March 15, 2012        A publication of Thursday Review, copyright 2012

In the two most cadmium red Deep South states, arguments about cheesy grits, biscuits and homemade gravy have ceased, negative ads no longer saturate the airwaves and cable avails, and robotic recorded calls to answering machines have stopped cold.  Draw a line from Natchez up to Tupelo, then over to Huntsville, then down to Dothan, then back to Natchez by way of Mobile, and within that area you would have found more TV network reporters, satellite trucks and camera crews per capita than in all of New York, Washington and Atlanta combined.

What are the good citizens of Alabama and Mississippi to do now?

We believed that in this pair of states—the two most closely watched conservative bastions for the GOP this year since South Carolina—was to be found, finally, that decisive moment of clarification and redemption, the survivor moment when party traditionalists and party idealists would cast aside the imposters and weaklings, leaving, perhaps, only two men standing.  It didn’t quite work out that way.

In fact, the votes from Alabama and Mississippi settled nothing: once again, everyone survives to fight another day.  Only Ron Paul’s candidacy remains in question, though Dr. Paul is unlikely to concede for a moment that his libertarian message has lost steam.  The real winner was Rick Santorum, whose emotional and psychological victory was the night’s biggest story.

The polls had been tightening through the previous weekend, and appeared to indicate a three-way deadlock in several of the most watched surveys.  Furthermore, the Romney campaign tasted—and imprudently advertised—a potential victory by stealth in one or both of the states.  No such Romney surge materialized, and in the end Santorum pulled off clean wins in both, setting the stage for a strong showing by Santorum in Louisiana and possibly Illinois.

Clearly Mitt Romney did not expect to be on the receiving end of some sort of knockout punch, nor did anyone else expect to throw that mortal jab.  Romney is still the man to beat, and his numerical advantage grows taller with each passing week.  In fact, at the close of last night’s voting—give or take—Romney may have acquired close to half of the delegates he needs to secure the GOP nomination outright. Santorum and Gingrich each trail far behind Romney in the delegate count.

Romney’s only sin—and certainly the critical mistake of his staffers and proxies in the field—was to raise the expectation game in both states, talking up the possibility that the governor might snatch victories from the jaws of defeat on turf that was not his own.  This backchannel talk fueled much of the media narrative for the night as returns trickled in across both states, helping to solidify the notion of Santorum’s double win as another “surprising” victory and giving Santorum more bragging rights than had originally been possible. When the anticipated Romney surge did not materialize, the media chatter was of another “setback” for Romney’s goal of closing the sale.

Speaking to a large audience in Lafayette, Louisiana, Santorum’s voice was at first hoarse and dry from continuous campaigning, but the enthusiasm of the crowd helped fuel the cadence his speech.  Santorum began by calling into question the validity of Romney’s view of himself as inevitable, suggesting that for someone who claims to have the nomination secure, Romney is certainly spending “a whole lot of money.”

Santorum also ridiculed Romney’s verbal taunts from earlier that very day—comments by Romney to CNN’s Wolf Blitzer in which he said Santorum’s campaign was “in its last desperate stages.”  Santorum told his supporters that the night’s wins were proof that their efforts were paying off and that the fight for the nomination is far from inevitable.

And that brings us once again to the real drama: what happens to the potency of the insurrectionist movements if their forces remain divided?  A simple glance at the county-by-county results in Alabama indicates the tenacity of this split within the anti-Romney school of thought.  Santorum won a near total sweep of the north and southwest, whereas Gingrich mopped up a clean sweep of south and southeast Alabama. Counties were similarly split in Mississippi.

In what has become a familiar pattern through almost the entire primary and caucus season, Romney’s biggest wins (in this case his only wins) came in the heaviest population centers of Alabama.  Romney won in Jefferson County (Birmingham), Mobile County, Baldwin County (affluent Mobile suburbs such as Daphne, Fairhope and Orange Beach) and in Montgomery, the state’s capital and home to the Camellia State’s political establishment. Despite this, Santorum even managed to win some mid-sized cities: Tuscaloosa, Florence, Gadsden and Huntsville (Madison County) and the college metro-area of Auburn and Opelika (Lee County).

Gingrich won easily in southeast Alabama, carrying Houston County (Dothan) and racking up comfortable wins in the Wiregrass Areas, which include Dale County, Barbour County, Coffee County, Geneva County and other areas to the south and east of Montgomery.  Gingrich also carried Chilton County (Clanton) and Talladega.

