There is a rush tonight to try to identify the true interpretation of the Republican electoral results. Many of them will be shared on the Internet, but this one is mine.
This wasn't the first close race. Mitt Romney has won them previously. What's different about tonight is that Rick Santorum pulled it off this time, This defied expectations, and went counter to everything I thought I knew about Team Santorum.
I conclude that the story of Tuesday night was not one of personality or of message. Instead, what happened was that the Santorum campaign proved that it has changed, and unlike before is becoming effective at turning out more voters than Team Romney, and as a result is capable of winning statewide primary elections.
This is a genuine surprise to me. I've been dismissive of the Santorum campaign because it went two months without winning a single primary. That's old news though. See this chart I've made, based on Real Clear Politics's handy chart of the state contests and their delegate results:
This is a total reversal. For the first two months of this campaign, again, Mitt Romney won all but one primary, and Santorum stayed alive by winning caucuses where he could. Now though, Santorum has turned it around. He won primaries on Super Tuesday, a day that was supposed to favor a strong national campaign, and since picked up more states after that.
It's also notable how he's won some of these states. In February, Mitt Romney had a habit of coming from behind to steal close ones. Ohio and Michigan were big wins of his that he took by beating the polls for bigger victories than expected. But look what happened on Tuesday: Not that. Instead, Rick Santorum beat the polls in tight three way races, and came out ahead. The polls had projected a Romney/Gingrich split of Mississippi and Alabama, not at all a Santorum sweep. That's a change, and a very good sign for Team Santorum.
All of a sudden, in the last two weeks, Rick Santorum has stopped being a candidate that had to win low-turnout, non-binding caucuses in order to remain at all in contention. Instead, he's duking it out in real, honest primaries, which operate much more like a general election than a caucus does. In the real, standard elections, he's standing up to the mighty Mitt Romney, and he's winning.
If this isn't a fluke, and it seems unlikely given the chart above, then Rick Santorum is proving to be a lot more electable than he seemed. His delegate deficit is substantial, and it remains to be seen how much of a dent in that gap tonight's results will make. But winning statewide at the ballot box is a path to victory that nobody can deny.
Final note: As I write this, results have not come in from the caucuses in Hawaii and American Samoa, and so they are not included in the chart or the analysis. Should Romney win both, though, then the story does not change.