Scorekeeping the Republican nomination, and the national media – tonight’s results

The one and only car race I ever attended, at Texas Motor Speedway, ended up being a total cluster-eff.

Apparently the race officials lost track of the number of laps run. As a result, the driver who thought he’d won drove into the winner’s circle, only to be followed by the next driver across the finish line whose crew had tabulated laps independently of race officials and thought he’d won instead, due to the fact that the first guy across the finish line had apparently been lapped hours before by the second guy. That’s when the two drivers promptly got into a fistfight, which of course to me was the most entertaining part of the race. Race officials had to consult whatever such race officials consult, then were forced to admit they’d checker flagged the wrong car, and declared a different winner.

That situation may be a close parallel to reporting the results of tonight’s Republican Presidential primary tonight, with returns coming in from Arizona and Michigan – and perhaps more importantly, how national media score the results.

In fact, despite everything you’ve heard to the contrary, Mitt Romney has probably already won the night handily, unless he confounds pollsters and fails to win in Arizona. But the Presidential campaigns are so sure that Romney has won Arizona that all those campaigns broke camp and left the state forever as soon as last week’s debate in Mesa was over.

But the fact is, if everybody’s right and Romney wins Arizona as expected, but narrowly loses Michigan which is a toss-up, Romney is still a huge winner tonight by the measure that really counts: delegates.

The possible disconnect: I wonder if it will be reported that way by national news organizations, who tend toward the more interesting, and more squishy measure: momentum.

Here’s the deal: Arizona, with 29 delegates, is a winner-take-all state. Michigan, with only one more delegate, will allocate its 30 delegates proportionally, based on the winner in each congressional district.

Here’s the math: Assume Romney carries Arizona. Over in Michigan, whether he wins or loses, in a closely-divided (by congressional district) outcome, he’ll split that state’s delegates. So even if Romney has a “bad” night and “loses” Michigan, he’ll net 40-43ish delegates to Santorum’s net 16-19ish delegates tonight, even as Santorum is claiming “victory.”

For Santorum to have a real victory, he must confound all the pollsters and beat Romney in Arizona, which would reverse the above delegate math to Santorum’s advantage. It would certainly surprise Arizona Republicans, however.

Will the national media accurately characterize the results that way – that Romney wins the night, despite a narrow loss in Michigan? Or will they ignore the delegate math, play the expectations game, and talk about “Santorum’s surprising momentum?”

The media characterization may well be more important than the actual results tonight, because tonight’s results will be the run-up to next Tuesday’s big show, in which ten states will weigh in. Those states include Gingrich’s home state of Georgia with 76 delegates, the battleground of Ohio with 66 delegates, and Tennessee and Virginia with 58 and 50 delegates, respectively.

Throat-clearing season is over, folks; the real discussion has begun. We’ll find out tonight which driver the national media steers into the winner’s circle.

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