Santorum Sweeps The Deep South, But Romney Wins The Delegate Fight Again
Rick Santorum won the night, but Mitt Romney continues to win the delegate hunt.
In retrospect, it would have been for the best if political analysts, pundits, and bloggers, including yours truly, had gone with their first instincts and realized that Alabama and Mississippi were never friendly territory for Mitt Romney to begin with. It probably also would have been wise for the Romney campaign to better manage the expectations game over the last week so that it didn’t look like they were expecting a victory in either state. However, the polls were so tempting and it was fairly easy for everyone to get sucked into the idea that Mitt Romney might actually pull off a victory in one or both states that finally mark the beginning of the end of the race. In the end, though, things ended up going exactly the way most people thought they would when we woke up the morning after Super Tuesday:
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — Rick Santorum captured twin victories in the Alabama and Mississippi primaries on Tuesday, overcoming the financial advantages of Mitt Romney and the Southern allegiances to Newt Gingrich on a night that amplified his argument that the Republican nominating fight is becoming a two-man race with Mr. Romney.
The triumphs by Mr. Santorum elevated and strengthened his candidacy as the Republican campaign rolls ahead into a state-by-state battle for delegates. An aggressive push by Mr. Romney to try and capitalize on the divided conservative electorate failed to take hold, and he finished third in both states.
“We did it again,” Mr. Santorum said, addressing jubilant supporters in Louisiana, which holds its Republican primary next week. “The time is now for conservatives to pull together.”
A week after Super Tuesday cemented the status of Mr. Romney and Mr. Santorum as the leading Republican candidates, the outcome of the Alabama and Mississippi primaries strengthened Mr. Santorum’s argument that he should emerge as the final competitor to Mr. Romney. But Mr. Gingrich, who finished a close second in both states, noted that he earned about as many delegates as his rivals. He pledged to take his candidacy to the Republican convention in August.
“The elite media’s efforts to convince the nation that Mitt Romney is inevitable just collapsed,” Mr. Gingrich said, addressing a subdued crowd here in Birmingham. “If you’re the front-runner and you keep coming in third, you’re not much of a front-runner.”
Republican strategists in Mississippi and Alabama said that Mr. Romney underperformed in key areas across their states, even in places where the party establishment was expected to rally behind him. His advisers said that he was still in the strongest position to win the party’s nomination and would forge ahead with his state-by-state strategy to win delegates.
While voters in the two Southern states were closely divided on their preferred Republican presidential candidate, they found more agreement on the top quality they were looking for: the ability to defeat President Obama. In both states, exit polls found, Mr. Romney had a strong electability edge, but it was not enough to overcome concerns that he was not sufficiently conservative.
While Mr. Romney still holds many advantages over his rivals as the race moves to the Missouri caucuses on Saturday and the Illinois primary next week, his aides acknowledge that he is unlikely to reach the 1,144 delegates needed to secure the nomination for at least two more months. His challengers have gradually given up on the idea of surpassing him and have turned to a strategy of trying to block him from reaching the delegates he needs before the convention.
While he played down his defeats on Tuesday night, Mr. Romney had campaigned aggressively in Mississippi and Alabama in pursuit of the combined 90 delegates at stake, but also to demonstrate that he could appeal to Republicans in Southern states, the party’s base. He struggled to make that appeal to a majority of the party’s primary electorate.
The race here, as in other parts of the country, often seemed as though it revolved largely around Mr. Romney. His leading rivals repeatedly criticized him — his record as governor of Massachusetts and his evolving views on social issues provided chief targets — in hopes of planting doubts about his candidacy and improving their own standing with voters.
Mr. Santorum, who was significantly outspent by Mr. Romney and the “super PAC” that is supporting his candidacy, hailed the grass-roots supporters who fueled his campaign.
“For someone who thinks this race is inevitable, he spent a whole lot of money trying to be inevitable,” Mr. Santorum said, taking a veiled swipe at his rival during his victory speech. “Who would have ever thought in the age of media that we have in this country today that ordinary folks can defy the odds day in and day out?”
Santorum’s double wins weren’t the only contests yesterday, though. Mitt Romney picked up strong victories in the caucuses in Hawaii and American Samoa and he’ll pick up delegates from there. Additionally, the delegates in both Alabama and Mississippi are allocated proportionally, meaning that even his third place finishes there will result in him picking up more delegates. In fact, it appears at the moment that by the time the final delegate counts from last night’s results are calculated that Santorum will walk away with a net gain of as little as three delegates, or that Romney may actually get a net gain out of the night even after losing the two biggest contests.
So, on some level, last night’s results aren’t as a big a defeat for Mitt Romney as it might seem on paper. That doesn’t mean there isn’t a problem, though. Once again, we’ve seen evidence that Romney is failing to close the deal with conservatives, and that’s inuring to the benefit of his opponents, principally Rick Santorum. Partly, it seems that’s because the Romney campaign isn’t quite sure what they’re message should be. For the last several days, it’s been all about the delegate math and pointing out the undeniable fact that the numbers are quite obviously in Romney’s favor. The problem is that when you’re trying to win over skeptical voters, the argument “Vote for me because I’m going to win anyway,” doesn’t really go very far. In fact, it probably tends to cause those voters to go vote for the other guy just to be contrarian. If Romney wants to shut this race down at some point, he’s going to have to come up with a better argument than “Math.”
