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.
Gingrich is certainly slipping: he is melting down mentally as he receives withering attacks  from Romney and legions of veteran Republicans.
It stands to reason that Santorum’s fortunes rise as Gingrich’s fall. That’s what happened in Iowa. It is unclear, though, how much Santorum’s results on Tuesday reflect national trends, which have yet to show up in polling data. Santorum made a strategic decision to abandon Florida and Nevada early and focus on the states that voted (sort of) on Tuesday. As he demonstrated in Iowa, giving the most attention to a state may boost him to a victory there but not translate into any successes elsewhere. If so, he is in for another letdown on March 6, when a bunch of states will actually go to the polls for real.
Tuesday’s “contests” were supposed to serve as a measurement of the GOP electorate’s temperature. But people know better than to waste their time voting when their votes won’t really count. Turnout was as low as would be expected for events that don’t allocate delegates, a fact that the Post did not see fit to mention. Only about 48,000 Minnesotans caucused, along with 66,000 Coloradans and 264,000 Missourians who voted. (By comparison, 1.7 million Floridians voted in their primary.)
Consequently, it’s impossible to say how much Santorum’s surge reflects a more widely held sentiment. Clearly, there is a real preference for him among some elements of the base, particularly in Missouri. But delegates will decide the nomination.
The primary electorate in a swing state does not necessarily make a good proxy for how a candidate will fare in the general election. Remember Hillary Clinton’s claim that she would be a stronger Democratic nominee in 2008 than Barack Obama because she won the primaries in swing states such as Ohio and Pennsylvania? Obama proved it to be hogwash, winning in a landslide.
The most intense partisans in any state can be much more ideological than, or otherwise different from, the swing voters in the swing state who will actually decide the outcome. Minnesota Republicans gave us Michele Bachmann, but that doesn’t mean Bachmann would be the Republican with the best chance of carrying Minnesota. The staunch conservatives who came out for Santorum will overwhelmingly vote for Romney if he is the nominee in November.
Nonetheless, the Post informs us, “The Minnesota and Missouri contests were early barometers of Romney’s support in some of the key Midwestern states he would need to win in a general election against President Obama. And Colorado is thought of as a critical battleground; Obama’s campaign advisers consider it a must-win.” Santorum did better among a small subset of Colorado Republicans, who are a notoriously extreme group. (Think of Tom Tancredo and the religious zealots in Colorado Springs.) The idea that Santorum, a polarizing homophobe who lost his last race by eighteen points, would therefore do better than Romney in the swing suburbs of Denver is at best unlikely. And yet you will hear that in the days to come.