Rick Santorum Takes the South, Mitt Romney Gets Dominated in Mississippi and Alabama

Rick Santorum won the Alabama and Mississippi primaries on Tuesday, a critical victory in the South that will undoubtedly send the GOP presidential primary into disarray. Mitt Romney — who looked to prove that he could win the critical Southern vote, but came in a shocking third place in both contests — will now face growing questions from the Republican establishment about his ability to win in the wider general election. Newt Gingrich, who staked his entire campaign on the South, will now have no other option than to drop out of the race.  

In Alabama, Santorum was the projected winner with 35% of the vote. Gingrich came in second with 30% of the vote, followed by Romney’s 28%.

In Mississippi, Santorum narrowly edged out his rivals, winning 33% of the vote, compared to Gingrich’s 31% and Romney’s 30%.

"This campaign is about ordinary folks doing extraordinary things, sort of like America," Santorum said in his victory speech.

Whatever, right?

It might sound gimmicky, but Santorum's salt of the earth style is really resonating. 

Evangelical s were the critical demographic in Santorum’s win, proving that the former Pennsylvania senator’s brand of social conservatives resonates strongly with Republicans in the South. Around 80% of all voters in Alabama and Mississippi were Evangelical Christians, the highest concentration of this group to vote in primaries so far in the GOP campaign.

Most Alabama and Mississippi voters also clearly think that Santorum — not Romney — will be the strongest candidate against Barack Obama come November. Electability was the biggest candidate quality to these voters. Exit polls in Alabama showed that 39% of voters said defeating Obama was the most important quality, while 42% of Mississippi voters said the same thing.

Many voters seemed to think Santorum has the best ideas on the economy. According to exit polls in Alabama, 93% of voters said they were worried about the direction of the nation's economy, including 82% of voters, who said they were very worried.

Santorum also bested the Romney money machine, showing that he doesn’t necessarily need Romney’s cash flow to take the nomination. According to the Huffington Post, Restore Our Future, Romney's super PAC, was spending $1.42 million on ads in Alabama and $973,000 in Mississippi. The Gingrich campaign was running about $125,000 in ads in Alabama and $83,000 in Mississippi, while the pro-Gingrich super PAC Winning Our Future was spending $413,000 on ads in Alabama and $250,000 in Mississippi.

Santorum had only a nominal presence on the air in both states. But the Red White and Blue fund, his allied super PAC, was spending $275,000 on ads in Alabama and $235,000 in Mississippi.

Many Southern voters seemed to think Romney doesn’t understand the little man. Few voters in either state thought Romney best understood the problems of average Americans (3 in 10 in Mississippi, 2 in 10 in Alabama).

The South completely destroyed Romney’s conservative blue collar credibility.

Gingrich had looked to win big in Alabama and Mississippi, wins that would have kept his campaign afloat. It now looks as if the former speaker of the House has run out of steam in this contest. Expect him to drop out of the race soon.

On Sunday's Meet the Press, Santorum said Gingrich's recent weak performances reveal he has few options remaining. "The speaker can stay in as long as he wants, but I think the better opportunity to make sure that we nominate a conservative is to give us an opportunity to go head-to-head with Gov. Romney at some point and hopefully that will occur sooner rather than later." 

As Romney licks his wounds in the South, the former governor will hope for strong finishes in the Hawaii and American Samoa caucuses in the Pacific, contests which trend heavily in his favor and which will be called early Wednesday morning.

Photo Credit: Gage Skidmore

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Chris Miles

Chris has worked for media outlets including the Associated Press and Stars and Stripes. He worked with the Clinton Foundation, the United Nations, and with the Kentucky state legislature. He holds a master's degree in political science from the University of Louisville, and a BA in journalism and political science from the University of Kentucky. He is originally from Lexington, Ky. Kentucky basketball occupies a majority of his free time.

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