Here’s what we can expect for Super Tuesday. Mitt Romney will win his home state of Massachusetts, the neighboring state of Vermont, and Virginia, where Ron Paul is the only other candidate on the ballot. Rick Santorum will win Oklahoma. And Newt Gingrich will win his home state of Virginia. When all the ballots are counted, Romney will probably come away with the most delegates by a comfortable margin.
What we don’t know is what will happen in Ohio and Tennessee. Santorum was ahead in both states for some time. But recent polls show that Romney has made the race close in both states. Santorum still appears to be the slight favorite in Tennessee, while Romney may now be the favorite in Ohio. Even winning both states wouldn’t give Romney and insurmountable lead in the delegate count. But if Romney can win both in midwestern Ohio and in the Bible Belt state of Tennessee, it’s difficult to see how Santorum can win the nomination.
Ohio matters the most. Republicans are likely to win Tennessee in the fall no matter who they nominate. But Ohio is a swing state. It could go either way and could easily decide a close election. Moreover, the same issue that will likely determine the general election, the economy, will largely determine who wins the Ohio primary.
As I wrote last week, Romney has difficulty appealing to the blue-collar voters that make up a large part of Ohio’s electorate. He managed to win in Michigan, even though exit polls show he lost among voters who made less than $100,000 a year. In a careful analysis of a recent YouGov poll, John Sides and Lynn Vavreck found that 88% percent of respondents said Romney cares about the wealthy, but just 35% said he cares about people like themselves—a 53 point difference. Fewer people thought Santorum was more likely to care about the wealthy than about themselves, with 81% saying he cares about the wealthy, compared to 49% who said he cares about people like them. For Obama the difference between the numbers was even smaller, with 58% saying he cares about the wealthy, versus 50% who said that he cares about people like themselves—just an 8 point cap. If Romney loses blue-collar voters in Ohio to Santorum, he’s going to have a hard time convincing them he’s their candidate in the general election.
That’s why all eyes are on Ohio. A Republican could certainly lose Ohio and still win the presidency. But it would be a lot harder to win the general election without Ohio. If Romney wins the Ohio primary, Republican leaders may begin to pull their support from Santorum, which would make it hard for him to continue. But if Santorum can pull off a victory, it will raise serious questions about Romney’s ability to beat Obama. Big Thinkers Kris Broughton and Peter Lawler are probably right to argue that Romney will win anyway. Romney would certainly remain the favorite to win the nomination. Nevertheless the race would continue to go on. And if Romney lost Ohio by a large enough margin, some Republicans would think seriously about backing a late-entry candidate to challenge him.
Ohio Statehouse image from Alexander Smith