Posted Wednesday, Feb. 8, 2012, at 9:28 AM
The Wall Street Journal reports on Rick Santorum's "three-state sweep of nominating contests in Colorado, Missouri and Minnesota." It brings the factoids: "Of the eight nominating contests so far, Mr. Santorum has now won four," meaning last night's bunch and Iowa.
Only in the twelfth paragraph do we learn a disturbing fact about Missouri.
Minnesota and Colorado held nonbinding caucuses. The Missouri primary had no delegates at stake.
Hang on: Every reporter covering the primaries knew that Missouri wasn't binding. It featured heavily in stories before the polls opened yesterday. But if you watched CNN last night, you saw a BREAKING NEWS banner when the totally delegate-free Missouri results were called. If you picked up the Washington Post the next day, you saw Missouri referred to as one of the "nominating contests." If you read on to the fourteenth paragraph, then you find out that "Missouri was a 'beauty contest' with no delegates at stake." But not before! In WaPo's morning Fix email, we're told that "by holding two presidential contests, Missouri now has a chance to be relevant twice in the GOP nominating contests." As Santorum might say: WHY?
Who gets this right? Nate Silver stands out ("Missouri is a less important result since its beauty contest primary did not count for delegate selection"), as does Jim Rutenberg at the same paper, writing in his lede about a "nonbinding primary in Missouri. Over at Politico, Alex Burns mentions the "non-binding" nature of the primary in his second graf.
It really could be mentioned first. Look, nobody's soft-peddling Romney's embarrassing failures in Colorado and Minnesota. In caucuses that kick off their states' nominating processes, caucuses that Romney swept in 2008, he ran more than 10,000 votes behind his totals from that last campaign. Oh, sure, more attention's being paid to Missouri because it completes a narrative. But there wasn't a real competition for votes in Missouri. In any election, candidates will stump for votes and spend money organizing and buying ads. The Romney campaign took a powder on Missouri, and the Gingrich campaign (at the low point of its organizing) didn't get on the ballot.
I see two ways that Missouri sort of mattered.
Number one: Like non-binding contests in the 2008 Democratic race, in Florida, Idaho, Nebraska and Washington, it reveals that the baseline support for one candidate is fairly low before ads go on the air. In 2008, Obama only won 33 percent of the Florida vote and slim majorities in those other three states. But campaigns aren't contests of where candidates start out before campaigning. If they were, Martha Coakley would be a senator.
Number two: Santorum is extraordinarily good at manipulating the media. He grinned and took all of the "why aren't you surging?" questions in 2011, happy to remain an unexamined underdog. He bet that Missouri would matter if it could be shoehorned into a narrative.
*Headline explained here.