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Deep South gives Santorum hope

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

By John Stoehr

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.

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“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.