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.
Ron Paul’s non-campaign
Texas representative Ron Paul has not campaigned in these two states, choosing instead to pour his resources into caucuses, where the well-organized libertarian tends to do well. But in a Public Policy Polling survey released on Monday, he’s still pulling about 8 percent support in both Mississippi and Alabama.
Where these voters go, if anywhere, will have a real impact on today’s races. Gingrich has been voicing a Paul-like skepticism about the war in Afghanistan. Over the weekend, he told Fox News that the mission there is “not doable.” If even a couple thousand Paul backers flip to Gingrich, it would give him a crucial lift.
Mississippi, more than Alabama, is an example of the organizational debate brewing within the GOP. Romney has the backing of prominent Republican officials there, from the governor to Henry Barbour, a top-ranked party official and confidant of the influential former governor Haley Barbour.
But Santorum has the support of numerous church and community leaders, and Gingrich has tea-party activists working with his team. Once the dust settles in the Magnolia State, Romney and his allies will get a sense, for better or worse, whether the support of GOP grandees matters down south.
Gingrich’s remarks to supporters
After the contests are called by the networks, Gingrich will take the stage. Listen closely to what he says and how he says it. The tenor of this speech, more than his rah-rah rally in Atlanta last week, will likely indicate his confidence and energy as he moves forward.
His advisers expect him to fight on, for at least a few more weeks or perhaps to the convention, if he meets expectations. But no one, even those close to Gingrich, is entirely clear about his intentions should he lose both states. Will he talk up his chances in the two coming primaries, in Illinois and Louisiana, and repeat his Tampa pledge? Or, will he sound a tad melancholy and spend his time complaining about the elite media? How Gingrich handles this moment will say a lot about his future.
The Gingrich-Perry chatter
On Monday morning, there were whispers in Republican circles about a potential primary wild card: a pre-convention Gingrich-Perry ticket. According to Carl Cameron at Fox News, sources close to the Gingrich campaign are floating the idea.
Now, this nugget of political gossip may be just that — an attempt by Newt World to enthuse conservative southerners about the campaign’s longterm outlook and its connection to the popular Texas governor. If Perry responds to a Newt victory (or two) with punchy television interviews, featuring coy answers about whether he might join the ticket, this coupling may be in the works as a last-ditch Gingrich maneuver.
On Sunday’s Meet the Press, Santorum did not call on Gingrich to drop out. In an interview with NRO over the weekend, Santorum’s strategist, John Brabender, also resisted the chance to ask the former speaker to leave the stage.
But the Santorum camp, regardless of its we’re-not-meddling mantra, desperately wants a two-man race. If Santorum has a strong showing tonight — not necessarily a pair of wins, but finishes near the top — look for him to more forcefully ask conservatives to coalesce around one contender.
The delegate count
Only 90 delegates are at stake today, so regardless of who wins, Romney will keep his lead. Expect his aides to emphasize this math to reporters, since they’ve focused on the numbers since Super Tuesday, when Romney did well but didn’t sweep.
But the Alabama and Mississippi results, while not a threat to Romney’s top spot, could taper his big lead. According to the Associated Press, Santorum has 217 delegates and Romney has 454 delegates. Tonight, the former could easily close that gap and Gingrich, who has 107 delegates, could cut his deficit.
— Robert Costa is a political reporter for National Review.