Super Tuesday won't deliver a knockout blow

Bella Mow, 4, sits on her father Michael's shoulders and has her picture taken by Savannah Stewart, 9, as they wait for the arrival of Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney March 1, 2012, in Idaho Falls, Idaho. AP Photo/The Idaho Post-Register

(The New Republic) This year's Super Tuesday will be "super" in the most obvious way: Ten states with a total of 437 delegates will make their decisions on the same day. What will be the upshot of all these contests? Below, a guide to what is likely to happen and how to interpret the results:

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Super Tuesday won't prove decisive. This is true for two reasons. First, all ten states are using some variant of a proportional system to award delegates. Some are looking to statewide vote totals, while others focus on the results within congressional districts. (Ohio uses a hybrid system: About a quarter of the delegates are allocated proportional to the statewide vote above a 20 percent threshold, unless one candidate gets more than 50 percent of the vote, in which case he gets all the statewide delegates. The remaining three quarters go to the victor in each congressional district on a winner-take-all basis.) Whatever the details, these proportional allocation schemes virtually ensure that no candidate will score the kind of knockout blow that John McCain did on Super Tuesday four years ago.

Second, the mix of states on March 6 makes it very unlikely that any candidate will pull off anything like a clean sweep. In 2008, Mitt Romney didn't win a single primary in the Deep South, and almost half his victories came in states that share a border with Canada. With that track record, he's not likely to prevail in Georgia, or Tennessee, or Oklahoma on Tuesday, though he should win comfortable victories in Massachusetts and Vermont. And because neither Newt Gingrich nor Rick Santorum managed to get on the Virginia ballot, Romney should prevail there as well, barring a shocking last-minute surge in support for Ron Paul. And then there are three smaller states (Alaska, Idaho, North Dakota) where libertarian support for Paul could make a difference -- who knows how much, and to whose ultimate advantage?

The biggest prize is Ohio -- and it's still up for grabs. Ohio is the most important state that is voting on Tuesday not because it awards the most delegates (it doesn't; Georgia is larger in that respect), but because it's the most significant politically. Since the founding of the GOP more than a century and a half ago, no Republican has ever won the presidency without carrying Ohio, which is the closest thing we have to a microcosm of the country. Granted, the state's Republican primary electorate is far from a representative sample of voters in Ohio. But it is large and diverse, and unlike Georgia and Michigan, it's no one's home base. In short, it's a fair fight for high stakes.

So what's happening in the Buckeye state? Two weeks ago, Santorum had moved out to a eighteen point lead, 42-24, over Romney. As of March 2, that edge had shrunk to only two points, 33-31. (Both findings are from Rasmussen, so it's an apples-to-apples comparison.) The most recent Quinnipiac survey as of March 2 closely tracks Rasmussen, with Santorum enjoying a 35-31 advantage over Romney. (The next survey from that organization comes out Monday morning.)

The internals of the Q-poll offer some insight into the dynamics of the race. As has been the case in other states, Romney does well among older and better-educated voters, while Santorum is strong among white evangelicals and Tea Party supporters. 69 percent of Santorum's supporters say they've made up their minds. But so have 65 percent of Romney's. Notably, 48 percent of the voters backing Gingrich say they might change, and those who do are more likely to shift toward Santorum than toward Romney. And the demographics tend to work in Santorum's favor. Compared to Michigan, Ohio has more evangelicals, more voters with no college education, and a larger share of its population in rural areas. On the other hand, as we saw in Michigan, voters still know less about Santorum than they do about Romney, who has run a national race before. So new information via negative advertising can influence their opinion of Santorum, and we can be sure that the Romney campaign will spend whatever they have in an effort to impugn Santorum's conservative credentials. These countervailing forces point to a close contest down to the wire.

For Santorum, the difference between success and failure rests on two states. The best outcome for Santorum would be to win Oklahoma and Tennessee by healthy margins, hold on to beat Romney in Ohio, and squeeze by Gingrich in Georgia (unlikely but not out of the question). If that were to happen, Santorum would be declared the evening's winner, regardless of the delegate count, and the Republican race would continue without a clear front-runner. The worst outcome for Santorum: winning only Oklahoma and Tennessee, fueling the narrative that he can't expand his base of support much beyond social conservatives and intensifying the effort of those outside that base to rally around Romney.

Gingrich is almost certainly finished. It's hard to see how he wins anything outside of Georgia and restores his credibility as the leading movement-conservative alternative to Romney. He'll probably keep on going as long as the cash flows from Las Vegas. But Sheldon Adelson didn't get to be one of the richest men in America by pouring his money down rat holes. If nothing else, March 6 may be remembered as Gingrich's Waterloo.

William Galston is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a contributing editor for The New Republic. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

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