Rick Santorum rising gas prices
Rick Santorum offered a unique theory to what caused the recession: rising gas prices. Reuters

Rick Santorum has secured a substantial victory in Missouri, his first win since he beat out Mitt Romney in the Iowa caucus. With 50 percent of all precincts reporting, Santorum has swept the state with 54.6 percent of the vote.

Too bad that victory won't mean much for the future of his presidential campaign.

A Much-Needed Victory

Rick Santorum has been struggling to break through in national polls since the Republican primary race became a battle of four.

His belated win in Iowa has been the only victory his campaign has managed so far, and after weeks of Ron Paul edging up in the polls, the libertarian from Texas beat him to third place at the Nevada caucus by eight percentage points, almost threatening Newt Gingrich for second.

But it's Gingrich that former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum is most wary of as a contender for the anti-Romney crown.

Ron Paul may not yet be able to challenge Romney, but there's no mistaking a sound bite from Paul for one of Gingrich's, Santorum's or Romney's, and there's certainly no chance that voters would consider the outspoken libertarian's views interchangeable with those of the other candidates.

Rick Santorum, however, has long been in the awkward place of being both the cool-and-collected one (and, therefore, comparable to Romney) and the man who markets himself as the only true conservative in the race, especially in the Southern states (making him a candidate comparable to Gingrich).

The Missouri Narrative

If Santorum cannot separate himself ideologically from the pack, which he has not yet been fully able to do, then he must secure himself a win or two to keep his candidacy relevant on the grounds of electability.

I think we need to win [on Tuesday], Santorum told CNN's John King. We need to do well.

Santorum has been polling slightly ahead in Minnesota, but that race has remained anyone's game for over a week. Colorado, meanwhile, looks to be yet another win for GOP front-runner Mitt Romney.

All that remained unknown as of election night was Missouri, and here the Santorum campaign saw a chance for a symbolic win, if not one rewarded by delegates. Missouri's 2012 nomination system comprises both a primary in February and a caucus in March, but only the caucus will have any say in the primary race.

As a result, Santorum's rivals for the Republican nomination have put little or no effort into trying to win the state. Santorum is the only candidate to have actively campaigned there. Newt Gingrich, Santorum's biggest threat in the South, didn't even enter the primary, calling the move a conscious decision to shift his attention elsewhere.

As a result, Rick Santorum cruised to victory in Missouri on Tuesday both because he was the most-visible candidate and because, with Gingrich out of the way, he had free reign to cast himself as the Republican for the South, the family-values conservative who could take down Obama and take on Mitt Romney.

That was supposed to be the narrative, anyhow. It's sure to be the one the Santorum campaign promotes in the weeks to come, regardless of the Minnesota caucus results.

Unfortunately for Rick Santorum, however, the Missouri narrative had changed by the time he won the state's symbolic primary. And that change came, in part, from the people of Missouri itself.

The 'Beauty Pageant Primary'

Rick Santorum appeared thrilled on CNN that Newt Gingrich didn't register for the Missouri primary.

I think we're going to run ahead of Speaker Gingrich, at least, obviously [in] Missouri, the presidential hopeful told John King. We feel very comfortable that we can run ahead of him.

In his view, even a delegate-less primary would still appear very positive in a race whose fron-trunner, even after months of Romney victories, even now feels like a toss-up. If the people of Missouri spoke out in favor of Santorum, then he might win delegates in other states as a result, anyhow.

Before Rick Santorum could set the stage for an essentially symbolic victory, however, news sources cast it as just that: purely symbolic.

Meaningless primary, one headline read in the week before the Missouri vote, along with articles about Santorum's lead in the beauty pageant primary.

The media's view of the Missouri primary was reflected in the coverage it received. Almost every major news network prepared live coverage the Colorado and Minnesota caucus on Tuesday. Only CNN opted to live-stream the results of the Missouri primary.

'We're having a primary that nobody's watching.'

Once the meaningless primary narrative had been set, meanwhile, many Missouri residents went along.

Not that the state was at all happy to be having the GOP event in the first place. The framing the Missouri 2012 primary as a beauty pageant began the moment the Southern state split its contribution to the Republican race in two. Tuesday's primary, which gives delegates and exists largely due to mass state and party incompetence, will cost Missouri around $7 million to $8 million.

It's a waste of taxpayers' money, a voter told NBC. It doesn't count.

Once local residents learned about how much of the country had come to view the primary, however, almost all enthusiasm for voting virtually disappeared, a phenomenon reflected in voter turnout on Tuesday.

NBC reporters noted that around 20 to 30 people on average showed up at most voting stations throughout the entire day.

It's kind of stupid, one Missouri resident told North Country Public Radio. If it's not going to count, why bother?

Jay Dow, a political scientist at the University of Missouri, feels the primary's impact will be close to nil.

It's hard to say anything [about the race] based on what happens in Missouri today, he said.

We're not even talking about it here ... We're having a primary that nobody's watching.

The Minnesota Question

I don't think [Santorum can spin this win] very much, simply because the other candidates really haven't been here, said Dow. I don't think it's going to be very easy to parlay this into something more significant.

As for whether his performance in the Missouri primary will secure him a win in the state's caucus, Dow was similarly dubious.

I really wouldn't extrapolate too much from this primary to what might happen in the caucus, he said.