Santorum’s wins in Alabama grew more substantial—and Romney’s defeats deeper—the further one got from the biggest cities.  In the ring of heavily populated suburban and exurban counties around Birmingham, such as Shelby, Blount, Walker and Tuscaloosa, Santorum won by larger numbers than expected.  His win in Cullman was huge, 43%, leaving Romney in a distant third place.

Overall, Santorum carried the state, winning Alabama by a comfortable 35%, compared to 29% for Gingrich and Romney each.  In a predominant number of non-urban counties, Romney placed not second, but third.

Mississippi had been the more important prize for Santorum, for it was in the Magnolia State where the first tremors had begun over the weekend—rumbling from some quarters that a Romney sneak attack was in the making.  Former Governor Haley Barbour had indicated as much officially, and then, over the course of Saturday and Sunday some of Romney’s surrogates also let it be known that they considered Mississippi within the grasp of the former Massachusetts governor.  When the polling on Monday reflected that indeed Romney had gained ground—in both states—there was a sense that Romney might indeed be close to pulling off an upset these two conservative GOP states.   A win for Romney in either state would go a long way toward ending the argument about his conservative bona fides among evangelicals, Tea Partiers and the social issue right.  A win in both states might mean the end of the insurgent movements.

Again the pattern for Romney was reliable: he was winning in the Magnolia State’s cities and large towns, as well as those counties where the more affluent voters reside.  Romney won easily in Hinds County (Jackson), Harrison County (Gulfport) and the high dollar coastal areas between Biloxi and Pascagoula.  Romney also won big in suburban Rankin and Madison Counties, a short drive east and northeast of Jackson.  Romney carried a dozen of the more affluent counties along—or near—the Mississippi River, but carried only four counties in the eastern half of the state.

Santorum and Gingrich split all the real estate which remained, with Santorum taking the slightly larger share.  Gingrich scored his best winnings in Hattiesburg and the surrounding counties—Forrest County, Lamar County, Jones County and Covington County.

In the end, Mississippi divided its votes statewide nearly evenly: Santorum 33%; Gingrich 31%; Romney 31%; Ron Paul trailing in fourth with roughly 4%.

The vote totals had trickled in slower in Alabama than in Mississippi, a result perhaps, of Mississippi’s upgraded high-tech voting machines, but in both states the totals had been breathtakingly close throughout the night, with as few as 100 votes separating rival candidates at time. Vote totals from the heavy population centers along the Gulf Coast and especially in Birmingham were agonizingly slow to arrive.  Romney seemed at times within striking distance of turning his eleventh hour surge into a genuine win in one or the other state, but as the night wore on Santorum’s lead—scant at first—began to enlarge as more rural counties reported results, and as it became apparent that voter turnout was lower than expected in the urban pockets.

Ultimately Santorum prevailed by larger margins than even the Fox News and CNN exit polls had predicted.  For Santorum this was another come-from-behind vindication.  And in the end Romney’s third-place showing may have served to hurt the presumed front-runner in the all-important psychological game of momentum.

Still, Romney acquired some bragging rights of his own.  Coupled with his expected win in the Hawaii caucuses, Romney takes a healthy serving of delegates—what may turn out to be the slightly larger share thanks to the new proportional allotment system in Alabama and the fact that Romney walks away with only one delegate less than Santorum in Mississippi.

As for Hawaii, the time zone differences made it a practical impossibility for the major networks to segue directly from the Deep South to the middle of the Pacific Ocean, so Hawaii’s caucus results came later.  Romney won—not a surprise—but Santorum and Paul each managed to make a more substantial dent than originally expected.  Paul won the Big Island of Hawaii (Hawaii County) by a two percent margin (out of 1417 votes cast), and Romney won all other counties, including the most densely populated areas on Oahu, including Honolulu, Waipahu, Kaneohe and Kailua.

Romney won 45% of the caucus vote in the Aloha State, with Santorum trailing at 25% and Ron Paul 18%.  Gingrich arrived in a distant fourth place with barely 11%. Again, it was the proportion of urban and suburban votes that held Romney aloft.  He won in heavily populated Honolulu County by a whopping 52%, twice the vote received by Santorum, his closest competitor.  In the neighboring counties the math was closer, with Ron Paul placing a very close second in Maui.

Meanwhile, Rick Santorum moves on to Puerto Rico, where he hopes to pull off a steal of his own.  Puerto Ricans go to the polls Sunday, and for Santorum every delegate now counts mightily if his quest to overtake Romney is to succeed.  Still ahead are the high value prizes of Illinois (Tuesday, March 20) and Louisiana (Saturday, March 24).

Copyright 2012, Thursday Review


Road Show is published each week by Thursday Review publications, copyright 2008, 2012