The media are poll-happy and all too eager to narrow the Republican race, declaring this or that candidate out of the running. But, as Matt Lewis pointed out, even if Mitt Romney wins tonight and in South Carolina he’ll have a grand total of 37 of the 1,144 delegates needed for the nomination. That’s not really determinative of anything, especially since there are many races beyond Florida that will be proportional.

As the Weekly Standard explained, “There’s no real uniformity to delegate allocation. New Hampshire, for example, will award its 12 delegates proportionally based on the statewide popular vote. Florida, on the other hand, will award all 50 of its delegates to [the] highest vote-getter in the state. Still other states have a hybrid system — awarding some delegates based on the congressional district vote (either proportionally or ‘winner-take-all’) and other delegates based on the statewide vote (either proportionally or ‘winner-take-all’). Some states have popular-vote thresholds that candidates must clear in order to be awarded any delegates.” In other words, winning the first two or even three contests is akin to being ahead by a field goal with 12 minutes to go in the first quarter.

That won’t stop the media tonight from declaring that some candidates are out of the running or that there is no way Romney can lose it. Even the Romney people don’t believe it. A senior Romney adviser has continually told me whenever I ask about a “wrap it up early” strategy, “We’ve always thought this would be a long process.”

You’d think the media would like to prolong the horse race as long as possible (for ratings and all), but the punditocracy’s urge to explain it to us and to provide insights is limited if all they can say is, “Well, Romney won and Perry came in last, but we don’t know if that means Romney will win it all.” How prosaic is that?

This doesn’t mean that the order of placement doesn’t matter or that you can get through the primary season without winning any contests. We’ve already seen that Rick Santorum’s success in Iowa raises his visibility and that Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s rotten showing in Iowa will depress support in New Hampshire.

But the “inevitability” mantra only works if candidates buy into it and start exiting the race. Right now, with the possible exception of Jon Huntsman, there’s no sign that any candidate would exit no matter how poorly they do in New Hampshire. This is especially so in a contest as wacky as this, where virtually everyone has gotten a shot at the lead.

The election tonight does give candidates the opportunity of addressing a wide TV audience (unless they are still counting votes at midnight). Candidates should use that time wisely, as Santorum did in Iowa.

For Romney it is a chance to reaffirm that he does believe in free markets (thanks for the boost, Newt) and that, like Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), he wants to enlarge the pie, not carve everyone’s up and reassign the pieces. He needs to show he’s more of a conviction candidate that he is given credit for. Santorum should take the chance to explain his economic vision, which is not well known, and is unique among the candidates. He’s for growth, but also for sound government policies that promote, for example, families and charitable giving. The other candidates might want to use the chance to get off the anti-Bain ledge and express that they object to Romney not because he is too conservative, but because he’s not conservative enough.

More than the polls and election returns in early states, what is significant is that actual voters are beginning the process of deciding who is a top-tier contender, who can take it to President Obama and who can articulate the vision of the Republican Party. Some (e.g. Perry) are struggling. Others dug themselves a giant hole (e.g. Gingrich). But some are just coming into their own and will have to demonstrate grace and grit under fire. Republicans, who believe in markets (sorry, Newt), should let the market work. In this case, that will take some time.