A week ago, the only public polls of the Tennessee Republican primary on Tuesday indicated Rick Santorum was headed for a big win, perhaps by 20 points, over Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich. Now two new polls suggest the race has tightened considerably, and Romney is on the verge of scoring an upset win if the trend from the last few days continues in the state.
Coupled with victories in Maine, Arizona, Michigan, and Washington state in the last week, and expected victories in Massachusetts, Idaho, Vermont, and Virginia on Super Tuesday, Romney victories in two closely contested primaries in Ohio and Tennessee would clearly restore his firm leadership position in the race for the nomination. In Ohio, the two most recent surveys both give Santorum a lead of 2%, within the margin of error.
A new Rasmussen survey shows Santorum with a 4-point lead (34% to 30%) in Tennessee. Newt Gingrich, who hails from neighboring Georgia, where he is expected to cruise to victory in the primary in that state on Tuesday, might have been expected to do well in Tennessee, but he trails badly in the Rasmussen poll and other surveys of the state.
Last week, a poll was released with general election matchups in Tennessee that showed GOP candidates ahead of Barack Obama, but by less than the margin of victory of recent GOP presidential nominees in the state. The state shifted to the GOP in 2000, when home-state Democrat Al Gore failed to carry the state (he would have been elected president had he held the Volunteer State). In 2004 and 2008, the state voted more heavily Republican, both for President Bush and then John McCain.
In the only deep South state to have voted so far in 2012, Newt Gingrich decisively beat Romney in South Carolina. So a win for Romney in Tennessee would do a lot to project his ability to win even in states that are viewed as conservative strongholds in a region where he was expected to do poorly.
Nate Silver, the New York Times political statistician, creates projection models for states. In primaries, where poll results are generally less reliable than in general elections, especially in the period a few weeks before the primary election, he values much more the most recent poll numbers. On Saturday, his model indicated that Santorum was expected to win Tennessee by 7 points, and that result was based largely on a YouGov survey that gave Santorum that exact margin, 37% to 30%. Earlier surveys in the state had Santorum up by 18-20 points, but Silver largely discarded those from his forecast methodology. His model has not yet been updated for the Rasmussen survey in Tennessee, but it is likely that inclusion of this latest poll might lower the expected margin of victory for Santorum, and also decrease his chance of winning the state, currently pegged by Silver at 84%.
While momentum (the results in one state carrying over to the next contests) has not been a very strong pattern so far in the GOP nominating fight, it seems to be showing some strength in recent weeks. The succession of states where Romney has won is probably lowering the resistance of some Republican voters to his candidacy. After undergoing a rough patch in head-to-head matchups with President Obama, Romney’s numbers have improved a bit in the last week, and he now trails Obama by 4 points.
For much of the campaign season, Romney has pointed to his electability in a general election matchup with Obama as an argument for his candidacy. When Romney fell 10 points behind in that head-to-head matchup, it became easier for more conservative GOP voters to vote their hearts (for the non-Romney candidate of the moment) than to fall in line for Romney.
Of course, if Santorum holds on in Tennessee and Ohio on Tuesday, and also wins in Oklahoma as he is expected to do and perhaps wins the caucuses in North Dakota and/or Alaska, he could claim to be the candidate with momentum coming out of Super Tuesday. But the chances of that scenario playing out began to collapse when Santorum lost his lead in Michigan, and seem to be dropping each day since then. Santorum must now hope to hold off what seems to be a rising tide for Mitt Romney in the most highly contested states on Tuesday of Ohio and Tennessee or Romney will begin to create some real distance between himself and the other candidates, and make his nomination again seem inevitable.
Tennessee and Ohio are the states that could break the dam of the conservative resistance to Romney.