Newt's Southern Strategy Won't Work

February 09, 2012

Newt Gingrich's remarks Saturday night after the Nevada caucuses and on NBC's "Meet the Press" the next morning proved that presidential candidates should talk policy, not process.

Proclaiming "We want to get to Georgia, to Alabama, to Tennessee," Mr. Gingrich said primaries in the South would produce "a series of victories" that by the April 4 Texas primary would make him "very, very competitive in the delegate count."

Well, the Gingrich Southern strategy faces big obstacles, starting with Rick Santorum and Ron Paul. Demanding that these two candidates drop out so he becomes the only conservative alternative to Mitt Romney hasn't worked.

Mr. Paul sees himself as the leader of an insurgency. He's made it clear he's in the race to stay. And while Mr. Santorum's victories on Tuesday in the Minnesota and Colorado caucuses and Missouri's beauty contest primary didn't produce any national convention delegates (Missouri's vote was nonbinding, and the caucuses were for precinct delegates), his wins also spell trouble for the former House speaker's plans.

Mr. Santorum's success came because while Mr. Romney and Mr. Gingrich battled in Florida and Nevada, he barnstormed Colorado, Minnesota and Missouri, making 22 stops in the three states to Mitt's three and Newt's two. He demonstrated that showing up matters and gained critical momentum toward becoming the not-Romney alternative.

Newt's Southern strategy also faces a geographical obstacle. There are 25 contests in February and March, and 18 of them, with 579 delegates, are outside the South. The remaining seven in the South have 371 delegates at stake. Mr. Gingrich can compete for only 322 of them because neither he nor Mr. Santorum qualified for the Virginia ballot. (Messrs. Romney and Paul did.) Mr. Romney will, in all likelihood, grab the 33 delegates awarded winner-take-all at the congressional district level and most of the delegates allocated proportionally by Virginia's statewide results.

The other six Southern contests in March award delegates proportionally. Even if Mr. Gingrich wins, Mr. Romney could get a slug of delegates, especially where most delegates are awarded by statewide results, not congressional districts. For example, 25 of Oklahoma's 43 delegates and 25 of Mississippi's 40 delegates will be awarded proportionally statewide.

By contrast, in February and March one non-Southern state (Arizona with 29 delegates) is winner-take-all, and four others (Michigan, Ohio, Vermont and Kansas, with a combined 153 delegates) are so-called "hybrid proportional." Like Virginia, they award most delegates on a winner-take-all basis. Mr. Romney is favored in this group of states and could, as a result, walk away with the bulk of their delegates.

Three caucuses with 95 delegates will be held before Texas: Maine, Washington and North Dakota. Every other campaign has fared better in caucuses than the Gingrich team.

Mr. Romney will also be a favorite son in at least two upcoming contests: Michigan (30 delegates) on Feb. 28 and Massachusetts (41 delegates) on Super Tuesday, March 6. Texas's 155 delegates will be awarded proportionally by the statewide results. But the primary may be delayed past April 4 because of redistricting disagreements, keeping Mr. Gingrich from being rescued by a posse of Lone Star GOP delegates.

To remain a plausible alternative to Mr. Romney by April, Mr. Gingrich must not only sweep the South but also break through in the Midwest. One possibility is Ohio on March 6 with its 66 delegates. But it's expensive to compete there, to say nothing of competing "in every single state," as Mr. Gingrich vowed this weekend. He has less than $1 million on hand, which is why he'll spend three precious days next week raising cash in California (172 delegates), which votes in June.

In the coming weeks, Mr. Gingrich needs a better and more consistent message. He's already won over everyone he was going to get by bashing Mr. Romney as a "pro-abortion, pro-gun-control, pro-tax-increase . . . Massachusetts liberal." The self-proclaimed "bold Reagan conservative" must offer more than nostalgic references and calls for moon colonies.

His campaign must be more about his ideas than his emotional state. After Tuesday, he'll need a clear explanation of why he should be the not-Romney rather than the issue-focused and increasingly likable Rick Santorum.

Newt Gingrich has been a consequential political leader for 30 years. But counting on his Southern strategy is hoping to draw an inside straight. And after his impressive hat-trick victories Tuesday, Mr. Santorum is, for the time being at least, Mr. Romney's main challenger.

This article originally appeared on on Wednesday, February 8, 2012.

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