It’s been pretty widely assumed that the March 13 primaries in Alabama and Mississippi would be races between Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum. Gingrich has specifically targeted the two states, and has shied away from Saturday’s contest in Kansas, and Santorum has made it clear he’d like to beat Gingrich in the two states in the hopes of driving him from the race or at least from the public’s attention. Both counted on the apparent aversion of Southern voters for Mitt Romney, who in second place finishes won just 28% of the vote in South Carolina, Tennessee and Oklahoma and 26% in Georgia. Even as he was winning in Florida with 46% and Virginia (against only Ron Paul) with 60%, he ran below his statewide average in Southern-accented portions of those states. And he has been running below his statwide averages among white evangelical voters, who make up large majorities of the Alabama and Mississippi Republican electorates.
But, as Scott Conroy of Real Clear Politics argues, Romney’s Southern weakness may be overstated. Strong evidence of that comes in two polls in Alabama and one in Mississippi. When I saw the first of these, conducted March 1-6 for the Alabama Education Association, long the chief institutional support of the state’s Democratic party, I was skeptical. It showed Romney leading with 31% to 22% for Santorum and 21% for Gingrich. This seemed clearly out of line with the 2008 Alabama primary (41% for Mike Huckabee, 37% for John McCain, 18% for Romney) and out of line with the results of a March 1 Alabama State poll (23% for Santorum, 19% for Romney, 14% for Gingrich). But this morning Scott Rasmussen reported the results of a March 8 poll, showing Gingrich with 30%, Santorum with 29% and Romney with 28%--a three-way tie.
Rasmussen also reported on a March 8 poll in Mississippi, which showed Romney with 35% and Santorum and Gingrich with 27% each. The last Mississippi poll was conducted by PPP in November, before Gingrich’s surge that month, showing him leading Romney 28%-12%, with 1% for the then struggling Santorum. The 2008 primary gives us no basis for comparison. It was held on March 11, after Mike Huckabee left the race, it drew only 145,000 votes and 79% of them voted for McCain.
In other words, it looks like there is something of a surge to Romney in these two states and that any of the three candidates have a chance to win. What could explain this? One hypothesis is that some significant quantum of Republican voters in Alabama and Mississippi have decided that it is time to shut this race down. They may not have read the memo the Romney campaign sent out to reporters, this hypothesis would go, arguing that only Romney has a chance to assemble the 1,144 delegates needed to win the nomination, but they have gotten the gist of it from simply observing that Romney has won an absolute majority of delegates thus far and from reading commentary suggesting that the continued conflict is reducing Republicans’ chances of winning in November.
After all, we are right about at the stage when the Republican contest was shut down in 2008—by other factors. Mitt Romney quit in early February, after Super Tuesday, when he trailed John McCain in delegates by about 500 to 200. McCain owed that margin to the 2008 Republican rules favoring winner-take-all allocation of delegates: he won a close three-way primary in Missouri and took all the delegates and in California despite a narrow statewide margin carried 48 of the 53 congressional districts and won all three delegates from each of them. I made the calculation a bit later that if McCain had won 3% less of the popular vote in the Florida and Super Tuesday primaries and Romney had won 3% more, Romney would have had a delegate lead of something like 383-365. With more money (and the ability to self-finance) and better organization, Romney would have been the favorite to win the nomination. But coming in 3% short, he was hopelessly behind and, as a man who made $250 million by (among other things) reading numbers he was not going to bet more of his personal wealth that he could overcome staggeringly negative odds.
Mike Huckabee stayed in the race and bowed out after the early March contests. He couldn’t see much favorable turf ahead: of the Southern states, only West Virginia, Kentucky, North Carolina and Mississippi had yet to vote, and Huckabee, despite his articulateness, charm and deft use of his knowledge of popular culture, was unable to win much more than 15% of the votes of those who did not classify themselves as evangelical Christians.
Republicans’ new rules discouraging (though not entirely banning) winner-take-all delegate allocation in pre-April 1 contests have prevented anyone from getting close to the 1,144 delegate majority yet and prevent anyone from getting there at least until May. But Republican voters, by choosing Mitt Romney, can shut the process down. Romney wins in either Alabama or Mississippi—or, in what everyone a few days thought was impossible, both—could effectively eliminate Gingrich from voters’ consideration and could make Rick Santorum’s path forward seem so unforbidding that even this determined and indefatigable candidate could find it hard to go on. And even if Romney only finishes close to the winners, that would make his prospects in successive Southern contests—not only the four that still had to vote this time in 2008 but also Louisiana and giant Texas—look much better.