The road from Mississippi and Alabama


Tuesday night’s narrow wins for Rick Santorum in Alabama and Mississippi might have shifted the primary landscape a bit.  Newt Gingrich certainly felt the ground move under his feet.  His campaign now openly describes his role as a “spoiler” designed to keep Mitt Romney from racking up enough delegates to secure the nomination before the Republican convention in Tampa.

“If you’re the front-runner and you keep coming in third, you’re not much of a front-runner,” Gingrich jeered Romney.  “The elite media’s effort to convince the nation that Mitt Romney is inevitable just collapsed.”

Santorum sees Gingrich as a spoiler too, with a significant difference of opinion about who is getting spoiled.  “I think, to be honest with you, that we’ve earned a one-on-one with Mitt Romney,” Santorum strategist John Brabender told CNN.

The New York Times quoted conservative strategist Keith Appell echoing these sentiments, saying “Santorum has demonstrated clear strength in the Midwest, West and South, and he has earned the opportunity to take on Romney in a two-man race.”

The Santorum-aligned Red, White, and Blue Fund Super PAC was even more direct: “A week ago, we called on Newt Gingrich to exit the race.  Tonight, voters in Alabama and Mississippi said the same thing.”

Santorum also called attention to his ability to defeat Romney in Alabama and Mississippi despite a three-million-dollar onslaught of negative advertising from the Romney campaign.  “He spent a whole lot of money against me for being ‘inevitable,’” Santorum observed.  This supports Santorum’s contention that the Republicans need a candidate who can perform well despite a significant funding disadvantage, since that will certainly be the scenario they face against Obama.

As for the Romney camp, well, they say Gingrich and Santorum are both a couple of spoilers, and they should stop making Romney’s inevitable victory more painful than it needs to be.  Shortly before the polls closed on Tuesday night, Romney told a CNN audience that Santorum “is at a desperate end of his campaign, and trying in some way to boost his prospects,” despite severe disadvantages in the delegate and popular vote counts.”

Romney actually won more delegates than Santorum on Tuesday night, since the awards from Alabama and Mississippi were proportional, while Romney scored victories in Hawaii and American Samoa.  He was likewise able to blunt much of Santorum’s big Kansas win over the weekend by collecting delegates elsewhere.

So who’s right?  Well, to a certain extent, they all are.  Santorum’s narrative boost from sweeping the South is tremendous, and essentially a death blow to Gingrich’s hopes of winning the nomination, outside of a brokered convention.  Romney is still building toward the magic number of delegates, but his progress has been slowed – his campaign is no longer looking for “knockout punches,” and instead speaks of needing another two months to achieve a hard-fought victory.  It’s debatable whether Gingrich hurts Romney or Santorum more by staying in the race, but if he were to drop out, it seems unlikely that all of his supporters would flock to Santorum… and even if they did, Santorum still faces an uphill battle.

The next primaries are in Missouri, Puerto Rico, Illinois, and Louisiana.  They’re all going to be tough races.  Missouri’s caucuses, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch explains, are a “chess match” that “will test the mettle, preparation, and devotion of the candidates left standing.”  To be exact, there are 142 caucuses coming over the next two weeks.  They’re long, committee-style discussions, not quick “run into a booth and pull the lever” voting frenzies.  It might take more than a month to determine the eventual winner.

Rick Santorum already won a meaningless “beauty contest” primary in Missouri, an outgrowth of the sort of struggle between the state and national Republican parties that has produced so many odd mutations during this long primary season.  It would be reasonable to suppose this earlier success will make Santorum competitive, but Romney and Paul have the kind of organization strength that counts for a lot in protracted caucuses.  In fact, the Post-Dispatch frets that “Paul has targeted caucus states as his best chance of collecting delegates,” and “in 2008, Paul supporters overwhelmed Republicans at county caucuses around Missouri” – and that was a year when the caucus meetings were a mere formality.

Illinois will be seen as the great battleground between Romney and Santorum, a fatal terrain where Romney’s “inevitability” may well be at stake.  Polls are tight, with a March 9 Chicago Tribune poll giving Romney a slender 4-point lead over Santorum, 35-31.  Gingrich pulled 12 percent in that poll, making it quite likely that he could decisively change the balance of power by dropping out of the race and endorsing Santorum. 

Also, Santorum’s momentum coming out of Mississippi and Alabama could shift the numbers in his favor.  It’s a county-by-county battleground, and Santorum is already doing very well in the more conservative rural areas, while Romney is strong in Chicago and the suburbs.  If a good deal of Romney’s appeal comes from the impression that he’s “electable” and “inevitable,” what happens when his electability and inevitability take shots to the bread-basket from the scrappy upstart Santorum?

The Santorum campaign is well aware of Illinois’ strategic importance.  “All eyes are going to turn to Illinois,” his state chairman, Al Salvi, told the Chicago Sun-Times.  “I think in Mississippi and Alabama, the exit polls showed women came out for Rick Santorum.  I think he’s the beneficiary of President Obama’s big mistake in mandating that private employers pay for birth control.” 

Salvi also thinks “a lot of the establishment Republicans that I know that endorsed Romney are having second thoughts – if they could take it back, they would.  A lot of them, I think, will end up voting for Santorum.”

However, Santorum has a problem in Illinois similar to the one he has faced in a few other states: he didn’t field a full slate of delegates.  In four out of the 18 Illinois congressional districts, he doesn’t have a delegate in the race, although he could still win those districts.

Then it’s on to Louisiana, where the most recent local poll by WWL-TV shows Santorum ahead by four points over Romney, 25-21.  Gingrich is also strong with 20 percent, while a hefty 26 percent remain undecided.  Santorum’s lead is higher among women voters, and more women also remain undecided, so his chances of improving his position look good.  His victories in Alabama and Mississippi should prove very useful in winning over these undecided voters.

Here again, Gingrich is almost entirely keeping Romney in the race – if he dropped out, Santorum would probably win in a romp.  This is even more clear when Louisiana is considered district-by-district.  Santorum currently leads in three, and is tied with Gingrich in one, while Gingrich ties Romney in another.  Romney is only clearly ahead in two of the 7 districts, one of which includes New Orleans.

Then again, if Gingrich is serious about mounting a comeback, Louisiana may well present his best opportunity.  It will be interesting to see if the polls shift in response to Santorum’s wins last Tuesday night, and change the Gingrich campaign’s calculations about whether such a comeback is still even remotely possible.