Why Republican contests in closely fought Deep South could surprise

The Globe and Mail

Republican U.S. presidential candidate and former U.S. Senator Rick Santorum supporter Robert Westrick and son A.J. wait for results at Santorum's Alabama and Mississippi primary election night rally in Lafayette, Louisiana, March 13, 2012 (Mike Stone/Reuters/Mike Stone/Reuters)

The Republican leadership race turns south with key contests in Alabama and Mississippi Tuesday and the potential to surprise.

If public opinion polls are true – and that is a big ‘if’ given the record of polling in southern states – both Alabama and Mississippi are witnessing a close three-way race between Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich, with little consensus as to who is likely to emerge the winner.

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Which means there are three story lines in the making:

Mr. Romney finally steals a win in the south so that he can claim to have won contests in America’s West, Midwest, East and the South; or Mr. Gingrich wins the southern states and reinserts himself in to the Republican leadership race for a third time; or Mr. Santorum secures his place as the conservative alternative to front-runner Mr. Romney.

“About all we know for sure about Tuesday’s primaries is that Ron Paul will finish last in them,” said the head of the U.S.-based Public Policy Polling firm, after releasing its Alabama and Mississippi polls on the eve of Tuesday’s southern primaries.

Monday’s PPP polls results for Alabama and Mississippi can be found here.

Meanwhile, a slightly different set of poll results by American Research Group can be found here.

One U.S. news network described the Alabama and Mississippi polling as ”all over the place.” And there is good reason to be cautious of polling in the southern states.

As Nate Silver of The New York Times points out in his blog, polling in 2008 showed Hillary Clinton as having a slight edge heading in to the Alabama primary. In fact, Barack Obama ended up winning by 14 percentage points. The Republican Alabama primary race in the same year followed a similar pattern.

“On average, among the primary polls in our database from 1972 to 2008, surveys in Alabama and Mississippi conducted in the final two weeks of the campaign have missed by an average of 5.4 percentage points per candidate,” Mr. Silver explains.

“That’s considerably larger than the average for primaries in all states, which have missed by an average of 3.5 percentage points by the same measure.”

What isn't in doubt is that the Romney campaign has, yet again, outspent its rivals by a wide margin – a tried and tested formula to close-in on rivals and eke out wins as he did in Michigan and then in Ohio during last week’s Super Tuesday contests, where he carried six out of 10 states.

Of the nearly 6,000 campaign ads that aired on Mississippi and Alabama TV, 91 per cent were funded by Super PACs.

The wealthiest Super PAC is the pro-Romney group, Restore our Future, which was behind 65 per cent of all Alabama and Mississippi ads, according to Kantar Media’s CMAG.

With 119 delegates up for grabs in today’s primaries, the Republican leadership race remains a hunt for delegates.

The Romney campaign is looking to add to its current total of 454 delegates, and thereby make it mathematically difficult for any of his rivals – Mr. Santorum (217), Mr. Gingrich (107), Mr. Paul (47) – to overtake him as he gets closer to the 1,144 delegates he needs to clinch the nomination.

The best that his rivals could achieve would be to narrow the delegates gap and deny the Romney campaign the chance of getting to 1,144.

But today’s contests also offer Mr. Romney a remarkable opportunity to introduce a winning narrative by carrying Alabama and Mississippi during a week of bad news and diving poll numbers for the White House.

At a time when there is growing anxiety over rising gasoline prices, two separate polls showed Mr. Obama’s approval ratings dropping in just a month: to 41 per cent from 50 per cent in just one month, according to the New York Times/CBS poll; and to 46 per cent from 50 per cent, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll.

The candidate, however, with the most on the line is Mr. Gingrich. His ‘southern strategy’ yielded a win in his home state of Georgia last week on Super Tuesday. However, his campaign is looking for wins in Alabama and Mississippi to revive his campaign and make a strong case for why he should stay in the race.

Along with contests in Alabama and Mississippi, there are smaller contests in Hawaii and American Samoa. But the bulk of the delegates at stake are in the southern states.