Bold prediction for tonight's primaries: competence

Why “competence”?  Today will be the first primary conducted in a month, and a temporary end to a series of caucuses that left figurative egg on the faces of state Republican parties.  In today’s column for The Week, I look back at the series of embarrassing stumbles in the nomination process from caucus states, and ask why either party would tolerate such an anachronistic system for something as important as a presidential nomination:

Thanks to their high-tech practice of counting ballots by hand in each precinct and writing down the results on scraps of paper, it took until the wee hours of the morning before the Republican Party of Iowa declared Mitt Romney the winner by eight votes over a surprisingly strong Rick Santorum. But Santorum’s strength was even more surprising than the Iowa GOP calculated. Figures from a few precincts had been written down incorrectly. Two weeks later, Iowa got around to finally declaring that Santorum and not Romney had won the Iowa caucuses, long after the New Hampshire primary results had been certified, making a joke of Iowa’s insistence on going first in the nomination process.

The next caucus took place in Nevada, and disaster followed Republicans into the Silver State. The best that can be said about Nevada’s caucus process was that it took them much less time to figure out who won, but the actual results didn’t get published for two days. Veteran Nevada political reporter Jon Ralston reported on the “chaos” in the Las Vegas caucus location, and said that the process made “the Keystone Kops look like the Mossad” …

The caucuses in Minnesota and Colorado passed with relatively little controversy or trouble, but Maine provided the nadir of the caucus model thus far. First, Maine’s caucuses lasted an entire week, not just a few hours on a single day. No one knows exactly why it takes Maine a week to caucus when the state manages to vote in general elections in a single day. But regardless, when it came time to count the votes, Republicans in Maine managed to make Iowa look efficient. Six days after the conclusion of the caucuses, the GOP chair admitted that the party missed a number of precinct tallies because they ended up in the spam folder of an email account. Romney ended up (barely) winning the Maine caucuses over Ron Paul, but Paul supporters are still angry over the vote-counting failure. …

All of this prompts the question as to why states use the caucus model at all. Caucuses are a throwback to 19th-century politicking, before the days of the “Australian ballot” reform that led to voting privacy and better control of elections by the states. By the early 20th century, political reformers in many states had moved the vote-casting and vote-counting functions of nominating contests to the widely-accepted voting systems, where the votes could be counted by the state government rather than party leaders. While some may complain that even the state ballot system has its problems, as Florida proved in 2000 and Minnesota in 2008, disruptions in the voting and counting process are rare rather than systemic. Instead of creating Keystone Kops scenarios, parties can rely on existing, modern infrastructure to reliably tally the votes for each candidate.

Polls close in both states at 9 pm ET tonight.  Thanks to the use of existing voting infrastructure, we should get a pretty good idea within a couple of hours how Michigan goes, and probably will know for sure about Arizona within an hour.  Compare that to the messes in Iowa, Maine, and Nevada, where it took days or weeks to get solid vote totals — and except for Nevada, for no delegates at all anyway. By tomorrow morning, we’ll know who won both states, and we won’t be hearing about botched vote totals, e-mail spam captures, or any other amateurish stumbles on the grandest political stage possible.

CNN asked me to analyze the impact of Michigan for Mitt Romney in today’s vote, and while it’s not exactly a make-or-break moment, a loss here would be difficult for Romney to absorb:

Going into Michigan, Romney had a home-field advantage, a large edge in fundraising, and most definitely an overwhelming lead in advertising.  Santorum helped Romney out six days ago in the CNN debate with a mediocre, defensive performance resulting from constant attacks by Romney during the event.  If Romney is truly both inevitable and the most electable candidate in the field, those advantages should have been decisive.  Instead, surveys from Public Policy Polling show a rebound for Santorum in the last 48 hours, and the numbers indicate a narrow Santorum victory if that momentum continues.

Even Romney seems to recognize that a Michigan loss complicates his sales pitch.  Earlier today, Romney allowed that “the candidate sometimes makes mistakes,” and that “this isn’t going to be over in a day or two.”  That sounds like a candidate attempting to manage expectations downward on a primary day – although it should be noted that Santorum’s team was singing a similar tune over the weekend.

Calling Michigan a “make-or-break state” for Romney might be an overstatement, but not by much.  He obviously has the resources to go the distance in the nomination fight, a status that his competitors may not share at the moment.  Romney will win states on Super Tuesday next week, too.  However, a loss in his native state after five years of campaigning and planning will damage Romney’s argument for competence and electability, and breathe more life into the Santorum campaign after a week in which Romney should have delivered a knockout blow. In this case, the impact goes beyond the delegate allocation.

CNN didn’t ask me about Rick Santorum’s position in Michigan, but I’d say it’s perhaps more important for Santorum to win.  A close second place won’t win Santorum any momentum, not after building large leads before the last debate and raising expectations for a big win in Michigan.  He needs to show he can beat Romney in primaries that matter for delegate counts, and even though Santorum is guaranteed to get a good chunk of Michigan’s delegates either way, having the victory in hand only to have it slip away will undermine confidence in his ability to close the deal.  A loss isn’t necessarily fatal, as Santorum will win Oklahoma next week and still leads in Ohio, but it won’t help him make up ground against Romney in a tough Super Tuesday week.

For the record, I’ll predict a 20-point win in Arizona for Romney, and a close two-point win for Santorum in Michigan.  I’ll be on the air tonight with Jack Riccardi in San Antonio and Hugh Hewitt nationally as the returns come in, so be sure to join me on both programs.