Tonight — or, more likely, early tomorrow morning — weeks of campaigning in Michigan will finally culminate with a victory for either Rick Santorum or Mitt Romney, who are essentially deadlocked in the polls. But in the world of politics, a win is never just a win. When reporters/bloggers/pundits discuss the election results tomorrow, the margin of victory, and how it compares to the expectations going into the primary, is what will shape the race's new narrative. Here's what we expect the conventional wisdom to sound like based on various outcomes.
Romney Wins By 5 points or more: Looks like everyone got all worked up about Santorum for nothing! Romney is once again "inevitable," at least for the duration of his victory bounce, a.k.a. the rest of the week.
Romney Wins By 2 to 5 Points: Sure, Romney won, but it was never supposed to be this close. This is Mitt Romney's home turf, after all, or at least one of his four or five home turfs. He constantly reminded voters of this by mentioning the height of the trees like some kind of insane-asylum escapee. Romney is still the odds-on favorite, but it's going to be a struggle.
Romney Wins By Less Than 2 Points: Technically a Romney win, but for all intents and purposes, a tie. If Romney had to expend this much money and effort just to eke out a victory against the relatively penniless Rick Santorum, he's in big trouble. What's going to happen on Super Tuesday, when Romney will not only have to compete against Santorum in nine states simultaneously (Santorum didn't make the ballot in Virginia), but in many cases, as John Heilemann points out in the magazine this week, states that are already inhospitable territory for him because of their highly evangelical populations and/or caucus systems?
Santorum Wins By Less Than 2 Points: A huge upset victory that seriously calls into question Romney's viability going forward. When will he fire someone? Santorum, for his part, is real, and he is spectacular(ly insane in ways pleasing to the GOP base).
Santorum Wins By 2 to 5 Points: An unbelievable, breathtaking, the-band-is-on-the-field upset victory by Santorum. Romney needs to drastically rethink his campaign/upgrade his software ASAP if he plans on winning this nomination. When will he fire everyone?
Santorum Wins By 5 Points or More: The people have spoken, and their message is clear: They want a brokered convention in which a person not named Romney or Santorum is parachuted in and handed the nomination. Mitch Daniels, Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, and Paul Ryan have already been pressured over the phone, to no avail. After this, it's only a matter of time before GOP establishment SWAT teams storm their homes and take their families hostage.