Well, that's over. Operation Hilarity (or Op.Hil.) took place, and if you trust exit polls, Democrats added a net of about 3.5 points to Santorum's total. (That is, 5% of the votes were Democrats voting for Santorum and 1.5% were Dems voting for Romney. Of course, some people may have been sincere supporters. It happens.)
The other side of the ledger is harder to read: the fact and prominence of Op.Hil. may have caused more Republicans to come out for Romney, to fight off the Democrats. Or it may have caused Republicans and Independents to be more likely to vote for Santorum because they thought that it was now more likely he could win. Or it could have led people to vote for Bachmann -- think she doesn't regret dropping out by now? Imagine a Santorum with charisma! -- and the rigged vote machines all automatically transformed them to Romney votes. It's hard to tell.
All we can say for sure, pending the delegate count, is that where the popular vote is concerned Op. Hil. failed.
And, of course, it succeeded. Let's review how.
(1) Op. Hil. (may have) kept it close.
All of the above possibilities aside, the most straightforward guess as to what Op. Hil. -- and its Romney-roughing cohorts from Michael Moore to David Axelrod -- did was to add a net of about three points to Santorum's total. That takes it from about a 6-point race to a 3-point race. And that is close enough to take the wind out of Romney's sails -- this was his home state, after all (well, one of them) -- for the next week. This isn't the 8-vote margin that I longed for, but it's pretty good. It denies Romney a narrative. And the more he whines about how it should have been a 6% margin, the more unattractive he seems -- which at this point is quite an accomplishment given that he's already most of the way up that hill. If people say that Dems made a difference in the outcome, the answer is "well, maybe, but probably not." Let them chew on that.
(2) Op. Hil. substantially increased uncertainty.
What Op. Hil. did, more than anything else, is to bring the eventual outcome of the election into doubt. Most of the rest of its positive effects are a result of that. Look, Arizona didn't do much, did it? But Michigan, and the P(y)rrhic victory Romney achieved there, were never in the bag.
(3) Op. Hil. drove Romney rightward.
As a result of his fears of losing, Romney pushed ever rightward. This is going to hurt him in ways that I need not review here. Just see the last three weeks of video on him. Do you think he'd have been doing his Lonesome Cowboy routine in Ford Field if he had thought he could be in Ohio instead? His only salvation is that Santorum is really, really, really crazy -- had he been able to shut up before he got to JFK and birth control he might have beaten Romney after all.
(4) Op. Hil. drove Romney insane(r).
More than this, the prospect of losing apparently drove Romney (and his supporters) insane, leading to all sorts of great stories over the past few days about the wheels falling off of his campaign. He knew, every day, that he could lose this race -- and you could see his jaw clenched and veins pulsing as a result. This is good for us!
(5) Op. Hil. drove Romney into the red.
Romney actually had to send out a somewhat desperate fundraising appeal today about the race lasting until mid-May -- and the dork should realize that if it's going to be a race almost until Texas and California, it's probably going to be a race through Texas and California, so I don't know why he didn't say "June." The SuperPACs supporting him will be flush through November, but his campaign itself is running out of willing (or even grudging) donors. That is going to hamper him, at least in the public eye. If your only threat to people is that your big brother is going to beat them up for you, do don't exactly look like a stud.
(6) Op. Hil. detracted from Arizona.
Arizona had the same good storyline for Romney that Nevada had -- plus the ability to perform basic arithmetic functions in a timely manner. It's not the story tonight. I'm sorry that Gingrich -- again! -- didn't take my advice to contest Arizona, and maybe get Santorum's blessing to do so. Romney might have shattered into pieces. But, at any rate, thanks to Michigan's hogging the spotlight, Arizona more or less didn't even happen (except for the delegates, of course.)
(7) Op. Hil. kept Romney from focusing on Super Tuesday.
This is the real dividend. Romney is going to get spanked far and wide next week, as Santorum and Gingrich largely do divide up the territory (with a custody battle coming in Tennessee and Oklahoma) while Paul intelligently camps in Virginia. Romney is about to experience that nightmare when you walk into an exam unprepared -- and that nightmare is Ohio.
(8) Op. Hil. sapped Republican will.
You can't unscramble an egg, and the egg of Romney's inevitability was scrambled this past week even before Election Day. Pundits, hoping to hold onto their pundit cred, predicted dark fates for the Rombot; they leaked to favored reporters their senses of dread and doom. We were taking notes. Things will only get worse a week from today.
(9) Op. Hil. failed.
The most important thing that Op. Hil. did, perhaps, is fail. That's right, folks -- this was never really about nominating Santorum, though its failure does highlight how far the establishment economic core of the party will go to keep the fundies from the front seat of the car. But, my God, what if Romney had lost. The dire predictions might have come true; a white knight might have entered the race after all. Now, it's not going to happen -- at least not soon enough to get that person into primary contests. Romney is beaten, bloody, and limping -- but he's still likely to get the nomination, as he usually has been for the past year. I'd rather us run against Santorum and pop his movement like a giant pimple, but if we're going to run against Mitt, it should be after he's had a nice period of marinating in Mitt tenderizer. That's what we're getting, after Mitt's attention-draining 3% win.
(10) And, yes, it's not just Op. Hil.
I'll concede before you even say it that I'm using Op. Hil. overexpansively. But Markos was an important catalyst in getting this all to happen, even though he of course didn't do it by himself among opinion leaders. His only misstep, in my opinion, was the fundraising for something that should have been more mysterious and surreptitious -- and he recognized that pretty quickly.
So I'm happy. Am I worried about Republican retaliation? No -- the Republicans would do whatever they would do in this regard anyway. But if they do retaliate, we can just point to that 3% or so and say "yeah, but it didn't really do much, did it?" And then the argument sort of goes away.
Except, of course, that it did work -- because the bottom line wasn't really the bottom line.
Welcome to Super Tuesday week, Mitt. Too bad you were a bit late!