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Did Santorum Win Big Or Win Squat? What's A Nation To Believe?

Pity the poor news junkie, waiting bleary-eyed at the witching hour, wondering how to feel about the latest events in the Republican nominating contest.

One news source — let's say it's a cable news operation — says the latest round of GOP presidential preference contests is a huge boost to the flagging fortunes of Rick Santorum, the winner of the night's trifecta. The cable outlets all air tape of Santorum's triumphant victory speech again and again. He surely looks like a winner.

And what a great made-for-TV story it is, too. A neck-snapping turnaround for the former senator from Pennsylvania, who had peaked in Iowa five weeks ago and promptly disappeared. Lacking money and organization, he finished out of the money in New Hampshire, South Carolina, Florida and Nevada.

Now he roars back and wins big in Missouri and Minnesota, two middle-sized states that might claim to speak for the mainstream of the Midwest. Even more impressive is his narrower win in Colorado, a Western state Mitt Romney had won in 2008.

But wait! Some other news sources — not locked in the life-and-death struggle of cable news — say it was all meaningless. No delegates were chosen or committed or bound (or whatever it is they do with delegates at this stage of the game).

How can that be? It's one thing to be told at midnight that a race is too close to call. That's suspenseful, and suspense is good for keeping us all up and watching. But it's another thing entirely to be told a race, however close, is essentially meaningless. Who wants that?

And more to the point, who's right about this?

Well, both sides can claim some facts for their case. Santorum clearly dominated the results in Missouri, beating runner-up Romney by 30 percentage points in the "beauty contest" primary there. Delegates will actually be chosen by another process in mid-March, but never mind. This was clearly Santorum's night, and he might just do well in the delegate selection, too.

In Minnesota, Santorum was the guy for 45 percent of those who turned out for caucuses. He walloped second-place finisher Ron Paul by 18 percentage points. Supposed national front-runner Romney was a weak third with just 17 percent. Newt Gingrich, supposedly the main challenger to national front-runner Romney, got just about 11 percent.

Most surprising of all, Santorum built an early lead in the rural counties of Colorado and survived a Romney surge from the urban areas to prevail with just under 40 percent. Gingrich and Paul trailed with barely a dozen points each.

All that seems pretty obvious and pretty simple. Big, big night for Santorum. So, the kid stays in the picture.

In fact, if you were watching CNN, you got the impression you should be ordering your tickets for his inauguration.

OK. Take a breath. Now let's take another look at those facts.

Not only was the Missouri vote a "beauty contest," binding no delegates, but the turnout there was less than 6 percent of the voting-age population — a paltry number for a statewide primary. Moreover, Missouri's results were a bit askew because Gingrich did not get on the ballot.

In Minnesota, a state of about the same population, the party caucuses drew just over 50,000 participants (about a fifth as many as in Missouri). That was a little over 1 percent of the voting-age population. Again, no commitment of delegates.

In Colorado, again a state of roughly 5 million people, about 65,000 turned out, but that was still well below 2 percent of the voting-age population. Delegate haul? Well, zero for now.

That's not much of a plebiscite. And it could be a poor indicator of the sentiment of most Republicans and independents. What it measures instead is the ardor of that fraction of the GOP vote that is willing to turn out for a nighttime caucus where no delegates are actually being decided.

Sharp-eyed news consumers will be quick to note that the national opinion polls rarely have more than a thousand respondents or so. The really good ones may push out to 1,500 interviews.

So why is 50,000 or 65,000 somehow a lousy sample?

Simple answer: Because that sample may be anything but representative of the rest of state. The science behind polling is that the phone calls go out via random digit dialing. In theory, anyone with a phone might be called. And pollsters have gotten much better about including cellphones in their work.

In a caucus, however, like the ones in Minnesota, the people who show up are predominantly the people most passionately committed to a candidate or an issue. In Minnesota GOP caucuses, that issue is usually abortion. So this week's caucus told us less about Minnesotans' preference among candidates and more about the feelings of the anti-abortion movement.

Lacking exit or entrance polls, we cannot say for certain what issues drove the vote to Santorum this week. But it has never been a secret that Santorum was the candidate most devoted to the anti-abortion cause. He is, in some respects, its secular patron saint.

Moreover, anyone doubting the persistent potency of the abortion issue in national politics need only consider the big news stories of the past week. The few days of February to date have brought not one but two significant controversies over abortion.

One began when the Susan G. Komen charity that fights breast cancer decided to cut off funding to Planned Parenthood, which includes abortion among its services. Within days, Komen had backtracked, and its anti-abortion vice president had resigned.

The other abortion-related dust-up threatens to last much longer. It was raised when Catholic bishops and other religious authorities objected to a rule in the new federal health care law requiring religious organizations that hire people outside their faith to offer those employees health insurance plans that cover contraception, including the so-called morning-after pill.

The Komen issue briefly energized the pro-abortion rights forces. The birth-control insurance mandate on religious institutions will do the same for anti-abortion activists in the weeks and months ahead.

And for the moment, at least, that movement has another cause and a new hero in Rick Santorum. Take him seriously now, because he will be around for a while. Just don't expect to see the party nominate him in Tampa.

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