“Super Tuesday” has been cast as a match between two main Republicans battling for the nomination, but the winner of the state with the most delegates to offer is probably going to be someone else: Newt Gingrich.
Gingrich’s campaign has been written off a handful of times, and more than once he’s bounced back in the polls. It might be too far into the primary for another resurgence, but Gingrich is still in position to do what many conservatives have feared for weeks — play the spoiler role for Rick Santorum and siphon off enough votes from him that Mitt Romney will walk away with the nomination.
Ten states vote today, and Georgia has the most delegates to be awarded with 76, followed by 66 in Ohio (a close race between Romney and Santorum), and 58 in Tennessee (where Santorum leads in polls). Gingrich has campaigned almost entirely in his home state of Georgia for weeks, abandoning states like Michigan and Arizona, which voted last week — hence his popularity with primary voters.
Strategists point to Gingrich’s popularity with senior citizens in Georgia who remember him as a loyal congressman when he represented a district in the state, and also his ability to pull off seemingly improbable victories, giving him credence in the “electability” category.
Gingrich’s strength in Georgia is so obvious that neither Romney nor Santorum have given the state serious thought, instead focusing on a much closer fight in Ohio. But while the former House speaker will no doubt bask in a big victory speech tonight should he win as expected, Romney is likely to be satisfied with the outcome, given the alternative.
For most of the primary campaign, Gingrich spoke kindly of the other “conservative alternative” in the race, Santorum. And Gingrich supporters have said that Santorum would be an easy second choice for them; the two candidates rarely disagreed on policy issues, and only lately has the dynamic between them intensified, as Super Tuesday approached.
In the race for second place in Georgia, Romney and Santorum are just as close as they are in Ohio. It’s not wild to suggest that if Gingrich weren’t a factor, Santorum might have been positioned well to win in Georgia, compensating for a loss in Ohio or buttressing stunning wins there and in Tennessee.
Gingrich’s candidacy effectively take Georgia out of the picture, giving more breathing room to Romney, who has risen slowly but steadily in polls in states that vote today.
Mark Rountree, a Republican pollster in Georgia, wondered why Gingrich put all his chips in Georgia instead of also trying to win in Tennessee, where the ex-speaker polls close with Romney despite not campaigning there.
“I just continue to wonder why Gingrich didn’t make a two-state play,” Rountree said. “If you can’t do it on Super Tuesday, when can you do it?”
Rountree noted that candidates who play the spoiler role, like Fred Thompson did in 2008 to help John McCain beat Mike Huckabee, typically don’t pick up points in the polls week after week — the way Gingrich has occasionally, and somewhat surprisingly, done.
For Gingrich’s campaign, he said, “You can never say never.”