Mitt Romney has two chances to win on Tuesday when Alabama and Mississippi hold their Republican primaries. He could win one or both of the primaries, or Newt Gingrich could win one or both of the primaries. In fact, it may well be the case that the best-scenario for Romney would be for Gingrich to win one state and Romney to win the other.
If Romney wins one or both of the contests, it will kill the notion that he can not win in the Deep South among conservative Republicans. These are states where, in presidential elections, black voters cast 90% or more of their votes for Democrats, and white voters cast 85-90% of their votes for Republicans. After his victories in the Tennessee and Oklahoma primaries last week, the conventional wisdom was that Rick Santorum had emerged as the principal conservative challenger to Mitt Romney, especially after Newt Gingrich did poorly in all the Super Tuesday contests other than in his home state of Georgia.
But the few polls in both Alabama and Mississippi now show very close fights — a near three-way tie for the lead in Alabama, and Romney and Gingrich both a few points ahead of Santorum in Mississippi. The closeness of the races in both states suggests that any of the three contenders could win one or more of the primaries. The real risk is to Santorum. If Santorum wins one of the primaries (more likely Alabama), then that will mean that Romney or Gingrich wins the other. This would be a less than satisfactory result for Santorum, who needs a sweep of the two states to maintain his momentum and to consolidate his position as the conservatives’ favored “non-Romney” in the race.
If Santorum loses both contests, which is certainly now possible, that means three possible scenarios, all of them unappetizing for Santorum. Mitt Romney could win both contests, which would mean that in states where Santorum should do best — states with a very high percentage of evangelical Christians and strong conservatives — he was beaten by a Massachusetts moderate who also happens to be Mormon — not exactly the flavors of the month in the Deep South.
On the other hand, Newt Gingrich could win both, which would mean that for the third time in this election cycle, Newt would have risen from the dead (or the written-off category) to move back into contention. Rick Santorum has been pressing Gingrich to leave the race, to enable Santorum to consolidate the conservative vote against Romney. Even one Gingrich victory on Tuesday will likely mean that Gingrich will be in the race for quite some time .
The third scenario — one victory for Romney and one for Gingrich — might be the worst for Santorum, especially if he finished third in each state. Then Gingrich sticks around, and Romney beats Santorum in the South, demonstrating that he is a national candidate with a big lead in pledged delegates.
The Alabama contest certainty fits the moniker “too close to call.” In the three polls taken in the state in the last week, Gingrich leads by one point in two surveys and Romney leads by one point in the third. In the two most recent surveys, both taken after Super Tuesday, Gingrich averages 30%, Romney 29.5%, and Santorum 29%.
Mississippi is a bit different, as two recent surveys show somewhat divergent results. The most recent survey by PPP, taken Saturday and Sunday, has Gingrich by two points over Romney and by six over Santorum. A Rasmussen survey taken last Thursday has Romney with an eight-point lead over both Gingrich and Santorum. The PPP surveys, the latest to be released, show Romney gaining slightly in Alabama, and Gingrich gaining in Mississippi.
Gingrich has planted himself in the two states since Super Tuesday, which in the end may prove decisive. Nate Silver, the New York Times’ statistical wizard, has been splitting his time between the presidential race and the NCAA tournament this week. His models for the two states give a very slight edge to Gingrich in Alabama (0.9%) over Romney, with Gingrich having a 48% chance of victory, Romney, 39%, and Santorum 13%.
In Mississippi, the order is reversed — Romney is projected to finish ahead by 0.5%, and has a 53% chance of winning, Gingrich 45%, and Santorum 2%. With so few surveys to evaluate, and the closeness of the poll results among the three candidates, my own sense is that Santorum’s chance may be a bit better than Silver has calculated.
Silver has noted that the most recent surveys in the GOP race this year have proven to be much closer to the final results than surveys taken earlier. With all of the candidates making last-minute pitches in person and in paid advertising, it is possible that Gingrich’s regional familiarity in Alabama and Mississippi may trump Santorum’s more forceful social conservative messaging. In the last few days, Gingrich has been a bit less harsh about Mitt Romney, while Santorum has kept up the volume of his attacks. With most GOP voters believing Romney will be the eventual nominee, and two new polls showing Romney running ahead of Barack Obama, some voters in the two states may simply be signaling that they want to end the GOP fratricide and move on to taking on Obama.
If Romney wins one state and Gingrich the other tomorrow, there will be no quick exits by any candidates. With both Gingrich and Santorum in the race, and Gingrich again on the upswing, Romney will likely continue to win many of the future races with less than 50% of the total vote, as has occurred in many of the states that have already held their primaries. Santorum has clearly connected with a sector of the GOP electorate. But to a larger number of GOP voters, he comes off as a scold, and his presence in the race makes it more likely that issues such as contraception are part of the ongoing debate . The new ABC/Washington Post poll indicates the recent falloff in support for Barack Obama has been, in large part, connected to the rapid rise in gasoline prices.
The GOP will win on pocketbook issues this year, or not at all.