Mitt Romney Faces Tough Upcoming Primary Schedule
Mitt Romney may have won the most states and the most delegates on Super Tuesday, but the next 10 days of the Republican primary are unlikely to prove nearly as fruitful for the GOP frontrunner.
The primary heads south, with a slew of Southern and Midwestern states voting in the coming days. On Saturday, it's Kansas. On Tuesday, Alabama and Mississippi. The following Saturday, Missouri. Even if in Boston today Romney's campaign is touting that it is all but impossible for Santorum to win enough delegates to secure the party's nomination outright, the next week is shaping up to be a string of victories for the former Pennsylvania senator.
"We are in this thing!" Santorum exclaimed in a speech Tuesday night.
Look no further than a few of the Super Tuesday results for an indication of why. In Tennessee, a state that sits just to the north of Alabama and Mississippi, Santorum won 37 percent of the vote, compared with 28 percent for Romney. In fact, Romney barely managed to beat Newt Gingrich, who racked up 24 percent of the vote. What catapulted Santorum to victory there - and plunged Romney to defeat - was that when it came to understanding the problems of average Americans, 60 percent of voters opted for either Santorum or Gingrich. While more than four in ten voters said Romney was the candidate best equipped to beat President Obama in the fall - nearly double Santorum's tally - the electability factor was not enough to overcome Romney's shortcomings on the empathy factor.
Like Tennessee, where 73 percent of voters on Tuesday identified themselves as evangelical, both Alabama and Mississippi are states with large portions of evangelical and very conservative voters, groups that have sided with Santorum in the primary. In 2008, for instance, evangelical voters made up 77 percent of the vote in Alabama and 69 percent of the vote in Mississippi.
Expect a similar story in Kansas and Missouri. The best comparison for those states is what happened Tuesday in Oklahoma, where 72 percent of voters said they are evangelical. Santorum was an easy winner there, too, with 34 percent of the vote. Romney finished with 28 percent, while Gingrich took 27 percent of the vote.
The Midwest has been good to Santorum in the campaign to date. In addition to Oklahoma and Tennessee, he has won Iowa, Minnesota, Colorado and North Dakota. By comparison, Romney has only won his native state of Michigan and, apparently, a narrow, nail-biting victory in Ohio by the slimmest of margins: 38 percent to 37 percent over Santorum.
Missouri, in fact, already held a primary last month, but it was known at the time that it would not affect the state's delegate allocation in favor of caucuses in March. In a likely preview of what is to come next week, Santorum won the primary.
If Santorum has a concern in the coming days, it may be more Gingrich than Romney. On Wednesday Santorum's Super PAC - the Red, White and Blue Fund - called for Gingrich to exit the race, arguing that Santorum could have won both Ohio and Michigan if the former House Speaker had not been on the ballot and that what is needed is "a true head-to-head race" so voters can choose between "a consistent conservative in Rick Santorum or Mitt Romney." However, Gingrich has vowed to fight on, claiming that he does not think enough of Santorum's chances to warrant leaving the race.
"If I thought he was a slam dunk to beat Romney and to beat Obama I would really consider getting out," Gingrich said on The Bill Bennett Show. "I don't."
Gingrich's campaign is now focusing strictly on the two upcoming southern states - Alabama and Mississippi - with spokesman R.C. Hammond saying Wednesday that the Georgia native has to win both those states to stay credible in the race.
"We're staying in this race because I believe it's going to be impossible for a moderate to win the general election," Gingrich said at a rally Wednesday in Montgomery, Ala.
Gingrich's continued presence in the race is good news for Romney, even if the former Massachusetts governor is still unlikely to win any of the southern states. The longer Gingrich continues to siphon votes from Santorum, the better for Romney's chances. In addition to Romney's lead in delegates won, he also boasts a heftier war-chest than any of his rivals. Romney's campaign announced Wednesday that it had hauled in $11.5 million last month, over $2 million more than Santorum.
But Romney may have to endure a difficult next ten days before the Republican primary calendar eventually starts to work in his favor. Not until Illinois holds its primary on March 20 is there a state where Romney will be favored. And not until states like Maryland, Connecticut and Delaware vote on April 3 will Romney be able to put together any type of extended winning streak.
Ultimately, the delegate math may be on Romney's side, but the immediate primary schedule, it seems, is most definitely not.
Matthew Jaffe is covering the 2012 campaign for ABC News and Univision.