The big prize is likely to be Ohio, which has become one of the true bellwether states in American presidential elections. Ohio has similar demographics as Michigan, but has a higher share of evangelical voters, is a bit more rural, and has a lower share of college educated voters. These differences from Michigan should make Ohio more favorable ground for Rick Santorum, since Romney has done very well with the country-club Republican voters (incomes over 100K), and less well with blue-collar voters. Two weeks ago, Santorum opened up a big lead in Ohio, and as recently as the start of the week, he led Romney by 11 in the state. In the two state polls taken since the Michigan and Arizona primaries, the gap between the two candidates has narrowed. Santorum now leads by 2 points in Rasmussen, and 4 in a Quinnipiac survey. This is exactly the pattern that was seen in Michigan, where a big Santorum lead began to shrink in the week before the primary, and in the end, he lost the state narrowly to Romney.
Romney is likely to make Ohio the focus of his effort the next few days. If he can pull off a win in Ohio to add to victories in the other four states, he will have won the most competitive “headline” contest of the night, and added to his lead in primary victories and delegates won. He would also have beaten Santorum for a second time in a state where Santorum has argued he can attract Reagan Democrats and blue-collar voters in November against Obama.
If Santorum can hold on and win Ohio, he can lay claim to being the only real challenger to Romney and try to force Newt Gingrich from the race, thereby denying Romney the opportunity to win in some future contests because conservative voters were divided between Santorum and Gingrich. Gingrich appears likely to win in his home state of Georgia on Tuesday, but trails everywhere else. Santorum is way ahead in Tennessee and Oklahoma, and there are no polls in Alaska or North Dakota. Romney is making a campaign stop in North Dakota this weekend, suggesting he sees an opportunity to win one more state that is being ignored by his opponents.
There is no evidence that Santorum will give up on the race, even if he has a disappointing night on Tuesday. Once a candidate gets a taste of being a frontrunner, which Santorum had for a few weeks, the “I could be president bug” does not disappear very quickly. Newt Gingrich, who held the national lead on two occasions, appears particularly embittered at Mitt Romney for what he believes were misleading attacks on his record that knocked him from his perch at the front of the pack. Gingrich was speaking to reporters at the end of 2011 as if it were a virtual certainty that he would be the nominee before any votes had been cast. Ironically, if Gingrich sees Santorum stumble on Tuesday, winning only in Tennessee and Oklahoma, and maybe Alaska, he might believe that his candidacy could for the third time rise from the dead. By sticking around, both he and Santorum would be fighting for their share of the non-Romney vote, increasing Romney’s chances of winning more of the future contests.
Due to the changes in GOP delegate selection rules (fewer winner-take-all states) and the delegate penalties assessed against some states which moved their primaries up, the GOP race will be a longer slog to the finish than it would have been in earlier cycles. If Romney wins Ohio on Tuesday, plus finishes first in four or five other states, it is hard to see him being denied the nomination. But that does not mean that any of his opponents will gracefully leave the race.