Whatever the outcome, Republicans in Mississippi and Alabama will shake up the GOP presidential race today. Newt Gingrich could find new life, or he could face a difficult decision. Rick Santorum will be looking for a Dixie boost, as will Mitt Romney, who has struggled in southern primaries.
With so many dynamics at play, the final tallies are important, but they are not the entire story. As the returns come in, and candidates rally their supporters, keep an eye on these ten factors.
Mississippi and Alabama rarely have a say in choosing the Republican nominee. But voters in both states seem to be relishing this late-winter opportunity. Election officials expect high turnout, especially after multiple visits by the candidates.
Contested House and Senate primaries in Mississippi are also likely to draw GOP voters to the polls. But it’s hard to predict how the presidential tussle will break. An Alabama State University poll says a quarter of voters there are undecided.
Gingrich’s energy gambit
The Gingrich campaign, much like its candidate, is imperfect. Its marketing strategy wisely seems to acknowledge this: Instead of glazing the former speaker with a sheen, the campaign is asking its supporters at this late hour to simply share an idea.
The idea? “Newt = $2.50 gas.” On Facebook and Twitter, the slogan has caught fire, and Gingrich’s internal polling shows his energy ideas generating enthusiasm. Watch the exit polls to see if this pays off. The Gingrich campaign believes that if it does, this gas-focused narrative could boost it nationally.
Romney’s potential surprise
Romney’s southern campaign has featured a few overcooked panders, but it’s been effective. In the final week, he has seen a spike in the polls, even though he has earned scorn from some conservatives for touting his love of grits, and for using phrases such as “y’all” on the trail.
As Santorum and Gingrich have sparred, Romney has been quietly organizing his ground troops and rounding up endorsements, from Mississippi governor Phil Bryant to “redneck” comedian Jeff Foxworthy. In a tight three-way race, he could eke out a narrow victory and bolster his front-runner status.
The Mormon question
Romney may well score an upset in the Deep South, but in the event of an underwhelming finish, politicos will surely wonder whether his Mormon faith played a role. “I think that’s very subtly an issue,” said Alabama governor Robert Bentley on Monday.
According to the polls, Santorum remains the favorite of evangelicals. In both Mississippi and Alabama, over two-thirds of the GOP electorate comprises born-again Christians. Romney, however, is hammering his economic message, not social issues, as he attempts to win over this voting bloc. And the Mormon question, for what it’s worth, has rarely been a part of the public discussion.