Rick Santorum has campaigned hard in Missouri, calling it a "key state" in the Republican nomination fight. With Newt Gingrich not even on the ballot, Santorum is hoping to use the contest to underscore his argument that he is the candidate best equipped to take Mitt Romney on head-to-head. Indeed, recent polls place him well ahead of Mitt Romney in Tuesday's primary.
Unfortunately for Santorum, none of this matters in the delegate count.
When Missouri Republicans go to the polls on Tuesday, their votes will count only for bragging rights. The primary is non-binding. The state's 52 delegates will instead be apportioned at a caucus on March 17. As Republican National Committee Communications Director Sean Spicer told reporters in a memo on Monday:
Missouri will hold a primary tomorrow that is not recognized as being a part of any delegate allocation or selection process. A precinct caucus will be held on 3/17/2012 to begin the process of choosing their 52 delegates which will be chosen at district conventions on April 21, 2012, and a state convention on June 2, 2012. Candidates for delegate must state a presidential preference at the time of nomination and will be bound to support that candidate for one ballot at the national convention.
The confusing system is a result of a fight between the RNC and the states. When Florida decided last year to move its primary up to Jan. 31, it created a rush of date changes by states that wanted to stay relevant in the nomination process. Missouri was one of them. In May 2011, the Missouri legislature changed state law, mandating that the primary be held on the first Tuesday after the first Monday of February, which is Feb. 7 this year.
But the RNC wanted to preserve the traditional primary calendar, telling states that they would lose half of their delegates in the final count if they moved their primaries ahead of March 6.
Stuck between state law and the national party, Missouri Republicans attempted to split the difference. Because the primary was legally necessary, they left the February contest in place. But to satisfy the RNC and avoid penalties, they moved the actual delegate selection to a newly created March caucus.
This dual system kept Missouri within the rules, but makes Tuesday's vote confusingly unimportant. Santorum may be able to generate some buzz from a victory, and his focus on the contest has given the state plenty of media attention ahead of the vote. But in practical terms, not even a double-digit win would put him mathematically closer to the nomination.
The primary will also be costly: County clerks told Jefferson City's KOMU-TV that holding the non-binding poll will run taxpayers $8 to $10 million.