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.

FILED UNDER: Campaign 2012, US Politics, ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. Neil Hudelson says:

    Some 20/20 hindsight:

    Mitt Romney should never have tried to make it a contest in Alabama and Mississippi. Immediately after Super Tuesday, he should have stated something to the effect that he wasn’t even trying to contest the two states. Now he’s given Santorum a fantastic message: Despite superior organization and overwhelming financial strength, Romney was once again beaten by the little engine that could.

    A WGN poll has Romney up by 4 in Illinois. Judging by what we’ve seen in Florida, Ohio, and Michigan, I expect this lead to widen every day.

  2. DRS says:

    These delegates are costing him a lot of money and resources, and while he will definitely be the eventual winner, there’s a difference between bursting the tape with your chest out, arms raised in victory, and staggering across the line with the dry heaves, dripping with sweat. Yes,in both cases you win, but the images are quite different.

    And everytime he uses the Math Argument he’s just begging a certain type of Republican primary voter to smack him in the nose electorally as an arrogant rich elitist. Granted he’s probably got no choice by now since those voters are not good prospects but then why does he continue to talk like he wants their votes? He wants to be both frontrunner and insurgent, and you can’t be both.

  3. 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.

    I believe the traditional major party line here is “I realize some people might wish to vote for candidate X, but he has no chance of winning and it’s not worth risking the other major party winning, so people shouldn’t waste their vote just to support a protest candidate”.

    That is, Romney should start treating Santorum the way the GOP usually treats the Libertarian Party candidate.

  4. DRS says:

    I suppose the idea is that when he’s got the nomination he wants to get the votes of Gingrich/Santorum voters by pointing out that their concerns were his even back when they preferred other people to him.

    But how then will he appeal to independents and right-leaning Democrats if he’s got to concentrate on corralling all the Republican votes before November? It looks short-term good but long-term not-so-good to me.

  5. PD Shaw says:

    The Math is always worth considering at least the day after a vote to put in perspective. According to Josh Putnam’s calculations, which include MS, but not AL, HI or Samoa so far:

    Romney has 58% of the delegates assigned so far, with the rest at Santorum (21%), Gingrich (18%) and Paul (3%). So what Romney’s detractors are saying when they say he’s not sealing the deal is not that Romney is failing to get a majority of the votes available, he clearly is getting a majority of the delegates, but that he’s not getting a supermajority of votes to offset the uncertainty of the unbound delegates. Sounds Clintonesque, Hillary that is.

  6. MBunge says:

    If it’s all about the delegates for Romney, why isn’t the same true for Newt? In his case, he just needs to deny any other candidate the winning number of delegates and then Newt can walk into a convention as the most electrifying speaker of the three and take his chances.

    Mike

  7. All this shows just how undecided the GOP is and how undefined they really are now. It is like they are several parties trying to define themselves. The Republican voters must be so torn, this anyone but Obama is not as easy as they thought.

  8. Dean says:

    It claimed an advantage in Wisconsin because it is the native state of Mr. Gingrich’s wife, Callista.

    If he’s planning all of the states where he has spouses or ex-spouses they should just give Gingrich the nomination right now.

    Thank you, I’ll be here all week, remember to tip your waitresses

  9. JohnMcC says:

    Combine this news-of-the-day story with the apparent willingness by Mr Boehner to let the TeaParty faction in the House ignore the so-called ‘budget deal’ and bring up a spending plan of their own devising. And reflect that this is the party that asks us to trust them to govern this nation. They cannot count votes in their own caucuses! They cannot chose a candidate! But they expect to lead America. The mind reels.

    Bad ideas and bad thinking and bad candidates and bad governance all occur together; they are a syndrome indicating a dying party.

  10. grumpy realist says:

    What’s the chance that we’ll get a Romney/Santorum ticket on the Republican side? I estimate 80%….

    (The things that wake me up screaming at night.)