Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich speaks at the Alabama primary night rally Tuesday, March 13, 2012, in Birmingham, Ala. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
Newt Gingrich may not drop out of the race just yet, but his campaign for president is effectively finished. On Tuesday, Rick Santorum won both Mississippi’s and Alabama’s primaries. Gingrich came in second, but that’s not good enough. Last week Gingrich’s spokesman, R.C. Hammond, said they had to win both Mississippi and Alabama, and everywhere else in the Deep South to remain a credible candidate. “From Spartanburg [SC] all the way to Texas, those all need to go for Gingrich,” Hammond said.
On Super Tuesday Gingrich won only one state—Georgia, which he represented in Congress—out of ten. Santorum picked up several states and gave Romney a scare in the key battleground of Ohio. It is clear that Rick Santorum has firmly supplanted Gingrich as the leading conservative alternative to front-runner Mitt Romney.
This is especially so because of the geographic distribution of each candidate’s support. As this map of the results prior to Tuesday demonstrates, Gingrich’s support has been isolated to the South. The only states he won are South Carolina and Georgia, and the only counties he won elsewhere were in Northern Florida and a few spots in Oklahoma. Romney dominates the Northeast, Southwest and urban Midwest. Santorum wins the rural Midwest and Great Plains.
This didn’t give Gingrich a plausible path to the nomination. But if he won Mississippi and Alabama, he could have stayed in the race as a potential power-broker. A Republican who wins all the Deep South primaries has a credible claim to represent the heart of the party’s base.
But Gingrich can no longer claim to represent the soul of the GOP any more than Santorum. Santorum won Tennessee and Oklahoma on Super Tuesday, and so he is as much the South’s preferred candidate as Gingrich. Unlike Gingrich, Santorum also has won or come in a close second in many states outside the South.
When Gingrich comes to the South, he deftly deploys culture war appeals. It worked in South Carolina. He tried it again this past week. But it didn’t work well enough this time. Republicans—especially the ultraconservative in the South—badly want to beat Barack Obama, and they know it’s time to narrow the field.
The Gingrich campaign maintains they are still in the race. Speaking on MSNBC, Gingrich’s daughter Jackie said Tuesday’s results show “we’re still very strong.… we’re moving on to Illinois and Louisiana.” So they’re not dropping out for now. Gingrich, addressing supporters in Birmingham, insisted he intends to go all the way to the Republican convention in August. Since Gingrich came in second in both states, he portrayed the night’s results as proof of Romney’s weakness. “If you keep coming in third you’re not much of a front-runner,” Gingrich cracked. In a typical Gingrichian flourish, he noted that “the conservative candidates” won 70 percent of the vote, and that “the elite media’s effort” to declare Romney’s nomination inevitable is incorrect. He delivered these lines, and most of his speech, with a scowl on his face.