Mitt Romney had a big night Tuesday — with victories in two states over insurgent Rick Santorum, thereby increasing his margin over Santorum by ... six delegates?
As improbable as it might seem, the combination of Michigan's delegate allocation rule and Arizona's rule-violating winner-take-all contest could mean that Romney's twin victories provide him little ultimate benefit — and highlight again the dual-track GOP primary campaign season.
The first is the momentum-media-splash-scare-campaign-donors-away-from-your-opponents track, which has been the usual method for sewing up a nomination in both parties in recent years (the Obama-Clinton race of 2008 has been the notable exception).
On a parallel track, for as long as it takes until the front-runner succeeds on the first track, is the collecting-enough-delegates-to-clinch-the-nomination path.
And that is where Romney's victories amounted to less than met the eye Tuesday, maybe a lot less.
First, Michigan. Like many states, Michigan allocates its delegates by congressional district. The winner in each of the 14 districts gets two delegates. As it happened, Romney won statewide on the strength of relatively lopsided victories in seven districts, while Santorum had on average narrower wins in the other seven.
The result: Santorum and Romney played the delegate match in Michigan to a tie, 15-15, after he and Romney split the two delegates awarded statewide.
And then there is Arizona. That state advertised a winner-take-all primary and awarded its 29 delegates to Romney. But that format violates the Republican National Committee prohibition against such events prior to April 1.
So Arizona is in the same boat as Florida, which also awarded its 50 delegates winner-take-all (also to Romney) on Jan. 31. Both state delegations face a possible challenge at the summer convention. If the delegate count still matters then, both states' delegates could be reallocated by the Committee on Contests.
In the case of Arizona, should the Contest Committee reallocate the 29 delegates strictly proportionally, Romney's shutout there Tuesday night would shrink to a six-delegate margin over second-place finisher Santorum. Combined with the tie in Michigan, that would result in a net six-delegate pickup for Romney. (Romney still leads in the overall delegate race with 117 to Santorum's 18 — a long way from the 1,144 needed to win the nomination.)
Not exactly the triumph suggested by those "one-two punch" headlines.
S.V. Dáte is the NPR Washington Desk's congressional editor