It's called "Super Tuesday" for a reason: Republican voters in ten states will head to polling locations and caucus sites tomorrow, marking the single most crowded day of the nominating calendar. Mitt Romney enters tomorrow's pivotal contests on a roll, having captured the last five states (Maine, Michigan, Arizona, Wyoming, and Washington State). For purposes of clarity, let's break tomorrow's races down into four tiers:
(1) Group Romney: As we explained last week, the former governor is expected to tally victories in four Super Tuesday states -- Massachusetts, Vermont, Idaho, and Virginia -- where either the terrain, demographics, or delegate rules break in his favor.
(2) Group Not Romney: Fresh polling confirms that both Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich are in strong positions to win at least one state apiece. Santorum continues to hold a double-digit lead in Oklahoma (40 delegates at stake), while Gingrich appears to have locked down his home state of Georgia (76 delegates at stake -- the most of any Super Tuesday state).
(3) Group Question Mark: No reliable polling exists in two other states, North Dakota and Alaska, both of which Romney carried in 2008. That's the happy spin for the former governor's campaign. The other side of the equation? He won those states in a cycle when he was viewed as the conservative alternative to Sen. John McCain, so the tables could turn in 2012. If they do, chalk it up to the Colorado effect. It's also worth noting that Ron Paul has made a personal push for votes in Alaska.
(4) Group Battleground: Because of the factors elucidated above and the number of delegates on the line, much of the media scrutiny will fall on the two remaining states in this puzzle -- Tennessee (55 delegates at stake on Tuesday) and Ohio (63 delegates). The Volunteer State is seen as the less consequential of the two because it's viewed as a safe state for Republicans in the fall. Even so, some eleventh hour drama is brewing. Rick Santorum's enormous lead (roughly 20 points in late February) has been sliced to single digits in the final round of polls. One survey even shows Mitt Romney snagging a one-point lead over Santorum and Gingrich, who are tied at 29 percent each. PPP's numbers aren't too far off from that result, so for all intents and purposes, the race could be considered a three-way statistical dead heat. Sensing a chance to pick off a second Super Tuesday state, Team Newt is up on air with a new television ad in Tennessee media markets:
The spot will also begin airing in Alabama and Mississippi later in the week. In classic Newtonian style, Gingrich is parlaying his attack on President Obama into a shot at Mitt Romney, suggesting that the former Massachusetts governor is "rich enough" to not really care about rising gas prices. Finally, one slice of positive news for the Santorum campaign: It appears their previously-discussed Tennessee delegate qualification problems can be ameliorated by the state Republican Party after all.
The second and most crucial state in 'Group Battleground' is Ohio. Its large delegate trove aside, Ohio is the only true general election swing state being contested tomorrow. Virginia doesn't count (at least in my book) because half of the GOP field didn't qualify for the ballot. That's on them, of course, and Romney will romp, but it's still not an authentic test. Toward the end of last week, we began to detect polling momentum breaking Romney's way in the Buckeye State. On Super Tuesday eve, the trend line now shows Mitt Romney overtaking Santorum. Quinnipiac:
The Ohio Republican presidential primary remains too close to call, but former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney has the momentum, and 34 percent of likely Republican primary voters, to former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum's 31 percent, according to a Quinnipiac University poll released today. This is a 10-point shift from a February 27 Ohio survey by the independent Quinnipiac University showing Santorum with a 36 - 29 percent lead.
A significant gender gap has boosted Romney, as Republican women in Ohio favor him over the former Pennsylvania Senator by nine points. Santorum has a small edge with male voters. Meanwhile, ARG's numbers peg Romney ahead by 7, and Rasmussen has Santorum clinging to a one-point advantage. Which brings us to a round of Good News/Bad News for Santorum supporters:
Good News: A new Suffolk poll -- which has Santorum +4 in Ohio overall -- indicates that among the 13 percent of Ohioans who've already voted, Santorum is cleaning up by 17 points. That could give him a nice cushion heading into tomorrow.
Bad News: Ed Morrissey notices that another Ohio poll actually shows Romney with a small early voting lead. Not sure how to reconcile those numbers, which are separated by a 20-point canyon. Someone's way off.
Good News: Damaging oppo research on Mitt Romney continues to crop up. In addition to Romney's 2002 earmarks brag we reported on last week, a video has subsequently surfaced of Romney suggesting that his healthcare plan's individual mandate is a strong model for the nation:
The most charitable interpretation of that quote is that Romney is urging other states to adopt the Massachusetts approach, perhaps confirmed by his use of the term "laboratories of democracy." So it strikes me as a stretch to allege that Romney was pushing a national individual mandate. Nevertheless, he was cheerleading for the concept -- which Ann Coulter would be quick to point out is entirely Constitutional at the state level. That's all well and good, but is the Massachusetts a good template for other states to adopt? This devastating Wall Street Journal editorial makes the case that it's not, as do these statistics from the CATO institute. In other words, Romneycare boils down to an issue of judgment and policy outcomes, not Constitutionality and federalism -- the distinctions that Romney often hypes.
Bad News: Based on the polling above, it could be too late for this information to sink in, plus Santorum's hinting that he's already facing a cash crunch as things stand. A bad Super Tuesday showing wouldn't help matters. Also, even if Team Santorum outperforms receding expecations in Ohio, their own ineptitude has disqualified them from even competing for more than one-fourth of all of the state's delegates:
Rick Santorum was already known as starting from a deficit, delegate-wise, in Ohio. He failed to qualify for any district delegates in three Ohio congressional districts because he didn't turn in delegate names there. But his delegate troubles go deeper. According to the Ohio Republican Party tonight, the former Pennsylvania U.S. senator filed incomplete delegate slates in six additional Ohio districts. Altogether, this means Santorum, who until this week had a fair lead in polls in the Republican nominating race, could be ineligible for 18 Ohio district delegates. Ohio has 66 delegates total, 63 at stake next Tuesday. The candidate with the most delegates wins. Santorum therefore goes into the Ohio primary election with a 29 percent deficit.
The story linked above goes on to explain that Santorum failed to qualify a full slate of delegates in several districts bordering the Pennsylvania border, where he's expected to do well. A solid performance in eastern Ohio would still help him in the proportional at-large delegate tally, but could really hurt him in the district delegates category -- which is how the vast majority of delegates will be allocated. Again, this huge mistake is a mark against the Santorum campaign's basic competence, and voters have every reason to consider that factor as they evaluate their options.