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March 13, 2012 5:20 pm

Tuesday’s Republican Primaries: What You Need to Know

avatar by Dmitriy Shapiro

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Mitt Romney. Photo: wiki commons.

The four Republican Party nomination contenders remain in the race despite expectations that last week’s Super Tuesday contests would thin the herd and unify voters behind former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney; the frontrunner after muscling past Sen. Rick Santorum in the Michigan Primary. Despite Romney picking up 217 delegates and winning the Ohio Primary, which was considered the bell-weather state of the day, Rick Santorum’s victories in Tennessee, Oklahoma, and a strong finish in Ohio — along with Newt Gingrich’s win in the Georgia Primary — once again prolonged the race.

The outcome is not significant at first glance but serves to answer questions about the viability of the non-Romney candidates since Virginia, Tennessee, Georgia, and Oklahoma — all of which voted on Super Tuesday — are the first southern contests since Newt Gingrich’s tremendous South Carolina victory in January. Even though Santorum caught up to Romney in the polls, questions whether he — as a former Pennsylvania Senator and occasional proponent of tariffs and labor unions—would be able to outperform Gingrich in the deep south, still exist.

With Gingrich gaining only his home state of Georgia with a wide margin but failing to take the other states, his claim as the candidate of the South was severely damaged though. Santorum proved that his candidacy could play well in the South also. This leaves the Gingrich campaign only one realistic chance for revival— victories in Mississippi and Alabama tonight.

At this point in the race, Gingrich is a hard sell in even these states, as his campaign has demonstrated a serious inability to break through to voters in the absence of presidential debates where Gingrich perpetually delivers. But a thinning field does not mean a general acceptance of Mitt Romney as the nominee. As many have already emphasized, much of Gingrich and Santorum’s allure comes in large part from not being Mitt Romney though.

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Hopefully, the Romney campaign has taken this into consideration and is doing everything it can to keep Gingrich and Santorum in the race so that they keep splitting the non-Romney vote, allowing Romney to slowly collect delegates through small margin victories until reaching his 1144 delegate goal. Suppose Gingrich failed to take Mississippi and Alabama tonight, it is reasonable to assume that most of his supporters will go to the Santorum camp if he dropped out; and if you combine the votes of non-Romney candidates, the remaining candidate will have no trouble defeating Romney’s unenergized supporters. Luckily for Romney, Gingrich is promising to fight on despite tonight’s results.

Having a Super PAC funded by Sheldon Adelson, Gingrich should have no incentive to drop out before the delegate count makes it truly impossible for any kind of comeback. He never had any establishment types supporting his campaign anyway, and those who support him, usually agree with Adelson that they will support Gingrich unequivocally. Gingrich doesn’t have to impress anyone to keep his campaign going.

So far, barring any serious national outrage, Democrats should feel confident about President Barack Obama’s re-election prospects. To project some possible outcomes, he has around a 2/3 chance of victory. If Gingrich drops out as some expect, and Santorum picks up enough of his support to get him the nomination, he may be unable to ingratiate himself to moderate voters in time for Election Day. Despite voters pining for a “conservative” candidate, it’s indisputable that victory in any general election boils down to who attracts the most unaffiliated Independent voters. Obama’s record, though liberal, is not viewed by most to be as radical as Republicans claim him to be, and the argument that things will get much worse if given another four years, will not resonate with the public if they have reservations about the extreme nature of Santorum’s conservatism. On the other hand, many are worried whether a Romney nomination will effectively absorb not-Romney supporters, giving him a pyrrhic nomination victory that finds him low on funding from the prolonged nomination fight, the same pool of overused campaign contributors, tired volunteers, and dreary supporters lacking the energy to put up a fight against the Obama machine.

The only way Romney can win, which judging by the response of CPAC attendees is entirely possible, is if Republicans will make a whole-hearted effort to support their nominee because of their shared fear of another four years of Obama; a strong sentiment that cannot be ignored. If the Obama threat can unify Santorum and Gingrich supporters enough to overcome reservations they may hold toward Romney and successfully commandeer national rhetoric like they did in the 2010 election, they have a chance. But judging at the current state of the GOP, it is a long shot.

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