Tomorrow night's primaries could end up being anticlimactic after Republicans have spent the past few week fretting about Mitt Romney's inability to win Southern states. So far, the Bible Belt has been his weakest territory to date. While Romney could lose every state in the Deep South and still gain the required number of delegates, conservatives have been worried about the fractured nature of a party where the likely nominee fails to win the most reliably Republican region of the country.
Mississippi and Alabama might just buck the anti-Romney trend. Public Policy Polling looked at both states over the weekend and found Romney in a statistical dead heat with his social conservative opponents. Romney had the slight lead in Alabama with 31 percent to 30 for Gingrich and 29 percent for Santorum. That tracks along the same lines as a Rasmussen poll from the end of last week that also had the three candidates separated by one-point margins. It's more of a two-man race in Mississippi—Gingrich is up 33-31 over Romney, and Santorum is a little further back at 27 percent. That's another state Rasmussen sampled last week, though they put Romney far ahead at 35 percent, trailed by Gingrich and Santorum at 27 percent.
Exit polls from past states indicated that one of Romney's biggest problems has been with very conservative and evangelical voters—two groups that tend to overlap. Romney actually carried Tennessee voters who termed themselves "somewhat conservative" or "moderate or liberal," but Santorum won the state by sweeping up votes from the "very conservative" wing, which swung for him over Romney 48 percent to 18 percent. It was the same when pollsters asked about religion. Romney beat Santorum by 13 points among the non-reborn Tennesseans, but evangelicals made up 73 percent of the total Republican turnout and voted for Santorum in heavy numbers.
Mississippi and Alabama have a disproportionate number of those demographics. It had been assumed that Romney wouldn’t stand any chance among those groups. Around 45 percent of likely primary voters were termed very conservative in the two PPP polls, and in neither instance did Romney fair well. Yet he might plausibly win or finish in an essential tie for both states. We'll have to wait until the exit polls to see if evangelicals have finally found a place for Romney under their tent, but the more probable explanation is that they're dividing their allegiance between Santorum and Gingrich. One imagines that the 30 percent of Alabamans supporting Gingrich would break for Santorum for high numbers if the former speaker weren't in the race. Santorum and his campaign have been applying public pressure over the past week to encourage the former speaker to end his campaign so that Santorum can stand as the lone anti-Romney choice for movement conservatives. But if he fails to top Gingrich in Mississippi and Alabama it's hard to see Gingrich leaving anytime soon. Gingrich will stick around, siphoning would-be Santorum voters and making Romney's steady march to Tampa that much easier.