For the first time since Iowa, we are entering a primary/caucus night without having a pretty good idea who will win.
And some people are arguing that today’s contests don’t matter?
So as you prepare to watch the results tonight from the Colorado and Minnesota caucuses and the Missouri primary (we’ll be live-blogging!), here are a few things to watch for…
1. How many states does Santorum win?
Everything else you see below will be based on this one piece of news.
Polling shows Rick Santorum is the favorite to win in both Minnesota and Missouri, while Mitt Romney is favored in Colorado.
If Santorum can win two states, he can argue that the likely nominee Romney isn’t such a shoo-in, and the Romney campaign will have some explaining to do. Romney’s team, to its credit, has done a deft job of setting expectations.
If Santorum wins one of the two states, it’s more of a mixed bag. If he wins Missouri, he can argue that he can beat Romney in a head-to-head matchup (Newt Gingrich isn’t on the ballot). If he wins Minnesota, he can argue that this was a state Romney carried handily in 2008.
2. Who wins the spin wars?
Yes, we get it: There aren’t actually any delegates at stake tonight. As FixRachel explained earlier today, the only real effect on delegates that will come out of today’s contests is in Colorado, where delegates are “honor-bound” to support the same candidate they voted for at the caucuses.
But that doesn’t mean these contests don’t matter. In fact, there are precisely as many delegates at stake tonight as there were in the Iowa caucuses (zero).
Presidential races are about momentum, and while tonight’s contests won’t technically determine who gets how many delegates, they will have some say over who is perceived as how much of a frontrunner and who has momentum. And until this race actually becomes a drawn-out delegate race, that’s what matters.
But even if we treated these states like regular, delegate-binding contests, there are a few things working against their relevance to this process.
First, turnout is expected to be very low in all three states. Second, given how close the contests lie to Nevada’s caucuses just three days ago, there hasn’t been much invested in them. Third, Missouri’s primary is a pure beauty contest; the state’s caucuses next month are the real ticket. And fourth, Minnesota and Missouri both border Iowa, which was obviously Santorum’s best state so far.
Look for all of these arguments to be made if Santorum wins a state or two.
Romney’s team has a much more formidable communications operation, but sometimes even the best campaign loses a spin war.
3. Don’t forget the other guys
Colorado and Minnesota, in particular, offer Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) a good chance to bounce back from a disappointing third-place showing in Nevada.
And Gingrich is still in the hunt in Minnesota.
If one or both of them can edge Romney in Minnesota, along with Santorum, it would be an even bigger embarrassment for the former Massachusetts governor.
For Gingrich, it’s about staying relevant in the process and not reverting to performances like he had in Iowa and New Hampshire, when he was in single digits.
4. What’s turnout like?
While turnout was up from four years ago in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, it has dropped significantly in the last two states — Florida and Nevada — which were the first states to hold primaries where independents couldn’t vote.
If that trend persists, we are going to be talking more and more about a Republican enthusiasm gap.
It’s a troubling storyline for the GOP. We don’t have enough data to draw broad conclusions yet, but it’s heading in that direction.