring victory in Maine: he predicts that he will receive more delegates than Romney. (He also pulled this off in 2008 in Nevada.)
Ultimately, the message of Tuesday’s and Saturday’s results is consistent: the Romney campaign is poorly organized in caucus states, and conservatives are lukewarm to him. Romney’s ceiling of support may have been lifted from 25 percent to the upper thirties, but he still seems to have a ceiling.
If this doesn’t strike you as dramatic news, it shouldn’t. Ironically, the fact that Romney was no longer expected to automatically win in Maine probably helped him get more positive coverage than if his win was just treated as the yawn it should have been. Campaign reporters were probably a little more surprised than they should have been, since Paul was threatening to edge out Romney in Maine and Santorum seemed to have better organization and more enthusiasm as CPAC. A swing of just a couple points in each contest, and you’d be reading about Mitt Romney’s devastating losses instead of his much-needed victories.