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Wednesday, February 08, 2012

Rick Santorum Elected Mayor of Ghost Town

A ghost town
There are two ways to look at Rick Santorum's winning streak last night and both of them are mostly correct. The first take is that the results were mathematically meaningless. His rivals are very busy making that point today. The winner of none of the contests last night is guaranteed delegates at the convention. Colorado and Minnesota are nonbinding straw polls by tradition and Missouri's primary will award no delegates because of the incompetence of that state's party. In this take, Rick Santorum is the triumphant winner of a big pile of nothing. In delegate math, it's an excuse to drop confetti on a candidate and nothing more.

The other take is that this is hugely important. Not surprisingly, Team Santorum's taking this line, along with many in the media. Polls influence polls and this is just as true of election results. Choosing a candidate a rational decision-making process (in the best case) and when polls start moving one way, you begin to rethink your position, in much the same way that you might take all your friends' advice. When everyone has a different opinion from your own, it's not unreasonable to rethink your position -- or change it. Santorum's big win last night will have the "polls influence polls" effect and he'll become the latest legit Not-Romney (sorry Newt). Rick wins zero delegates and all of the positive headlines. In all, I'd say he got the best deal last night. Easily and by a long shot.

But missing in all the analysis is that familiar GOP trend -- low turnout. Turnout in last night's races was anemic, bordering on pathetic. Low turnout isn't surprising for what are essentially beauty contests of no real electoral value, but there's low and then there's low.

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In a piece summing up the contests last night, Ed Kilgore had this to say (emphasis mine):

...Santorum did not win a single delegate last night (MO was a completely symbolic affair unconnected to the caucus next month in which delegates are selected, which is why nobody but Ricky bothered to campaign there; CO and MN, like Iowa, have multi-stage delegate selection systems in which last night’s results were technically just a “straw poll”). Only about 65,000 votes were cast in CO; 50,000 in Minnesota; and in the one primary, 250,000 in MO. That’s compared to over 1.6 million in Florida.

You could further argue that caucuses -- being the awful, awful idea that they are -- guarantee low turnout. But the first caucus in the nation, Iowa, had a turnout of 122,255 voters. Then things started to go downhill. The next most recent caucuses in Nevada saw an even worse turnout that last night's -- 32,930 Nevadans bothered with it. And those 1.6 million Florida votes cited by Kilgore? That's a 14% decrease from the previous GOP presidential primary in 2008.

None of those numbers foretell good things in the GOP's future. And it gets still worse; Nate Silver sees a race that bears a "resemblance to something like the 1984 Democratic contest or the 1976 Republican race. There was a favorite in each of those contests -- Walter Mondale in 1984 and Gerald Ford in 1976 -- and they were ahead in the delegate count more or less from start to finish."

"But both contests progressed through all 50 states and were not that far from going to the convention," he continues. "A few more missteps for Mr. Mondale or Mr. Ford, and the outcome might have been different."

In other words, we may be in for a long, drawn-out fight. Things did not go well for Mr. Mondale and Mr. Ford. And a large chunk of Republican voters, already less than enthused about their choices, are headed for a deep and guaranteed disappointment. What do you think that'll do for general election turnout?

So yeah, last night was a big night for Rick Santorum. But it was an even bigger night for Barack Obama.

-Wisco


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