Could the South Be Newt's Waterloo?
Newt Gingrich has lately staked his presidential campaign on being the "southern candidate." Gingrich has banked on winning in the south and hanging on long enough to win in Texas, where Gov. Perry has endorsed him after dropping out of the race himself, and where 155 delegates are up for grabs. Gingrich won Georgia, his home state, but then lost Tennessee to Rick Santorum. He didn't come close in Oklahoma, where Santorum won comfortably on Super Tuesday.
Today's primaries in Alabama and Mississippi will be massive tests of Gingrich's claims on the south. If the polls are accurate, things don't look great for Newt.
Let's take Mississippi first. Gingrich has consistently led there, by as much as 16 points back in November 2011. But Gingrich had surged to a national lead in November, a lead he would squander headed into January's votes. From a high tide of 16 points, Gingrich has fallen to just a 2 point lead in PPP's poll. Mitt Romney actually holds a medium-sized lead in the most recent Rasmussen poll of Mississippi. Rate Mississippi as a toss-up.
Gingrich has never led by very much in Alabama, and Rick Santorum has never led there at all in either Rasmussen's or PPP's polls. The largest lead any candidate has enjoyed in Alabama has been Mitt Romney's 3-point lead last week. PPP found this week that Romney leads in Alabama by a point -- again, within the margin of error. Toss-up city.
Late deciders, in the PPP poll, are going for Gingrich in MI, but Romney in AL. Toss-up city.
Gingrich vows that no matter what happens in AL and MI, he's staying in the race. Whether he actually does or not depends on two things: How he does in AL and MI, and whether his super PAC funders stick with him.
What if Mitt Romney manages to win both of today's southern primaries? That's not likely but it's out of the question. Romney has consistently out-organized Santorum and Gingrich, and their splitting the more conservative vote could leave Romney enough to eke out wins in both states. Romney would have won states north, south, east and west, would have won more contests and would have increased his delegate lead. Gingrich's southern strategy will have been proven wrong (a split verdict could have the same impact). The rationale for his candidacy then hangs on a thin reed -- that he can out-debate Barack Obama. That's not much upon which to elect a president, though admittedly 52% elected Barack Obama on less in 2008. And Obama can find ways to minimize that threat.
Newt Gingrich needs to win both AL and MI to keep his hopes of outright victory alive. Anything less has to be seen as a major setback.
The next southern primary is Louisiana's, on March 24. Texas now looks like it will vote on May 29. A UT poll in February found that Rick Santorum leads in Texas, by 45-18 over Gingrich.