Last week’s Super Tuesday contests were exciting because ten different states went to the polls. In addition to being the day on the primary calendar when the most contests were held, Super Tuesday also provided some geographical balance with states in the northeast, south, mountain west, and the west coast all in play.
The biggest surprise on Super Tuesday was Ron Paul’s inability to win in either Alaska or North Dakota. Today’s contests in Alabama and Mississippi will not provide the geographical diversity and large delegate haul of Super Tuesday, but the polling suggests tight races between Newt Gingrich, Mitt Romney, and Rick Santorum.
Public Policy Polling says that both Alabama and Mississippi are, “too close to call.” In Alabama, Romney leads with 31 percent, followed by Gingrich at 30 percent, and Santorum at 29 percent. In Mississippi, Gingrich leads with 33 percent, and is trailed by Romney with 31 percent, and Santorum at 27 percent.
This is the first time in the nominating process that three contenders have a good shot at winning. With that in mind, here are a few things to keep your eye on tonight.
Santorum’s Trend of Out-Performing Poll Numbers
The polls indicate that Santorum is struggling in Alabama and Mississippi because of Gingrich’s presence in the race. In both states, the PPP Polls show that Gingrich and Santorum are much more popular than Romney. Since Gingrich and Santorum are going to split the conservative vote, Romney has an opportunity to pull off a win.
The good news for Santorum is that he has a history of out-performing his poll numbers. If he is able to do that tonight, he will be the undisputed alternative to Romney, and the calls for Gingrich to get out of the race will intensify. However, Gingrich’s presence in the race prevents Santorum from getting big delegate hauls, which he desperately needs.
Romney’s Strength is Inevitability
As mentioned above, Gingrich and Santorum have net favorability ratings in Alabama and Georgia in the low thirties and high twenties. Romney, on the other hand, only has a favorability rating of +10 in Mississippi and +13 in Alabama. Yet, even with those poor favorability ratings, Romney is still competitive in the overall polling numbers. That means in addition to Gingrich and Santorum splitting the conservative vote, the ongoing narrative that Romney will be the eventual nominee may be starting to have an effect on voters.
Gingrich’s Southern Cooking
Gingrich’s strength in Alabama and Michigan is further proof that he is nothing more than a regional candidate. While his campaign has tried to claim that he is in the midst of another come back, a recent Chicago Tribune/WGN-TV poll shows Gingrich is a non-factor, only garnering 12 percent in Illinois, while Romney leads Santorum 34 to 31 percent. If Gingrich were really in the midst of a comeback, his poll numbers nationally and in other upcoming states would begin to reflect it.
Split Decisions Are Wins for Romney
Gingrich and Santorum spitting the anti-Romney or conservative voting block is exactly what the Romney campaign needs today. Ever since Romney won Michigan, his campaign has been pushing a narrative that it’s nearly impossible for one of his opponents to cut into his sizable delegate lead. Regardless of how tonight’s contests ultimately shake out, Romney is going to either celebrate a southern victory, or be able to highlight the fact that his opponents only cut into his delegate lead by a minuscule number.
Romney is probably the odds-on favorite to win the contests in American Samoa and Hawaii. Wins there, combined with a reasonable showing in the south, will give him more delegates than Gingrich and Santorum will accumulate in Alabama and Mississippi. For Romney’s opponents to get back in the game, they need decisive victories, and the calendar and Gingrich’s continued presence in the race have not allowed that to happen.
Looking Ahead at the March Mayhem
Missouri (52 Delegates) – March 17
This should be Santorum’s best opportunity to scoop up a bunch of delegates. Santorum’s primary spending and continued presence in the race makes Missouri difficult for Romney and the others.
Puerto Rico (23 Delegates) – March 18
Romney has done well in the U.S. territories and should continue that trend in Puerto Rico.
Illinois (69 Delegates) – March 20
Illinois will be key battle ground state between Romney and Santorum. Polls show Romney with a slight four-point lead, but his real advantage is the Chicago metropolitan area. Santorum should perform well in the more rural parts of the state, but he has struggled against Romney in metropolitan areas in states like Michigan and Ohio. Expect that trend to continue in Illinois.
Louisiana (46 Delegates) – March 24
Outside of today’s contests in Alabama and Mississippi, Louisiana is the only other southern state that may be hospitable for Gingrich. Santorum must feel good about the state since he will hold his rally tonight in Louisiana. Huckabee won the state in 2008, an indication that Santorum should do well there.
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