02/28/2012 08:31 am ET Updated Feb 28, 2012

Michigan, Arizona Primaries: A Cresting Wave Of Panic And Hype Make Tonight's Contests Pivotal

Months ago, I doubt that there were many people who believed that tonight's February primaries in Arizona and Michigan were going to be all that pivotal. Depending on how far back you go, this wasn't even supposed to be a race -- let's recall that when Florida moved their primary up into the early part of the season, state officials had the notion that they might be the kingmaker. Barring that, of course, the path between the January contests and Super Tuesday featured caucuses in Nevada and Colorado, and a primary in Michigan, and Romney was surely going to win those, right?

It hasn't worked out that way. Rick Santorum was not supposed to best Romney in Colorado, and he was certainly not supposed to be remotely competitive in Michigan, (one of) Romney's (seemingly inexhaustible supply of) home state(s). But former Sen. Santorum (R-Pa.) has done both, and so what would have normally been a relatively non-notable pair of contests has somehow become the pivotal event that will likely decide who storms into Super Tuesday with a head of steam, and who comes in stumbling. As Steve Kornacki notes: "How the political world interprets" tonight's result "may be the key to where the GOP race goes after Michigan."

And that's where I'm going to stop for a moment. Because if there's one thing that tonight's contests will demonstrate, besides what candidate has the "momentum," it's that the capacity to overhype and overinterpret tonight's results could not be higher. In every real sense, the potential for the Arizona and Michigan primaries to really determine the winner of the election is extremely low. But depending on what happens, it could touch off what amounts to a prolonged period of screaming meemie hysteria and panicked ravings about the need for a new candidate.

Kornacki is absolutely right when he says that everything really depends on how the "political world" -- by which he means reporters, pundits, consultants, strategists, and surrogates -- "interpret" tonight's results. But there's an excellent chance that their interpretation will be primarily founded on complete bullshit.

Let's begin with practical matters. There's only one way to win the GOP nomination and that is to receive, through the primary process, 1,144 delegates. As of right now, Mitt Romney has approximately 123 delegates, Santorum has approximately 72, Newt Gingrich has approximately 32, and Ron Paul has approximately 19. (I am very carefully saying "approximately" because the truth is, we don't actually know how many delegates have been won by what candidate in the states that have held non-binding caucuses.) How many delegates are at stake in tonight's supposedly pivotal contests? A whopping 59! Which means if Mitt Romney takes all of them, he'll need just under a thousand more to win the nomination.

But Romney's not going to win all 59. Barring some sort of miracle, he will claim the 29 delegates from Arizona. Arizona is a winner-take-all state, and outside of travelling to Mesa to compete in a debate a week ago, none of Romney's rivals have put any serious effort into winning the state. They've essentially conceded those delegates to Romney's high-powered money machine, and have instead set their sights on Michigan, which parcels out its 30 delegates among the competitors, depending on how many votes they get and where they get them.

Now Tuesday, Michiganders are going to vote at their polling places and then the polls are going to close and then the votes are going to be counted and then at some point tomorrow night someone will come on teevee and declare that someone has "won" Michigan. When they say that, they'll be referring to whoever takes home the larger share of the statewide vote. And whoever gets declared the "winner" will surely make a speech attesting to their great victory. And how many of Michigan's 30 delegates will the statewide "winner" claim as a result of their statewide win?



Here's where we have to refer to what Michigan decided to do after getting penalized by the RNC for moving their primary. As Josh Putnam explains, Michigan typically has 59 delegates to award, and the usual way they are awarded is that the winner of each of Michigan's 14 Congressional Districts (CD) gets 3 delegates, there are 14 at-large delegates that are eligible to be claimed by anyone who receives at least 15 percent of the statewide vote, and there are three "automatic delegates" who are "free to choose whomever." After the penalty however, Michigan decided to get rid of the automatic delegates, slash the at-larges down to two, and give each CD 2 delegates. That means the bigger share of the prize is spread throughout the state.

And I say that the statewide winner may receive two delegates because according to the rules, the at-larges are assigned proportionally to everyone who manages to pull 15 percent of the statewide vote.

So when CNN flashes the lucky winner on the screen and puts a big red check next to their face with the word "WINNER," remember -- they've "won" the most insignificant share of the delegates on offer. As Putnam says, "In any event, all the attention...should be placed not on the statewide race, but on how things are progressing on the congressional district level. That is where the action will be."

But will all the attention be shifted away from the statewide race? Of course not. That is not how the political media works. The political media has to be dragged kicking and screaming into the minutiae of the primary process. Yes, yes: of course John King or Chuck Todd will do their level best to remind people of the way delegates get apportioned and will probably be mindful that it's entirely possible for Rick Santorum to lose the statewide vote but gobble up enough CDs to win the larger share. But the bottom line is that the hype machine loves that big red check next to the winner's name. And what's more, they come into tomorrow night's contests extremely mindful of...the implication.

And what do I mean by "the implication?" I am referring to the anonymous yet "prominent" GOP senator who hung the Sword of Damocles over this whole affair by telling ABC News' Jonathan Karl, “If Romney cannot win Michigan, we need a new candidate.” Knowing what we know about the number of delegates that could possibly be won by Romney tomorrow -- and he grabs half of them just by getting out of bed! -- we know that this is an absolutely ridiculous thing for this supposedly prominent GOP senator to have said. For what that senator is saying amounts to this: "If Rick Santorum wins the statewide vote in Michigan tomorrow, guaranteeing him one...maybe two delegates, then we should definitely slip into a spontaneous orgy of animal panic."

But the potential for some sort of bonkers interpretation of Tuesday's results doesn't just stand to negatively impact Romney -- it could cloud Santorum's possible success as well. Remember, one possible scenario is that Santorum narrowly loses the statewide vote to Romney but cobbles enough wins in enough CDs to take the larger share of delegates. That it, by any practical measure, a "win" for Santorum. But, in this scenario, who will leave Michigan on a cloud of hype and claimed "momentum?" Romney, of course! He was the "winner." There will be relief all around -- panic averted!...Romney's still viable! -- and no one will care about Santorum's share of the delegates.

There are just so many utterly stupid ways that the results of Tuesday's contests could be presented. Romney is definitely going to move closer to the eventual goal of 1,144 delegates, and probably by the largest incremental sliver of the field. But because some random senator made a melodramatic statement to ABC News, no one cares about that. And Santorum could make Tuesday's Michigan primary a "pivotal" moment in the campaign -- but if he wants to do so, he'll have to win in the very specific way the media decided Michigan must be won to make it "pivotal," regardless of whether he actually claims a greater share of the actual award.

So, yeah: the results of Tuesday's primaries will probably be interpreted in some titanically stupid way, and that titanically stupid interpretation could have a huge bearing on how the rest of the race goes. Enjoy!

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