Deep South gives Santorum hope

Rick Santorum’s victories in Alabama and Mississippi might spell the end for Newt Gingrich.

Mitt Romney didn't stay in the Deep South after the results of Tuesday's primary vote came in. Perhaps it was because Alabama and Mississippi were his "away game", as he said. Or maybe it's because, even if he lost, he'd still be ahead of the others in number of delegates.

Indeed, he expected to run third, behind Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich, and even so, he'd gain a third of the delegates, give or take. That's enough, as he said, to inch closer to 1,144 needed to win.

Indeed, events unfolded pretty much like that. Santorum bested the field in both states. In Alabama, with 98 per cent of the vote counted, the former US senator from Pennsylvania had 34.5 per cent of ballots compared to Gingrich's 29.3 and Romney's 29.

The race was much closer in Mississippi, where for much of the evening, it was a statistical dead heat, with Santorum taking only a slight lead. But around 11pm EST, the TV networks projected Santorum as the winner. He took 32.9 per cent of the votes while Gingrich took 31.3 and Romney 30.3.

"We did it again," Santorum told supporters.

True grit

The media narrative in the run-up to Tuesday was by now familiar. Can Romney win the conservative stronghold of the Deep South where he must woo evangelical Christians and white, working-class voters? The answer is going to be no for most political observers. He is a rejected suitor. Yet again.

But as I say, that may not matter. Though he didn't do himself any favours talking about eating grits and saying "ya'll," he did come in to Tuesday's primaries with more delegates than Santorum, Gingrich and Ron Paul combined. Leaving with a third of the delegates (both states are proportional, not winner-takes-all) gets him just a little bit closer to the "magic number", as Romney put it.

What about the general election? If he struggles in the Land of Dixie, can Romney beat President Barack Obama? Even if, as some have said, a Romney nomination means conservatives stay home in November, there is no way Obama will take Alabama or Mississippi (or most likely any of the states in the American South). According to a survey by Public Policy Polling, more than half (52 per cent) of voters in Mississippi erroneously believe that Obama is a Muslim.

Meanwhile, Santorum and Gingrich have been making themselves completely unelectable by competing for the title of Mr Most Conservative. Both have pandered to evangelicals by railing against "anti-Christian bigotry" and the like. Gingrich used similar dog-whistle rhetoric as we saw in South Carolina – that Obama favours infanticide and that the US genuflects to the United Nations. He even promised to bring gasoline down to $2.50 a gallon with more domestic drilling.

Keep things in proportion

This might be the end for Gingrich. He's said he will carry on, but his main backer, Shelton Adelson, a billionaire casino magnate, has already hinted that he's as likely to put money in Romney's super-PAC as he is into Gingrich's. Without Adelson's support (for Gingrich, he's written cheques of roughly $10m), Gingrich would have quit long ago. But now, with only South Carolina and Georgia in his pockets and an ascendent Santorum, there's little reason to keep pushing, unless you count the practical get-out-the-vote value of making this nomination process appear to be exciting. Politics is sleight of hand, after all.

As for Santorum, if the rules didn't allot delegates proportionally, his wins on Tuesday would be more significant. As it is, he would have to crush Romney by wide margins in big states like such as New York and Illinois to make up ground, but that's unlikely, given Romney's lead and the amount of money flowing into his super-PAC, which has the luxury of attacking Santorum every chance it gets.

The best Santorum can do is to keep pushing ahead and making the case for a run in 2016 or 2020.

John Stoehr is a lecturer in English at Yale University.

John Stoehr teaches writing at Yale. His essays and journalism have appeared in The American Prospect, Reuters Opinion, the Guardian, and Dissent, among other publications. He is a political blogger for The Washington Spectator and a frequent contributor to Al Jazeera English.

 

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What Brussels can learn from the Italian referendum

Matteo Renzi's proposed reforms would have made it easier for eurosceptic forces within Italy to gain power in upcoming elections in 2018.

The Austrian presidential elections can justifiably be claimed as a victory for supporters of the European Union. But the Italian referendum is not the triumph for euroscepticism some have claimed.

In Austria, the victorious candidate Alexander van der Bellen ruthlessly put the EU centre stage in his campaign. “From the beginning I fought and argued for a pro-European Austria,” he said after a campaign that saw posters warning against “Öxit”.

Austrians have traditionally been eurosceptic, only joining the bloc in 1995, but Brexit changed all that.  Austrian voters saw the instability in the UK and support for EU membership soared. An overwhelming majority now back continued membership.

Van der Bellen’s opponent Norbert Hofer was at an immediate disadvantage. His far right Freedom Party has long pushed for an Öxit referendum.

The Freedom Party has claimed to have undergone a Damascene conversion but voters were not fooled.  They even blamed Nigel Farage for harming their chances with an interview he gave to Fox News claiming that the party would push to leave the EU.

The European Commission, as one would expect, hailed the result. “Europe was central in the campaign that led to the election of a new president and the final result speaks for itself,” chief spokesman Margaritis Schinas said today in Brussels.

“We think the referendum in Italy was about a change to the Italian constitution and not about Europe,” Schinas added.

Brussels has a history of sticking its head in the sand when it gets political results it doesn’t like.

When asked what lessons the Commission could learn from Brexit, Schinas had said the lessons to be learnt were for the government that called the referendum.

But in this case, the commission is right. The EU was a peripheral issue compared to domestic politics in the Italian referendum.

Alberto Alemanno is Jean Monnet Professor of EU Law and an Italian. He said the reforms would have been vital to modernise Italy but rejected any idea it would lead to an Italian Brexit.

“While anti-establishment and eurosceptic actors are likely to emerge emboldened from the vote, interpreting the outcome of the Italian referendum as the next stage of Europe’s populist, anti-establishment movement – as many mainstream journalists have done – is not only factually wrong, but also far-fetched.”

Renzi was very popular in Brussels after coming to power in a palace coup in February 2014. He was a pro-EU reformer, who seemed keen to engage in European politics.

After the Brexit vote, he was photographed with Merkel and Hollande on the Italian island of Ventotene, where a landmark manifesto by the EU’s founding fathers was written.

This staged communion with the past was swiftly forgotten as Renzi indulged in increasingly virulent Brussels-bashing over EU budget flexibility in a bid to shore up his plummeting popularity. 

Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker even publicly reprimanded Renzi for demonising the EU.

Renzi’s vow to resign personalised the referendum. He gave voters a chance to give him a bloody nose when his popularity was at an all-time low.

Some of the reforms he wanted were marked “to be confirmed”.  The referendum question was astonishingly verbose and complex. He was asking for a blank cheque from the voters.

Ironically Renzi’s reforms to the constitution and senate would have made it easier for the eurosceptic Five Star Movement to gain power in upcoming elections in 2018.

For reasons best known to themselves, they campaigned against the changes to their own disadvantage.

Thanks to the reforms, a Five Star government would have found it far easier to push through a “Quitaly” referendum, which now seems very distant.  

As things stand, Five Star has said it would push for an advisory vote on membership of the euro but not necessarily the EU.

The Italian constitution bans the overruling of international treaties by popular vote, so Five Star would need to amend the constitution. That would require a two thirds majority in both houses of parliament and then another referendum on euro membership. Even that could be blocked by one of the country’s supreme courts.

The Italian referendum was closely watched in Brussels. It was hailed as another triumph for euroscepticism by the likes of Farage and Marine Le Pen. But Italians are far more likely to be concerned about the possibility of financial turbulence, which has so far been mildly volatile, than any prospect of leaving the EU in the near future.

James Crisp is the news editor at EurActiv.com.