The polls in Missouri’s “beauty contest” primary close at 8 p.m. ET, right as the Minnesota caucuses get going. Colorado’s caucuses will start an hour later. Here’s your thread to follow the returns as they roll in. No delegates at stake tonight, but this is probably Santorum’s last chance to breeze past Newt as the race’s designated Not Romney. Read Ed’s post on the latest PPP numbers if you missed it this morning: He’s up by 13 points in Missouri (where Gingrich isn’t on the ballot) and by nine in Minnesota. If he wins both easily, then he gets a bunch of positive media coverage this week and maybe a few more big-name conservative endorsements, which in turn could mean enough movement in the polls to put him on at least an equal footing with Gingrich. Once that happens, the pressure will shift to Newt to explain why he should stay in and divide the conservative vote on the strength of having won one state while Santorum should drop out after having won three. Is that enough to get Gingrich to quit? Why … no, but it’ll make an increasingly dull primary interesting again until Super Tuesday.
In the interest of equal time, Nate Silver is bullish on what this all means for Santorum:
The results, nevertheless, will provide an important test of how robust Mitt Romney’s coalition is on less favorable terrain than in states like New Hampshire or Nevada. And they could potentially revitalize the campaign of one of Mr. Romney’s opponents, Rick Santorum.
Nor should one go too far in dismissing the results. The process that Minnesota and Colorado use, holding separate votes for presidential preference and delegate selection at their caucuses, is essentially the same one that was used in Iowa. Missouri is a more debatable case, but as the first primary of any kind held in the Midwest — perhaps Mr. Romney’s weakest region — it may tell us something about how states like Michigan and Ohio are likely to vote when they hold key primaries on Feb. 28 and March 6, respectively.
Here’s the handy dandy Google Elections page for results. To toggle between Colorado, Missouri, and Minnesota, just use the “Showing results for” menu on the upper right. While we wait, two dumb clips to entertain you — one of Obama learning how a marshmallow cannon works and the other of Newt finally lapsing into tongues from his rage at Romney. Stay tuned for updates.
Update: At 9:45 ET, multiple networks are calling Missouri for Santorum. He’s up by almost 30 points with 40 percent reporting as I write this. Still early in Missouri and Colorado, though.
Update: At 10:20 ET, NBC calls Minnesota for Santorum too. And no wonder: As I write this, he’s leading there by 17 points over … Ron Paul. (Gingrich is dead last, incidentally.) Can he sweep by winning Colorado too? Romney won big there in 2008, but with nearly eight percent of precincts reporting, Santorum’s out to an almost 30-point lead. Stand by for possible declaration of Santorumania.