As people watch the election returns this evening, here’s a quick overview. Ten states will be awarding 437 delegates, which is approximately one-third of the total number of delegates needed to win the nomination (1,144). Mitt Romney leads Rick Santorum in the delegate count by roughly two-to-one (181 v. 91) and Newt Gingrich by six-to-one (181 v. 30). Of the 10 states, seven are primaries (Georgia, Ohio, Tennessee, Virginia, Oklahoma, Massachusetts, and Vermont) and three are caucuses (Idaho, North Dakota, and Alaska).
Mitt Romney will win Massachusetts, Vermont, and Virginia. Newt Gingrich will carry his home state of Georgia by a wide margin. And Rick Santorum has a double digit lead in Oklahoma. Of the remaining five state, Idaho, North Dakota, and Alaska haven’t conducted any recent polls, so it’s hard to know who will prevail in those three states. Mitt Romney won Alaska and North Dakota in 2008, while Idaho is part of the so-called Mormon Corridor, with more than a quarter of the population members of the Mormon church.
Which leaves Tennessee and Ohio. Both are “must” states for Santorum to carry. The former Pennsylvania senator leads Romney by around two points in Tennessee, while Romney leads Santorum by less than two points in Ohio, based on the RealClearPolitics average of recent polls. If Santorum wins in both Tennessee and Ohio, he lives to fight another day. He will have shown the ability to win in two different regions of the country – the South and the Midwest; claim he’s now the only viable alternative to Romney (with Gingrich having been dispatched); and argue that he’s a stronger general election candidate than Romney. In addition, large doubts about Romney will once again envelop him.
If Governor Romney carries both Tennessee and Ohio, on the other hand, the evening will be judged to have been a Romney Rout. It will be game, set, and match. But Romney can still lose Tennessee and do very well today. He is, after all, the frontrunner in every meaningful respect, so the burden is on others to dramatically alter the course of event. The state the former Massachusetts governor really wants is Ohio, which is why he’s focused so much of his time and money there.
No Republican has ever won the presidency without carrying Ohio. It’s one of the handful of most important swing states in America. The Buckeye State is large (the 7th most populous state in America), relatively diverse, fairly blue-collar, with a strong evangelical base of support. Compared to Michigan, which Romney carried by only three percentage points, Ohio is more evangelical, more rural, and has fewer college graduates – all of which should work in Santorum’s favor. Which is why a win in Ohio by Romney will make him nearly unstoppable.
The encouraging news for Romney is that he’s erased a substantial double digit lead by Santorum in Ohio during the last two weeks. Governor Romney can lose Ohio and still win the GOP nomination. But if he hopes to allay some of the concerns that have risen up around him, Ohio is the place to do it. Rick Santorum is the last man standing between Mitt Romney and the GOP nomination. If Romney wins Ohio tonight, nothing short of a historic collapse will stop him. And that isn’t about to happen.