Republican presidential candidate, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum speaks during his election night party, Tuesday, March 13, 2012, in Lafayette, La.
The pre-election polls for the Republican primaries in Alabama and Mississippi showed a close race. Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum, and Newt Gingrich were in a near-three-way tie for the first-place spot in both states, with Gingrich edging out his competitors in Mississippi, and Romney taking the slightest of leads in Alabama.
That the former Massachusetts governor was even in the running for either state must have been a huge relief to his campaign. More than any other region, the Deep South is fiercely conservative and heavily evangelical—turf that Romney doesn't play well on. To stop Santorum in either state would have been to free the Romney campaign from the bloody slog of an extended nomination fight, allowing the candidate to establish himself definitively as the presumptive nominee.
This prospect led to a good amount of bluster from Romney and his campaign, beyond the usual declarations of confidence. A few hours before polls closed, in an interview with CNN, Romney took a swipe at the former Pennsylvania senator:
“Senator Santorum is at the desperate end of his campaign and is trying in some way to boost his prospects,” Romney told host Wolf Blitzer. “And frankly, misrepresenting the truth is not a good way of doing that.”
Now that we know the results of the contests, it’s safe to say that this was a poor choice of words, to say the least. Santorum came back from behind to win the primaries in Alabama and Mississippi, with 35 percent and 33 percent of the vote, respectively. Romney, by contrast, walked away with a third-place finish in both.
As was the case in Michigan and Ohio, Santorum performed best among Tea Partiers, white evangelicals, and voters with incomes under $100,000, and worst among self-described moderates, high-income voters, and those with graduate degrees. The difference, of course, is that Santorum’s base is the dominant demographic in the Deep South—Romney was in the most unfriendly territory that you could possibly imagine. Yes, he spent an immense amount of money, and yes, he turned his pander setting to 11, but these states were always an uphill battle for the former Massachusetts governor. If there is a broad conclusion to draw, it’s that we should be wary of primary polls and early-exit polls, which gave the advantage to Romney despite the fact that there was little on the ground that pointed to a victory.
But while Santorum won the night, Romney is still on his way to winning the nomination. Even with a third-place finish, he has racked up enough delegates to maintain a comfortable lead, and he remains the only candidate in a position to reach the necessary minimum. Santorum needs 927 delegates—or 63.54 percent of the remaining total—to win the nomination. Unless Republicans flock to his candidacy—or Gingrich drops out—that isn’t going to happen.
Still, because of these wins, Santorum has every reason to stay in the race, and Romney will have to fend him off, again. For the former Massachusetts governor and the GOP at large, there is no upside to this. Unlike the 2008 Democratic primary, this fight has not improved the standing of the Republican Party or its candidates. Romney’s negative, aggressive campaign has led to a steady decline in his standing with the public. At this point, he is one of the most unpopular presidential candidates in recent memory.
But it’s important not to over-interpret these results. Come the general election, the Republican nominee will win the Deep South, barring a massive change in the state’s electorate (for example, if African Americans were somehow to become a plurality of all voters). What’s more, there’s nothing about any of this that dooms Romney in the fall. By definition, a major party nominee is within striking distance of the presidency; as long as there isn't a third-party candidate, both the Democratic and Republican candidates can count on receiving 45 percent of the vote, give or take a few points. A few months of bad economic news is all it takes for the crucial swing voters to turn against an incumbent.
Keep this in mind if you are inclined to root for Santorum as an “easier” opponent for President Obama. The simple fact is that he could win the White House. But even if Santorum were to lose the general election after winning the GOP nomination, Republicans would spend months defending him and his extremist positions on everything from contraception to college education. This might make for a weaker Republican Party, but I'm not sure that it's good for our politics or our discourse.
I can appreciate the clown-car aspect of the Republican nomination contest. But the stakes are high, and everyone—liberals included—should hope that the GOP walks away from embracing its id.