Conventional wisdom says caucuses reward careful organization, which should have given Mitt Romney a huge advantage in the Colorado, Minnesota, and Missouri contests held on Tuesday night. Missouri actually held a “primary,” but it didn’t mean anything, because the state violated national Republican Party rules to hold it early. Rather than sacrifice half their delegates, as Florida did, Missouri decided to hold a separate caucus in March to award its delegates.
Meanwhile, Colorado and Minnesota use their caucuses to elect local party delegates, who go on to select the convention delegates. It is expected that their ultimate assignment of presidential delegates will roughly follow the results of the non-binding caucus straw polls, as is the case with Iowa, whose primary-season kickoff caucuses are most certainly taken seriously.
As it happened, these three races became prizes that could not be won entirely through superior ground-level organization. Late polls showed Rick Santorum surging in Minnesota, and well ahead in Missouri, where a large contingent of social conservatives and blue-collar voters welcomed his campaign message. Having largely avoided the heavy exchange of negative-campaign fire between Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich, Santorum retained high personal favorability ratings and strong Tea Party appeal. Ron Paul also benefited from staying out of the battlefield, managing what looks like a respectable second-place finish in Minnesota, even as his national poll numbers float upward.
Gingrich’s weak showings in Florida and Nevada, after expectations were raised by a spectacular South Carolina victory, left many eyes turning toward Santorum as the Romney alternative. It also helped Santorum’s cause that Gingrich did not qualify to participate in the Missouri primary.
Gingrich, seeing a tough February of Romney victories ahead of him, shifted his efforts into the March primaries, particularly the Super Tuesday states. That left Romney fighting an unexpectedly tough race against Santorum in Colorado, while stepping up his appeals to social conservatives. Santorum, for his part, has missed no opportunity to remind voters that he isn’t just a social-con candidate.
Santorum scored commanding victories in Missouri and Minnesota. In Missouri, he finished with a remarkable 55 percent of the vote, followed by Romney with 25 percent, and Ron Paul with 12. Since Gingrich wasn’t in the running, the Santorum campaign can use these results to paint a picture of what a two-man race between Santorum and Romney would look like.
Perhaps even more remarkably, Santorum won almost as big in Minnesota. Votes were still being tabulated late Tuesday night, but it looks like Santorum 45, Paul 27, Romney 17, Gingrich 11.
And most impressive of all, Santorum was well ahead in early Colorado counts. With about a third of precincts reporting as midnight Eastern time approached, he had nearly matched his Minnesota share of the vote. Winning all three of these races would be rocket fuel for his candidacy, but even a strong second-place finish in Colorado would be nothing to sneeze at, as he can boast of having made Romney work hard for his victory.
If these percentages hold up throughout the delegate selection process – and keep in mind that Missouri will essentially start from scratch again next month – Santorum would end up with 71 delegates, compared to current totals of 109 for Romney and 38 for Gingrich. But Florida’s assignment of all 50 candidates to primary winner Romney has been challenged as a violation of party rules, and if that challenge prevails, Romney would lose 23 from his total, while Gingrich would pick up 16, and Santorum 7.
That would leave Romney and Santorum virtually tied in the delegate count, with 86 for Romney versus 78 for Santorum. Computing those totals involves a lot of assumptions, so they should be taken with a grain of salt, but it’s food for thought when testing the solidity of front-runner Romney’s lead.
Sensing that Wednesday’s headlines might be buzzing about Santorum’s remarkable success, the Romney campaign began “managing expectations.” A campaign memo from Romney’s political director, Rich Beeson, observed there is “no way for any nominee to win first place in every single contest,” and “we expect our opponents to notch a few wins, too.”
Of course, Beeson is entirely correct. The euphoria from today’s contests will fade, and Santorum will find himself looking at that mountain of Romney campaign money, and the gleaming gears of his well-oiled political machine. It’s very tough to assemble on the fly what Romney has spent years carefully building. The presidential race is not a beauty contest, and exciting symbolic victories don’t secure the nomination. And Newt Gingrich, who didn’t seem to be part of the story Tuesday night, might just have won a valuable consolation prize: a few weeks of respite to prepare for March, while the Romney campaign turns its full attention to Rick Santorum.