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Saturday, March 03, 2012

Washington Caucus Preview

Today's Washington Caucus serves as a sort of preview of Super Tuesday. Coming into this past week, Rick Santorum desperately clung onto his remaining momentum. Once on top of Michigan and national polls by double-digits, Santorum's leads evaporated heading into the February 28 contests as he ran neck-and-neck with Mitt Romney. As we now know, Romney won Michigan (and Arizona and Wyoming), and the effects of those wins are seen in the most recently released polls.

If you still don't believe me that Michigan meant every bit as much to Santorum as it did to Romney, the following polls should change your mind. Nationally, Rick Santorum went from holding a 12-point lead in mid-February to a 2-point lead in the last poll taken before the February 28 primaries. Winning Michigan was imperative in slowing that slide. Then, however, he lost Michigan and the other two states. The effects? The two most recent national polls now have him down 12 and 16 points. That's a 25-point fall in about two weeks. Does anyone really think Mitt Romney would be down 16 points nationally if he lost Michigan but won two other states? Not a chance.

Moreover, though there aren't many, let's take a closer look at the Washington polls for today's Washington caucuses. On February 19, Santorum had an 11-point lead. But after his February 28 losses? He's down 5. (If you're curious, the latest poll--from PPP--has Romney 37, Santorum 32, Paul 16, and Gingrich 13. Paul and Gingrich's numbers are relatively unmoved since the February 19 poll.) Perhaps even direr for the Santorum Campaign (yeah, I couldn't believe it wasn't "more dire," either, but I am looking forward to using "direst" after looking all this up) are the polls from the Super Tuesday state getting the most attention--Ohio--which many think is Santorum's last chance to make this a competitive primary beyond March 6. Santorum had an 18-point lead on February 15, which was down to an 11-point lead by February 26. Then Arizona, Wyoming, and Michigan happened. In a Quinnipiac poll taken from February 29 to March 1, his lead fell to 4. In a Rasmussen poll taken solely on the first of March, Santorum's lead has all but evaporated, now reading him with a 2-point lead, well within the margin of error. (Meanwhile, in the last five polls, Gingrich holds in the mid-teens with Paul just a tick above 10.)

There's a lesson here, one I've been trying to explain for the entire primary season. You win a contest in one state, your polls benefit in another. It doesn't matter if it's home states or faraway ones. It doesn't matter if the win is in Maine and the next contest is in Arizona. Wins bring money, momentum, and polling bumps. Santorum's sweep on February 7 was a great example. Romney's on the 28th just reinforces what we already knew.

So how is this a "preview a Super Tuesday," as I claimed in this post's opening line? It's because Santorum still has a viable path to victory. Even with Santorum hemorrhaging what's left of his momentum, what if he can win Washington today? Being down 5 is not an impossible deficit to overcome if one has the more ravenous base. It's one state to focus on, moreover, which can be more easily managed by someone who has a disadvantage in funds. If Santorum does win today, we'll see momentum and money tip back to Santorum. This turn of events, of course, would be hugely significant ahead of Super Tuesday, held only three days from now.

Remember, Mitt Romney still has two enormous problems. 1) The base has yet to dub him inevitable. It'll happen eventually, as they'll want to take down President Obama in November, but they're waiting as long as possible before anointing the "Massachusetts Moderate." 2) The media desperately wants this race to continue. Nearly every headline and article about the horserace favors Santorum's pleas and pluck, while diminishing the value of Romney's wins and strengths. Thus, if Santorum wins Washington, it will be three days of Santorum spin just for winning the one state, when not five days earlier, Romney won three and got relatively little positive play in the media. Today's caucuses, therefore, could serve as a preview of Super Tuesday because it will show if Santorum has a decent shot at hanging close to Romney on the big day, or if we're just playing out the string of a decided nomination.

Incidentally, today's caucuses don't technically award any delegates. Much like Iowa, Colorado, Minnesota, and Missouri, today's caucuses are large straw polls with no binding power. Of course, that won't stop many news outlets from using the caucuses as a barometer, and CNN, for example, is on record as saying it will use today's results in its delegate estimations.

With tonight's Washington results under our belt, we'll finally be able to take a clear look at the Super Duper Colossal Can't Wait Tuesday. See you tomorrow when we begin a massive three-day preview for the day that should, but might not, decide the nominee.

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