03/07/2012 08:43 am ET Updated May 07, 2012

Super Tuesday Is Not Enough to End GOP Nomination Contest

This post was largely written before Super Tuesday's results, but is prophetic. The 10 contests on Super Tuesday represented a very good day for Mitt Romney in winning delegates, but were far from decisive -- with particulars of concern for his campaign ranging from losing by more than 20% to Ron Paul among voters under 45 in Virginia to getting barely a quarter of the vote in Tennessee despite a heavy investment in spending there. Let the contest continue!

After primaries in Michigan and Arizona last week, the Washington Post's Chris Cillizza wrote , "In politics, winning isn't everything, it's the only thing. The score sheet only shows 'W's' and 'L's'.... When we look back in the history books, all it will say is that Romney won Michigan and Arizona."

To be sure, Mitt Romney's wins boosted his campaign, but Cillizza overstates their significance -- just as influential pundits have done after every new primary or caucus this year in their unseemly rush to end the nomination contest before most states vote.

But voters keep getting in their way -- and that's okay. The longer the nomination contest goes, the more states and voters get to participate in what amounts to an unfolding national primary. And while insiders may grumble that big money hasn't already gotten its way and prematurely ended the contest, I suspect this summer the conventional wisdom will change -- that having more meaning contests did not hurt the Republicans, but in fact forced its nominee to truly earn the nomination. Certainly that helped Barack Obama in 2008, particular in his surprise November wins in states like Indiana and North Carolina.

Last week provides a good example of what's really going in these state contests that's a lot more than wins and losses. In a nomination battle that may easily end up being all about convention delegates, the results were more divided than just two wins for Romney. Rick Santorum won nearly half of Michigan's voting delegates, and Romney's Arizona delegate sweep face a near-certain challenge at the convention due to the Arizona GOP's flagrant violation of RNC rules.

While Romney won Michigan's popular vote by 3%, that victory doesn't necessarily forecast future outcomes. Republican voters have been checking apparent momentum all year. Consider the post-Iowa momentum shifts. Romney won New Hampshire, followed by Gingrich winning South Carolina, Romney taking Florida, Santorum sweeping three states on February 7th and then Romney's recent wins.

More to the point, for the real contest, Michigan's voting delegates were allocated primarily by outcomes in congressional districts, not by the statewide result. Although the Secretary of State oddly reported primary results according to Michigan's old congressional district map, Michigan's GOP instead used results in the state's 14 new districts. Santorum and Romney each won seven districts.

Because Michigan violated party rules by voting in February, the RNC stripped half of its convention delegates. Each district winner earns two voting delegates in Tampa and one nonvoting delegate. Additional delegates were awarded to Romney and Santorum based on their proportion of the statewide vote, but only two statewide delegates will vote in Tampa. Romney forces in the party voted for Romney to get both delegates, but that will be challenged. Ultimately, Michigan will end up with either a 16-14 edge for Romney in delegates or a 15-15 split. (And, as a notable aside, Santorum would have won an 17-13 edge if he had earned all the votes cast for withdrawn candidates like Bachmann, Cain and Perry in one close congressional district.)

Meanwhile, Arizona joined Florida in violating the crystal clear RNC prohibition against winner-take-all allocation of delegates in contests held before April 1st. The RNC has left penalizing states for this infraction to the convention's credentials committee, and if the race stays close or the delegate leader is seen as a weak nominee, expect fireworks -- and potentially many delegates voting their conscience, as I've argued in POLITICO is permitted under RNC rules.

I see two particularly lessons from recent contests that should both be relevant on Super Tuesday night as well.

First, pundits should calm down about order of finish in particular states. Let this contest unfold, give more voters a chance to participate and have the eventual nominee prove his mettle under fire, as clearly helped Democrats in 2008 despite similar grumbling from Democratic insiders early on.

Second, congressional district outcomes don't necessarily reflect popular vote outcomes --something the nation may discuss much more if Pennsylvania Republicans revive their problematic proposal to allocate electors based on congressional district. Certainly, allocating delegates by district is not "proportional representation" -- a term wrongly applied to a wide array of state rules this year.

Given these states rules, for the media to talk only about popular vote outcomes in states is as savvy as talking about the 2000 presidential election as if it were won by Al Gore. Just as electors in the Electoral College were decisive in 2000 rather than the national popular vote, delegates are what counts in presidential nomination contests.

Every candidate had something they could claim as a positive on Super Tuesday. The contest for the nomination isn't over -- which is good news for voters in remaining states wanting to help pick their party's nominee.

This commentary is adapted from a post written for Rick Hasen's Election Law Blog. Find out more at FairVote's primary resources, including delegate allocation rules for all states, rules about who can vote in states and new twists on how to understand the results to date.