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Minnesota's caucuses and other voting: Who saw this coming?

Mitt Romney shaking hands with supporters after speaking at his Colorado caucus
REUTERS/Rick Wilking
Mitt Romney shaking hands with supporters after speaking at his Colorado caucus night rally.

Seven half-baked analysis points after Tuesday night’s voting and caucusing in Minnesota and elsewhere:

Point 1
Show me the pundit who saw this coming? I’m not talking about someone who said it ain’t over yet after Florida. I’m talking about someone who said Rick Santorum might sweep all three contests and might double Mitt Romney’s vote in Missouri and Minnesota and that Romney might finish third, 30 percentage points behind Santorum in Minnesota, a state Romney carried by almost 20 points in 2008.

There are, of course, several ways to minimize what happened last night. Three quirky states (as if there are any states that can’t be dismissed as quirky when they don’t behave). Two caucus states and a non-binding primary. Very few delegates were awarded (really, none that are bankable). And if this week’s results follow the pattern of all the previous election nights so far in this contest, the future direction they suggest for the race will be completely contradicted by the next results. I say let them vote and stop trying to get ahead of the contest.

Point 2
The rest of the February calendar is supposed to be Romney-friendly. Michigan is where he grew up and his father was governor there. Arizona has an above-average Mormon population. But that could be a trap for him. You get little credit for winning the state in which you grew up. But if you falter in a state where you’re supposed to win easily and big, it’s a serious problem, at least in terms of much-feared media narrative.

The pundits, back when they supposedly knew what they were talking about, used to sell the idea that a big win (or three) like Santorum just had gives you momentum going into the next round. So far this year: Not so. (Santorum already experienced the opposite of the “bounce” after his surprise strong showing in Iowa. He disappeared in New Hampshire.) Michigan is three weeks away. The most recent polling of likely Michigan Repub primary voters had Romney 15 points ahead of Gingrich with Santorum in third, 21 points behind Romney. I don’t believe Santorum can be seriously considered any kind of co-frontrunner based on last night. But if Santorum starts to surge in Michigan, Katie bar the door.

Point 3
Rick Santorum is about to get fly-specked and quite likely carpet-bombed by the Romney attack machine. Santorum has not yet had the treatment that Gingrich received, first when he surged in the polls before Iowa and then again after the big win in South Carolina. Surely the Romney opposition researchers have a book on him and they have demonstrated that they are ready, willing and very able to go negative.

I wouldn’t want to predict what they will use. Santorum was a big user of earmarks (and makes no excuses for it). I heard one of the Fox analysts last night predict that the Romney campaign is about to turn Santorum into an earmark made flesh.

I do believe that Santorum has benefitted significantly by being outside of the main cross-fire of attacks between Romney and Gingrich. That may end right now. Is there some point at which Romney’s willingness to go negative against anyone who dares to raise their head in the race will start to become yet another element of his likeability problem? Of course, the big attacks will come from the super PAC and Romney will disclaim direct responsibility. At some point will that gag lose its humor?

Point 4
Tim Pawlenty endorsed Romney and worked pretty hard for him in Minnesota. Didn’t seem to do much good. Pawlenty and Romney are really pretty similar in the way they can shape-shift between their moderate and their conservative modes. I have long thought that Santorum (along with Michele Bachmann) fared best on the conservative purity tests (assuming we accept a definition of conservatism different from the Ron Paul libertarian brand). Yesterday’s result is further proof that the historical Stassen-Durenberger-Carlson brand of Minnesota moderate Republicanism is — well — historical.

Point 5
In fact (following on Point 4), when Romney did so well in Minnesota’s 2008 caucuses, he was running as the conservative alternative to the too-moderate John McCain. Now McCain supports Romney and they both look like flaming moderates to the latest edition of Minnesota Republicanism, which keeps moving right.

Point 6
Newt Gingrich insists that he is in the race all the way to the convention. The conventional wisdom is that he will stay in at least until the April 3 Texas primary. Experience suggests that any and all statements by a candidate along these lines should be taken with huge doses of salt. Gingrich is very ambitious, has always wanted to be president, and this is his last chance. But if, as sometimes suggested, he has been motivated substantially by a thirst for revenge since he was on the receiving end of the pre-Iowa Team Romney carpet bombing, there is an alternative logic suggesting that he should get out soon in favor of Santorum. Certainly nothing that happened last night would encourage him to believe that his own chances for the nomination are growing.

Point 7
Santorum has no money. Of course, he has never had any and has gotten this far. But Michigan and Arizona are both big states (Michigan ranks 8th in population, Arizona 16th) and both primary states where advertising plays big and costs a fortune. Suffice to say, Romney will have all the money he needs to get his message out and up and over and around. (This is out-of-date, of course, but according to the New York Times money tracker, as of the Jan. 1 reporting deadlines, Team Romney had out-raised Team Santorum by $52 million to $2 million.) Lots of candidates (most recently Rick Perry) have demonstrated that having a big war-chest doesn’t guarantee success. But no one in recent history has won a major party nomination without a big war-chest. 

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