Ohio is known as a bellwether state in national politics, indicating which way the nation is headed for any given election. This holds true for the GOP primary being held on Super Tuesday. The contest in the Buckeye State will be more than about winners and losers; the results will also show us what kinds of voters are backing a specific candidate and how that can translate into victory against Barack Obama in November.
Two weeks ago, Rick Santorum held a double-digit lead over Mitt Romney in Ohio. But then came a string of Romney victories that appeared to give him momentum, and the former Massachusetts governor roared back into contention in the state. Over the last seven days, Romney has narrowed the gap with Santorum to the point that the most recent polls show a statistical dead heat.
Unfortunately for Rick Santorum, even a win in Ohio may not give him a majority of delegates. This is because the former senator failed to gather enough signatures in three congressional districts to qualify for reaping any of the 9 delegates at stake. He also failed to get the required signatures in six other districts. As for the latter, he may qualify to get one or perhaps two delegates in those six districts, but not all three. All told, Santorum might win the state but lose up to 25% of the delegates. Under the rules, Santorum can petition the party to include those delegates in his totals at a later date, but if Romney wins the popular vote, even if Santorum won the congressional district, he might have trouble collecting them.
Santorum’s delegate problems notwithstanding, there is a race to be won in Ohio and to the winner probably goes the perception of victory on Super Tuesday. Ohio is a big state — a microcosm of the country itself. The percentages of race, class, ethnicity, and religion roughly mirror those found in the country at large. It stands to reason that if a candidate can cobble together a winning coalition in Ohio for the GOP primary, he has a good head start on doing the same thing for the general election.
No less than six polls have been published in the last 24 hours, with two showing Santorum slightly ahead, three with Romney leading, and one that shows a tie. All polls show the leader within the margin of error. These polls are essentially unchanged from surveys that were published Friday and Saturday. Might we deduce that Romney’s momentum may have stalled and that the race is truly deadlocked? Unless something very surprising happens, it is likely to be a long night on Tuesday to find out the answer to that question.
In truth, both candidates need Ohio very badly to claim victory on Super Tuesday. As far as the primaries are concerned, Santorum is ahead in Tennessee and Oklahoma and has a shot at winning the North Dakota and Alaska caucuses (Idaho, where caucuses are being held Tuesday night, is 27% Mormon and will very likely fall to Romney). Romney will win his home state of Massachusetts, Vermont, and Virginia (where Santorum is not on the ballot), and very likely the Idaho caucus. It would seem that a win in Ohio would feed the perception that the candidate who wins Ohio has carried the day and will be the beneficiary of the positive press that would follow. This would obviously benefit Rick Santorum far more than Mitt Romney because of Santorum’s dwindling war chest, which, at the moment, depends instead on the buzz generated by a perceived win on Super Tuesday rather than a campaign organization that can raise millions of dollars in a short period of time.
The polls in Ohio tell an interesting story. While the vote percentages are close, it is the details of those surveys where the real tale is to be told.
Romney leads Santorum among Catholics by 39-33. He is also winning women by the same margin. Santorum is winning the conservative vote by 12% while Romney is winning the moderates by a little more. Santorum is 10 points ahead among the tea party members and 12 points behind Romney among those who oppose or who are neutral about the tea party. Fully 37% of Ohio voters — even at this late date — could change their minds.
Good news for Santorum: There are more evangelicals in Ohio than other states, thus his 6-point advantage over Romney among Protestants will count for more than Romney’s 6-point lead over him among Catholics. He is also running virtually even with Romney in the suburbs.
Romney’s advantage among women may be key. Santorum only leads among men by 5 points and since more women usually turn out in primaries than men, that difference may be significant. But clearly, given the small separation between the candidates elsewhere, the race may hinge on factors that can’t be foreseen ahead of time.
Despite Santorum’s delegate problems, a win in Ohio will assure his continued viability going into the primaries of Alabama and Mississippi on March 13 and the Missouri caucus on March 17, where Santorum scored a decisive win in the “beauty contest” primary held on February 7. But the primary calendar is getting shorter and unless Santorum can start scoring some significant victories over Romney, the delegate arithmetic will start to weigh against him and Romney will simply outlast him.