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.