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Super Tuesday recap: No end in sight for the Republican contest

For Buckeye State political watchers on Super Tuesday, there was a general election feel on a Republican primary election night. The candidate winning in most of the Democratic counties — in this case, Mitt Romney — got off to an early lead. Then the rural Republican counties came in, switching the vote back to the candidate winning most of those counties — in this case, Rick Santorum. Finally, the big urban counties — Franklin (Columbus), Hamilton (Cincinnati) and especially Cuyahoga (Cleveland) — reported their results, which in this case were enough to put the candidate that those counties preferred, Mitt Romney, over the top.

We knew before Super Tuesday started that Mitt Romney was going to win the majority of delegates in Ohio; Rick Santorum guaranteed that when he failed to file for 18 delegates. So even though from a delegate standpoint the popular vote winner of the Buckeye State was not that important, psychologically the victor was crucial. And Romney, though barely, got the psychological boost from a statewide win in the most important Super Tuesday state. This proves anew that a few votes in American politics can make all the difference (just ask George W. Bush about 537 votes in Florida in 2000).

Ohio aside, let’s pull back and view Super Tuesday as a whole. Romney won six of the 10 states and far more of the available delegates than his rivals. Except for Ohio and perhaps Alaska, his other wins were not particularly surprising. The former Bay State governor was expected to carry Massachusetts, Vermont, Idaho and especially Virginia, where his only opposition was Ron Paul. Gingrich was expected to win Georgia and did; Santorum was expected to win Oklahoma and Tennessee, and he did. North Dakota’s vote for Santorum was a bit of a surprise because it was Ron Paul’s best opportunity to shine. All in all, though, this Super Tuesday played out pretty much as analysts had projected, including the Crystal Ball.

The least exciting contest of the night was in Virginia. Living up to its age-old reputation for minimizing political competition, the Old Dominion featured the shortest ballot of all 50 states — just Romney and Paul. The preelection polling (such as the NBC/Marist survey that showed Romney defeating Paul 69-26) had suggested a massive Romney win. Instead, Ron Paul turned in one of his best primary performances ever, securing 40.5% of the vote and even grabbing three delegates by winning a congressional district. No doubt, this was a result of some Gingrich and Santorum supporters joining forces with Paul to send a message to Mitt. But given Gov. Bob McDonnell’s strong support for Romney, as well as the backing of most top GOP elites, it is more than a little surprising that Romney would only secure 59.5%. Even worse, the 6% turnout was the lowest of any GOP presidential primary in Virginia history. More than half a century ago, noted political scientist V.O. Key said that compared to Virginia, “Mississippi is a hotbed of democracy.” Considering that there are eight presidential candidates (and an opportunity for a write-in) on Mississippi’s ballot, and there were only two candidates on Virginia’s and no write-in, the observation still holds.

Additionally, and we’re a broken record on this topic, the failure of Gingrich and Santorum to qualify for the ballot in Virginia is a searing indictment of their campaigns (though it is also an indictment of Virginia’s super-strict ballot access requirements). Gingrich and Santorum assuredly left many delegates on the field by failing to compete in the Old Dominion, delegates that Mitt Romney was happy to pick up for himself.

While satisfying in one sense, the reality of the “expected” means that the race goes on. There are no upsets because the GOP base is still not ready to let go of the battle. It is obvious to almost every observer that Mitt Romney is likely to be the Republican nominee for president. But could it be that Republican activists want Romney put through his paces week after week, if only to drum into him the conservative principles they suspect he does not fully embrace?

If anything, Tuesday’s results confirm that Romney still has some big problems with the base of the party. The Republican Party is a Southern party, and he hasn’t done well in the South. More than seven in 10 Republican voters in Tennessee on Super Tuesday were evangelical Christians; only 24% of them supported Romney, according to exit polls (Romney won 28% in Tennessee overall). It’s not a surprise that Romney couldn’t win in the Volunteer State, even though polls showed a close race there in the closing days of the race. Romney could have had a truly Super Tuesday if he had won in Tennessee, but looking at the demographics it’s not surprising that he ended up falling far short.

We can make one prediction: No one is going to drop out of this contest any time soon. The race moves to Kansas on Saturday (March 10) and Mississippi and Alabama next Tuesday (March 13). Santorum starts out with an edge in the Sunflower State while he and Gingrich will battle it out in the Magnolia State and Yellowhammer State. In general, we are seeing even more clearly the regional pattern that has been emerging since January. Romney is winning the Northeast and the West (especially states with substantial Mormon populations). Gingrich’s strength is in the Deep South. Santorum is doing very well in the middle Midwest corridor as well as the border South. Where Ron Paul shows strength, it is usually in the caucus states of the West. We expect this pattern to persist for some time.

A debate is raging about whether this week-in, week-out battle is helping or hurting the Republican party. As usual, there are advantages and disadvantages. Romney is being tested and strengthened as a candidate — and by all indications, he needs the practice. Yet at the same time, the process is highly negative, has raised Romney’s unfavorables to dangerous levels, and has convinced a sizable portion of the Republican Party that their field is weak, their likely nominee unimpressive and their enthusiasm unwarranted. It is no wonder that GOP leaders privately hope for a quick resolution. At the Crystal Ball, however, we doubt that their hopes will be fulfilled.