Super Tuesday: what we learned about the Republican presidential race

Republicans today went to the polls on Super Tuesday, but no clear candidate for the presidential nomination emerged. EPA/Ryan Stone

Voting in the Super Tuesday Republican primaries has ended in every participating state except Alaska.

The results have been shared: front runners Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum have all claimed states with Ohio on a knife edge and yet to declare at the time of writing.

So far we know that Gingrich has taken his home state of Georgia. Romney has won in Virginia, Vermont, Idaho and Massachusetts and Santorum has taken Tennessee, Oklahoma and North Dakota.

The Conversation spoke with Tom Switzer of the United States Studies Centre at Sydney University to find out what today’s results tell us about who will face President Barack Obama on election day – 7 November this year.


Can any of the candidates claim to have had a good Super Tuesday?

It depends on the outcome of Ohio, but I think that Santorum can hold his head up high having prevailed not only in Tennessee and Oklahoma but also in North Dakota. The present indications suggest he’s doing better in Ohio than the polls suggested in the lead-up to Super Tuesday.

But with respect to Mitt Romney, at this stage he is underperforming his polls in most states that have reported results so far, bearing in mind it is past 11PM on the East Coast in the US and we still have to get to Alaska.

What does Santorum’s strong showing in Ohio bring to the picture?

There are two things to bear in mind. A week or so ago Romney was trailing Santorum by double digits in Ohio and Romney has made up that ground. That is a quite impressive feat on Romney’s part but it also speaks about Santorum. His vote collapsed in Ohio just like it did in Michigan a week ago.

Mitt Romney is polling below expectations, despite his fightback in Ohio. EPA/CJ Gunther

I think the important point to remember about Ohio is that even if Santorum gets the big tick from the TV networks [by winning the popular vote], Romney wins far more delegates. There are 66 delegates in Ohio and something like 18 are ineligible for Santorum because his poor, weak organisation haven’t got their act together. That is a crucial point to bear in mind. Romney will win more delegates in Ohio even if he loses the popular vote and it is delegates that determine the presidential nominee at the convention in Tampa later this year.

Obama has signalled he’ll focus on Midwest states during the presidential campaign using the auto industry bailout as a talisman of economic recovery. How would either Romney or Santorum fare against him there?

Ohio, Florida and Pennsylvania are the three most important battleground states in this year’s presidential election. At this stage, Obama would have a leg up because he can tout his credentials when it comes to the car industry and manufacturing in general.

Bear in mind a lot can change in the course of the next six months and a lot of it will be determined by the state of the economy. If economic growth is lacklustre and unemployment remains stubbornly high at 8.3 to 8.5% and the effect of the Euro debt crisis is damaging in the US, plus the prospect of higher oil prices, then Obama will struggle regardless of how well he appeals to the Rustbelt states like Ohio.

Where does today leave Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul?

Ron Paul was never about winning the nomination. Ron Paul’s goal from the outset was to accumulate as many delegates as he possibly could so he could influence the party platform at the convention in Tampa and to set up his son, Rand Paul, a prominent Senator from Kansas, as the leader of a new political movement within the Republican party, a libertarian movement if you like.

Newt Gingrich still retains major support among conservatives. EPA/Erik S Lesser

With respect to Gingrich, he had a good win in Georgia although the polls suggested he would win by double digits. This holds him in good stead for next week’s primaries in Alabama and Mississippi. He’s more than likely to do well there.

He shouldn’t be written off even though many people think he is damaged goods because as we saw in South Carolina on 21 January he has this amazing ability to press all the right buttons for the conservative faithful.

It is interesting to note that to my knowledge, the South Carolina primary was the only Republican primary where the turnout increased substantially and that was largely driven by Gingrich’s excellent performances in the debates. One should not write him off although I think at this stage all the smart money is on Mitt Romney to be the presidential nominee.

How will the Obama campaign be reading today’s events? Will they have smiles on their faces?

Absolutely. Just a few hours ago in the President’s first press conference in three months he has a big smile on his face when he was asked by a reporter about what Mitt Romney had been saying about his foreign policy views. He said “Good luck.”

They are very confident that they will win but they should recognise that in March 1980 conventional wisdom said that Jimmy Carter would easily win the election and the conventional wisdom in March 1992 was that George H. Bush would easily win re-election. As we now know, Carter lost to Reagan pretty convincingly in the November of 1980 and Bill Clinton beat George H. Bush in 1992, so taken with the volatility in the electorate, the prospect of high oil prices, a possible strike on Iran, all of these factors suggest it will be a lot tighter than some in the Democratic party and the media suggest.

So we can’t accept the emerging view that the Republicans are fatally wounding themselves before the main game has even started?

Bear in mind that trial by fire, as Obama well knows from his contest with Senator Hilary Clinton four years ago, far from damaging irreparably a candidate can hold them in good stead for the presidential election.