If Romney’s got a message problem, though, there’s another candidate who’s got a bigger problem, because the logic for Newt Gingrich continuing in this race no longer seems to exist:
After contests in 28 states and territories, Mr. Gingrich is badly trailing his two main rivals in delegates. Before Tuesday’s primaries, Mr. Romney led with 454 delegates to 217 for Mr. Santorum and 107 for Mr. Gingrich, according to The Associated Press.
Because of the proportional allotment of delegates in most remaining states, the Gingrich campaign argued that Mr. Romney would not hit the magic number of 1,144 anytime soon, leaving the race up in the air for months.
A spokesman for Mr. Romney called that wishful thinking.
“He’s already won over half the delegates at stake,” said the spokesman, Ryan Williams, adding that “soon it will be mathematically impossible for Senator Santorum and Speaker Gingrich to secure the delegates needed to win, so their motivation for continuing on must be questioned.”
Mr. Gingrich has certainly demonstrated that if nothing else in this unusual race, he has the will to slog on with little money, driven by — pick a word — stubbornness or commitment to carry a message even when voters are not responding.
Some of the logic in the Gingrich strategy memo, written by Randy Evans, a senior adviser, and Martin Baker, the campaign’s national political director, seemed optimistic. It predicted success for Mr. Gingrich in a number of Southern states beginning with Louisiana on March 24, despite the two defeats on Tuesday. It claimed an advantage in Wisconsin because it is the native state of Mr. Gingrich’s wife, Callista.
Also late Tuesday, the campaign put out a schedule with two busy days of appearances this week in Illinois, whose primary is next Tuesday. However, in a poll released on Saturday by The Chicago Tribune and WGN-TV, Mr. Santorum was 19 points ahead of Mr. Gingrich in Illinois and neck and neck with Mr. Romney.
Prominent supporters of Mr. Santorum began calling for Mr. Gingrich to step aside after Super Tuesday, when Mr. Gingrich’s sole win was in Georgia, which he represented in the House for 20 years. Those calls grew more insistent at a weekend gathering of several hundred social conservatives in Houston, where Mr. Santorum made a little-noticed detour from the campaign trail and raised $1.8 million in pledged donations, according to organizers.
“There is a coming together of conservatives around Santorum,” said Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, one of the meeting’s organizers. “People can do the math. They see if Newt were to get out, most likely the lion’s share of that support would go to Santorum.”
Richard Viguerie, the conservative direct-mail specialist, who introduced Mr. Santorum in Houston, said Mr. Gingrich was “clearly siphoning off votes.”
“He can either be a kingmaker or a spoiler,” he added. “If Gingrich were to withdraw, then I think the odds strongly favor Santorum to get the nomination, because the Republican Party is a conservative party.”
In reality, the delegate math for Santorum doesn’t really get much better if Gingrich gets out but this is the argument you can expect his surrogates and his campaign to make over the next week or so. Based on last night’s speech, though, it doesn’t seem as if Gingrich is in a mood to get out any time soon. As long as there’s SuperPAC money flowing in, there’s really no reason for him to get out. Perhaps if a number of big name conservatives start publicly calling for him to step aside, he’ll listen if only to preserve his cachet in the conservative movement. Barring that, though, it seems to me that Newt is in this race to stay even though it’s blindingly obvious that he has no chance at this point of overtaking Santorum, never mind Romney. Perhaps he thinks he can build up a bank of delegates and become a kingmaker at the convention, who knows? It’s Newt, anything is possible.
From here, the race goes to a few places that are likely to favor Romney slightly, and add to his delegate lead. Saturday we have the Missouri Caucuses, and while Santorum won big in the “beauty contest” primary there last month, the caucus is likely to be far more competitive and, thanks to proportional allocation, Romney will get some delegates there at least. On Sunday, we’ve got the Puerto Rico Primary, 29 winner-take-all delegates. So far, Romney seems to be the only candidate who has campaigned there at all, and during the Florida Primary he received the nomination of the island’s Republican Governor. A big win here would go a long way toward blunting the bad press Romney is likely to get from last night’s results.
Then, finally, next Tuesday brings us to Illinois, which is going to be spun as a must win state for Romney, and that’s probably not a bad assessment. If Romney were to lose Illinois then this race would be turned upside down regardless of what the delegate math says. At the very least, it would likely guarantee that this race will go all the way to the end, and possibly to the convention, before we’ll know who the winner is. The one thing to remember about Mitt Romney in 2012, though, is that he’s always managed to win the “must win” states. In January, he had to win Florida after an embarressing thumping in South Carolina and he did. In February, a late challenge by Santorum in his home state meant that Romney had to win Michigan, and he did that. Then, this month, he won Ohio which became the “must win” state on Super Tuesday. With more money and a superior organization, Romney always seems to have an ability to pull off wins when he needs to, and it seems like he’ll do that in Illinois too. At the very least, it’s worth noting that Illinois is another one of those states where Rick Santorum’s campaign failed to file a full slate of delegates so Romney already has an advantage in the Land of Lincoln.
It’s going to be a bumpy week, and never underestimate Mitt Romney’s own ability to stick his foot in his mouth, but things are still very much in his favor in the long run. The only question is how many more states he can afford to lose before that inevitability argument becomes silly sounding.