NATCHITOCHES, La., March 14, 2012—It was a good night for Rick Santorum. It was not a good night for Mitt Romney. Newt Gingrich is a zombie.
President Obama might want to celebrate tonight’s election results in the morning with a nice bowl of grits for breakfast.
Gingrich’s southern strategy is dead, and so is his campaign. The only southerner in the race, he’s said all along that the South would help him to the nomination. R.C. Hammond, his spokesman, told reporters last week that Gingrich had to win both Alabama and Mississippi to remain a viable candidate. He came in a close second in both, results that would be respectable if he had more wins to his credit. But he doesn’t. There’s no way Gingrich can spin the night’s results into victory.
Nor can Romney, but his campaign remains very much alive. The mathematics of the delegate race didn’t demand that he win – if he and Santorum traded results, the effect would be a gain of only seven delegates for Romney – but a victory in either state would have been a definite boost. He won some delegates, and if he wins Hawaii and American Samoa, as is widely expected, his delegate lead will grow, but the losses still hurt, and they illustrate a serious weakness.
Romney could have won in Mississippi, and even Alabama wasn’t out of reach. He had sufficient support on paper to win, and the spread between him and Santorum was actually quite narrow. Between him and Gingrich the gap was even narrower, and second-place would have been just fine. But his supporters weren’t sufficiently supportive to actually go out and vote. He showed, if anyone needed showing, that his support is a mile wide and an inch deep. His supporters preferred to stay home and watch CSI, and so Romney came in third.
Were he a reasonable man who cared only about defeating Obama, Gingrich would drop out at once. His gracious (who knew that Newt could be gracious?) concession speech to Santorum would have been an endorsement. But Gingrich won’t go. His goal is now to keep Romney from winning the 1144 delegates he needs to win this race outright, and he wants to take every delegate he can from Romney. He’s convinced that in a brokered convention, Romney won’t get the nomination.
Party conservatives will argue that the best way to stop Romney is for Gingrich to stop dividing the conservative vote and throw his support to Santorum. His continued presence in the race doesn’t reduce Romney’s chances of winning; it increases them. It’s Santorum’s brain he’s eating, not Romney’s. His conservative critics don’t see this from Newt’s perspective, though: If he were to leave the race, where would he go?
Where indeed? He’s 68. He has no more races left to run. This race has put his legacy as Speaker of the House under hostile scrutiny, something he sees as an act of vandalism on Romney’s part. He doesn’t want to retire to a resort and the lecture circuit; he wants to end his career as a serious player on the national stage. Barring that, he wants to punish Romney personally, not through a surrogate. He has nothing to lose by staying in the race, and if Santorum does have something to lose from it, too bad for him.
And so Romney remains locked in a nomination battle that keeps his negatives up and diverts attention from President Obama. Rick Santorum is strengthened, so Romney won’t be able to tack moderate on social issues. The GOP ends up looking more radical on these issues, and Romney, if he gets the nomination, will have a much harder time winning back the voters who are repulsed by Santorum’s views. This is all to Obama’s benefit. Romney wins in Mississippi and Alabama were exactly what Obama didn’t want, so he ends the night the biggest winner.
What now? The next races are in Illinois, Missouri, and Louisiana. April brings contests in New York, Delaware, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Connecticut, Rhode Island, D.C., and Maryland. Missouri looks like Santorum territory, New York and D.C., Romney country. Gingrich and Ron Paul don’t look competitive anywhere. There are no obvious turning points for Romney in that lineup, though he’ll win most of the delegates, hence April should be another very good month for Obama.
A brokered convention still looks extremely unlikely, but because Gingrich and Santorum have almost no chance of winning 1144 delegates before the convention, that result is what they’re trying to force on the GOP. Thus it might be worth asking: If the convention is brokered, who, aside from Obama, is likely to win? If the nomination is denied to Romney, whom will he support? Could any Republican win in November without his considerable organizational and money-raising network? Depending on April’s results, those questions will be more or less important to consider.
James Picht is the Senior Editor for Communities Politics and teaches economics at the Louisiana Scholars’ College in Natchitoches, La., where he went to take a break from working in Moscow and Washington. But he fell in love with the town and with the professor of Romance languages, so there he stayed. Now he teaches, annoys his children, and makes jalapeno lemonade. If any candidates come to Louisiana, he advises them not to eat crawfish anywhere near a photographer. He tweets, hangs out on Facebook, and has a blog he totally neglects at pichtblog.blogspot.com.
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