As expected, the primaries in Alabama and Mississippi ended in a tight three-way race between Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich. What few people predicted, however, is that two states which, in recent days, had increasingly begun to look like possible break-throughs for Romney would turn into bitter defeat instead. Santorum carried both Alabama and Mississippi, while Gingrich came second in both states and Romney finished only third. It was the worst possible outcome for Romney. Especially if the results convince Gingrich to drop out of the race, leaving his chunk of conservative voters free to support Santorum and putting Romney in the position of having to fend off the former Pennsylvania Senator by himself.
Although other contests were taking place in Hawaii and American Samoa, all eyes were on Alabama and Mississippi this past week. It was thought that the Deep South — where, according to exit polls, eight in ten voters were self-described evangelical Christians — would shed some light on the thinking of conservative Republicans. These voters have been the most restless in this primary season so far, hardly enamored with any of the four candidates still in the race and divided on whether their perceived electability matters more than the cultural and religious values they espouse.
Romney was never supposed to win here. Known, despite his very best efforts, as a “Massachusetts moderate,” he was by far the candidate that most voters in the Deep South say they have trouble connecting with. That approximately half of those who went to the polls said Romney was not conservative enough for them should come as no surprise.
However, pre-election polling and early exit polls incorrectly suggested that Romney had a shot at taking both states, and his team made the mistake of raising expectations. And it’s not like he didn’t try. With money from his campaign and his super-Pac “Restore Our Future,” Romney outspent the Santorum camp five to one in Alabama and three to one in Mississippi. Additionally, data from Kantar Media’s CMAG, as reported by the Washington Post, show that Restore Our Future alone was responsible for 65% of all TV ads aired in Alabama and Mississippi.
This combination of unfounded confidence and fruitless campaign spending transformed what would otherwise have been considered a relatively neutral 30% foray into enemy territory into a huge disappointment for Romney. As Newt Gingrich pointed out in his speech Tuesday night (during which the former House Speaker also denied that he had any plan to leave the race), “If you are the frontrunner and you keep coming in third, you are not the frontrunner".
Romney’s biggest problem Tuesday night appears to have been the level of turnout in supposedly friendly counties, which was much lower than it had been expected. It is an outcome that smacks of lack of enthusiasm on the part of Republican voters, an enduring problem for the former governor of Massachusetts.
Confronted with a rising Santorum tide, Romney’s strategy going forward increasingly centers on Gingrich staying in the race, and continuing to siphon precious votes off his main challenger. His hopes for victory additionally rest on the delegate math, which is supposed to make him the “inevitable” nominee. Because both Alabama and Mississippi awarded delegates proportionally, and thanks to his victories in Hawaii and American Samoa, Romney actually increased his lead in the delegate count Tuesday. But, at this point, it is likely that he will not get to the 1144 delegates needed to seal the nomination for a few more months. This gives time to his opponents, in particular Santorum, to exploit their momentum, as well as the doubts that continue to hover over Romney, and stop him short of a majority of delegates, forcing the Republican Party into a brokered convention.
Next on are the caucus in Missouri (March 17th,) and the primaries in Puerto Rico (March 18th,) Illinois (March 20th) and Louisiana (March 24th.) This translates into an additional 190 delegates at stake by the end of next week. And, at least in theory, there should be something for everybody to look forward to. Missouri already held a preliminary caucus in February, which, with Minnesota and Colorado, was part of the trifecta that propelled Santorum into the position of the latest anti-Romney. But that was only a “beauty contest” that did not assign delegates. Saturday instead is the real thing, where the former Senator from Pennsylvania will have to repeat his performance to make it count. Illinois is supposed to be more Romney-friendly territory, because of an economic and socio-demographic make up that puts it in the same group as Michigan and Ohio. According to polls, it might turn out to be a closer race than Romney would like (just like it happened in Michigan and Ohio.) Taking no chances, his campaign is already spending heavily in the state. Finally, Gingrich could try his hands again at his beloved southern voters in Louisiana. That is if he makes it that far.