In the GOP Primary, how do you define a winner?

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
March 2 2012 6:58 PM

Why a Win Isn’t a Win

In the Republican primary, everyone claims to be a winner.

Rick Santorum.
Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum in Grand Rapids, Mich.

Photograph by Scott Olson/Getty Images.

A win is a win. Mitt Romney's advisers reminded us of this after his Michigan victory. They had to resort to this tautology because there was some doubt. Romney received more votes than anyone else, but the question was whether he won by enough and in the right way. Then, along came Rick Santorum a day after the vote to claim that no, he had won in Michigan because he’d received as many delegates as Romney had.*

John Dickerson John Dickerson

John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. Read his series on the presidency and on risk.

The definition of winning in politics has always been a little slippery. In 1968, Sen. Eugene McCarthy lost to Lyndon Johnson in the New Hampshire primary. But he did so well against an incumbent president, he was considered the winner. Lamar Alexander came in third in the Iowa caucus in 1996—but he won the lion's share of the political coverage for coming out of nowhere. The definition of winning in this year’s Republican primary has become more elusive than ever, in part because there is no dominant front-runner and the GOP is so sharply divided.

Super Tuesday on March 6 will really stretch our definition of winning. Voters will cast ballots in 10 states across the country. It's the closest thing we have to a national primary. But it will present at least two fundamental contests: the battle between Mitt Romney and his rivals as well as the battle between Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich to be crowned the sole conservative alternative to Romney. When the votes are totaled, it's possible that each candidate will have done well enough that after they boast about their victories, it will seem like a children’s soccer league where everyone is a winner. 

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The key variable in determining whether a “win is a win” is expectations. If a candidate does well where he is not supposed to do well, that's a win. If he doesn't do well where he's supposed to do well, that's a loss. Meanwhile, delegates are won and lost. That's the rock solid number that will determine the nominee. That is the only number that matters, and yet sometimes it seems it doesn't matter at all. If you're confused, here's a short guide to the different kinds of winning and why some are held in higher favor than others: 

States you're supposed to win: On Super Tuesday, Mitt Romney will win in Massachusetts and probably in Vermont. Because these are not considered competitive states, he will get very little credit for these wins. Romney is in competition with himself in the eyes of analysts, reporters, and pundits: He must overcome his weakness with conservatives. Beating Santorum like a drum in Arizona for some reason doesn't matter if the lack of competition doesn't tell us anything about Romney's chances to go the distance.

States where you have limited competition: On Tuesday, Mitt Romney will almost certainly win in Virginia. That's because Ron Paul is the only other name on the ballot. Everyone expects this. So, when Romney's victory is announced, it won't seem like a big deal because it won't tell us anything about Romney's ability to compete head-to-head with his opponents for the votes of persuadable voters. Also, Romney is "winning" merely because he had his act together and could get on the ballot. But presidents should have their act together. It's an attribute to be prized in the Oval Office. Just because the other candidates couldn't manage the process doesn't mean Romney should be stripped of credit for winning in a key swing state. 

Home state wins: Losing your home state is deadly, but winning doesn't get you a big bounce because local advantages limit the ability to use the electorate in the state as a fair test of a candidate's broader appeal. Newt Gingrich is going to run into this problem if all he does is win Georgia on Tuesday. That’s not going to relaunch him.  The home state snooze is why when Mitt Romney came back to life by winning Michigan it didn't fully eliminate doubts about his ability to rally his party. So, by this logic, shouldn't Rick Santorum get some credit for coming so close because Romney had so many advantages? Time for another election cliche: Coming close only matters in hand grenades and horseshoes.

Winning ugly: That was the headline of at least two stories describing Romney's victory in Michigan. This condition is achieved when you are victorious but you look so ghoulish in doing so you diminish the glory of the prize. Romney aired a ton of negative ads which underlined the fact that Romney has trouble with his party—he can only build himself up by tearing others down. Also, winning ugly can have far-reaching consequences if a candidate's tactics in close-quarters combat tarnish his image with independent voters who will help determine who wins in the fall. 

Momentum wins: If McCarthy only came close in 1968 and was considered a winner, why not Santorum in Michigan? Because Santorum needed something to boost his campaign beyond being a nagging threat to Romney. Only a win could have done that. Santorum benefited from momentum wins in Colorado, Minnesota, and Missouri, but once he'd shown he could hit solid singles, the donors, media, and voters wanted to see him hit a home run.

Delegate wins: In the end, this is the only number that really matters. But until a candidate gets within range of the 1,144 delegates needed to get the nomination, the number isn't that important. That's why Santorum's claim that he'd won Michigan because he'd tied Romney in delegates wasn't convincing to many people. It certainly didn't convince Joe Scarborough and Charles Krauthammer, not exactly well-known liberals. It was unconvincing because Santorum is never going to get the big dose of delegates if he can’t prove that he’s a viable long-term candidate. He didn't show that he could expand his appeal beyond strong conservatives in Michigan. That's a threat to his future that no “delegate win" can paper over.

Also, a few weeks before Santorum had upended the race by winning in Colorado, Minnesota, and Minnesota, states that weren't handing out delegates. After those wins, the Romney team tried unconvincingly to say Santorum's wins were meaningless because they didn't affect the final delegate count. Few bought that logic, either. 

The promised land for Romney is when he wins enough delegates that it becomes impossible for an opponent to accumulate enough delegates even if they win the popular vote in future states. You may remember this formula from the Democratic race in 2008. Hillary Clinton kept winning, but because Obama had won enough delegates, those wins didn't count for much.

Demographic wins: One of the reasons some consider Romney the legitimate Michigan winner is that he won among those voters who identify themselves as Republicans. Romney has had a problem with his party regulars who don't think he is conservative enough so besting Santorum by ten points with this group counteracted the storyline. Gaining the support of the rank-and-file was a sign that he knows how to fix that problem and that he won't be hurt in the general election by an unenthusiastic base. Santorum lost Michigan, by contrast, because he couldn't build support outside of his clubhouse, those voters who identify themselves as strong supporters of the Tea Party or as "strongly conservative."

Of all the candidates competing on Super Tuesday, Rick Santorum may have the hardest task. He is fighting a two-front war in Ohio against Romney and in Tennessee and Oklahoma against Gingrich. In part that's because Romney isn't expected to win in the South, the same way Gingrich and Santorum aren't expected to win in the Northeast. Though, if Romney doesn't win in Ohio—even if he does well elsewhere—nothing will beat back another round  of stories saying that he's just too weak to be the Republican front-runner. He'll have to point to his previous victories and explain why a loss isn't a loss. 

Footnote:

Santorum made the claim that he won when the Michigan delegate count was 15-15. The Michigan Republican Party said they were incorrect in their initial interpretation of the rules on allocation of delegates, and the final tally should be Romney 16 and Santorum 14. Santorum, deprived of this "win," is hopping mad about it. (Return to sentence.)

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