The two primaries in Alabama and Mississippi were a trap for Rick Santorum because anything but victories for him could have been construed as devastating blows to his campaign. Wins by Mitt Romney would have demonstrated his ability to win in any part of the country including states where conservatives and evangelical voters predominate. Wins by Newt Gingrich would have given him a reason to go on other than his ego. But by sweeping both Deep South states that voted on Tuesday, Santorum added two more triumphs to the already impressive list of states that he has won. The delegate math will not be altered much today due to the proportional allocation system as well as Romney’s expected wins in Hawaii and American Samoa. But though Romney can still have a reasonable expectation of ultimately winning the nomination, Santorum’s momentum places the notion of his inevitability in doubt.
Even if, as I expect, Gingrich stays in the race after losing the last two states where he could have been said to have had a chance to win, Santorum is now in a position to do some real damage to the Romney juggernaut in the upcoming weeks. With polls already showing Romney having only a slight lead over Santorum in a large state like Illinois where he ought to win, Tuesday’s victories allow the Pennsylvanian to hope he can add to his string of upsets. If Santorum ends March by stacking up victories in Illinois, Louisiana and Missouri, then although he will still be trailing badly in the delegate count, his path to the nomination won’t look quite so much of a fantasy as it did a few weeks ago. Though Romney will still have impressive advantages, so long as the votes are still be counted state by state, momentum has a way of overwhelming math.
A slow vote count in both Alabama and Mississippi has left the outcome of both primaries in doubt until 10pm. Both states appeared to be a three-way scrum in which Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich were all within a few points of each other. Nevertheless, Santorum has been projected to win Alabama and has taken a lead in Mississippi leaving open the question of just how significant such a double victory would be if, in fact, he hangs on in both states.
It should be understood that in contrast to earlier primaries, this is one night in which all the pressure was on Santorum and Gingrich with very little on Romney. Few expected Romney to do well in the Deep South where evangelical voters predominate. A win in either Alabama or Mississippi would be a coup for the frontrunner and prove that his was truly a national candidacy. But even if he fails to win, he doesn’t lose much ground in the all-important delegate count since the proportional allocation of delegates won’t give any of the three contenders much of an advantage after such a close race. And with Hawaii, whose caucus results may well be known before Alabama finishes its ultra-slow vote count, will likely give Romney a win offsetting any damage done in the South by Santorum. Nevertheless, a double victory for Santorum would enable the Pennsylvanian to once again claim that he is the true standard-bearer for conservatives. It would also place more pressure on Newt Gingrich to withdraw though I doubt there is anything that could compel the former speaker to abandon his candidacy.
After consecutive weeks of coping with do-or-die primaries in Michigan and Ohio, it is fair to say the pressure’s off Mitt Romney this week. While his candidacy would receive a major boost from victories in either Mississippi or Alabama, he’s not under the same pressure to win there. With evangelicals predominating in both of these southern states, the assumption is either Newt Gingrich or Rick Santorum ought to be the favorite. Yet with both challengers competing hard to win there, the frontrunner may have as good a chance as any of them.
But the outcome in Mississippi and Alabama will have major implications for both Santorum and Gingrich. Santorum has spent the last month playing the role of the principal “not Romney” in the GOP race. But wins in these states by anybody but him will undermine that claim, perhaps fatally. Anything that burnishes Gingrich’s assertion that he is the true conservative hope will play into Romney’s hands, because it will mean that a divided field won’t be winnowed down to Santorum’s desired one-on-one matchup with the former Massachusetts governor. If Santorum is to be the conservative standard bearer in the fight for the Republican nomination, he’s got to beat both Gingrich and Romney in the South.
The biggest prize in the assortment of various states and territories up for grabs in the Republican presidential contests this weekend went to Rick Santorum, who took Kansas with another smashing victory. The former senator got more than 51 percent of the vote, with Mitt Romney placing a distant second and barely eclipsing the 20 percent mark that was necessary for him to win some delegates there. But while another showing in which evangelical support led to a victory bolstered Santorum, the delegate math wasn’t altered much by the results. Santorum got 33 of Kansas’ delegates to the Republican National Convention with Romney picking up just 7. But while Santorum was winning Kansas, Romney cleaned up in Wyoming as well as in Guam, the Northern Marianas and the U.S. Virgin Islands, nearly offsetting the Pennsylvanian’s advantage. When the dust settles, Romney will still have more delegates than all of his GOP rivals combined.
Romney is clearly on track to win enough delegates to clinch the nomination at the Tampa convention, but he will do so without sweeping the GOP board as conservatives continue to rally around Santorum as not only the leading “not Romney” but also as their standard-bearer on social issues. Far from being discouraged, the Pennsylvanian’s backers are doubling down on their determination to fight Romney all the way to the convention while also seeking to find some way to persuade Newt Gingrich to leave the race and thus allow Santorum the opportunity for a one-on-one battle with the frontrunner. Though the ultimate outcome is not much in doubt, Republicans appear set to spend the next few months in engaging in a long drown-out struggle that will leave the victor in a weakened state to face off against President Obama in the fall.
With about a third of the delegates chosen for the Republican convention, any reasonable analysis of the math shows Mitt Romney will almost certainly wind up being the nominee. But, as Sean Trende points out at Real Clear Politics, the frontrunner will have to wait until June at the earliest to amass the majority he needs to formally lock the contest up. That means perhaps as long as three more months for him to be attacked from the right as a “Massachusetts moderate,” which will make it harder for him to convince conservatives to turn out in November in the numbers needed to beat President Obama.
The really hard part for Romney is the prospect of a brutal March including contests in Kansas, Mississippi, Alabama, Missouri and Louisiana, where he will be the underdog to Rick Santorum. Though the upcoming weeks will bring some bright spots such as Hawaii, Puerto Rico and Illinois, where Romney will be favored, this will be a difficult period for the frontrunner as Santorum and Newt Gingrich (assuming he doesn’t drop out or become as marginal as Ron Paul), continue to abuse him as a product of the establishment whose health care record is indistinguishable from that of Obama. But as grim as that prospect may be for his campaign, if their candidate can pocket one or two of the states where he is thought to have little chance, it could alter an otherwise unpromising March narrative.