Richie: Michigan Primary: Winning Isn’t Everything (and Not the Only Thing)

Here’s a guest post from Rob Richie of Fairvote, making an important observation:

The Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza wrote last night that “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 yesterday boosted his campaign, but Cillizza overstates their significance. In a nomination contest that may easily end up being all about convention delegates, the results were more divided. Rick Santorum has likely won half of Michigan’s voting delegates, and Romney’s Arizona delegate sweep faces a challenge at the convention due to the Arizona GOP’s flagrant violation of RNC rules.

In Michigan, Romney won the state vote by just under 3%. But winning doesn’t necessarily forecast future outcomes – consider the post-Iowa momentum shifts of Romney winning New Hampshire, Gingrich South Carolina, Romney Florida, Santorum’s three state sweep of February 7th and now Romney’s return. More to the point, Michigan’s voting delegates were allocated primarily by congressional district, not the statewide result. Although the Secretary of State bizarrely reports primary results according to Michigan’s old congressional district map, Michigan’s GOP instead uses results in the state’s 14 new districts. Santorum and Romney each have relatively secure leads in 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. Although additional delegates will be awarded to Romney and Santorum based on their proportion of the statewide vote, only two statewide delegates will vote in Tampa. Romney forces maintain they’ll get both delegates, but Santorum backers argue for one each. Michigan ultimately seems likely to have 15 voting delegates each for Romney and Santorum – and Santorum would have won an 17-13 edge if he had won all the votes cast for withdrawn candidates like Bachmann, Cain and Perry and overcome Romney’s 0.8% edge.

Meanwhile, Arizona has 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.

I see two key lessons here. 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 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 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.

Onto Super Tuesday and, quite possibly, state wins by all four remaining candidates.

–Rob Richie

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