Mitt Romney has won the Nevada caucuses, but it really shouldn’t mean much.
He was the only candidate –besides Ron Paul — to sink significant time and money into the state, where he enjoyed at least one built-in advantage, thanks to Nevada’s sizable Mormon population.
The Romney campaign will now talk up the victory as another “gold medal.” And he campaign will point out that their candidate has now won three early contests (Wyoming and Michigan were the others) and will proclaim that the G.O.P. race is really about delegates — meaning that Romney, with a string of first- and second-place showings, is in good shape.
These claims are somewhat problematic, though. The early contests on both sides are about momentum, not delegates. History shows that the first series of contests, in both parties, serves to winnow the field and produce a front-runner, who then gobbles up delegates in the later contests. Winning small states that no other candidates seriously contest — as is the case for Romney in Nevada and Wyoming — doesn’t mean a lot.
In the early going, candidates are generally allowed to pick their fights. For instance, Fred Thompson has long-maintained that he would make his stand in South Carolina and that the states that precede it don’t matter to him. The strategy may seem ridiculous, but the media has refused to declare him dead — even after barely registering in the early states — until the South Carolina results are in. If he doesn’t post a strong showing, he will be officially written off. The same is true for Rudy Giuliani in Florida, and the same was true for John McCain in New Hampshire.
Originally, Romney identified Iowa and New Hampshire as his “statement” venues. He’d post wins in the lead-off states, become the front-runner, and then watch the later states fall like dominos. But he flunked his own test, finishing second in both states. Only then did his campaign start talking about delegates and silver and gold medals.
Romney’s goal today is to preserve the burst of momentum he received from his Michigan victory to stay viable for Florida, which will vote on January 29. So his campaign is playing up Nevada and downplaying expectations in South Carolina.
He can do better by exceeding expectations in South Carolina tonight, a state that has been vigorously contested by most of the G.O.P. field. If so, it would be a meaningful development for Romney. But winning Nevada, where his main competition was Ron Paul, proves little.