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Why Rick Santorum really needs Ohio on Super Tuesday (+video)

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Paul Sancya/AP

(Read caption) Republican presidential candidate, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum smiles at his primary night rally in Grand Rapids, Mich., Tuesday.

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Suddenly, Rick Santorum is facing what may be the biggest day of his political life: Super Ohio Tuesday.

Mr. Santorum’s momentum as the latest not-Mitt GOP hopeful has been slowed by his squeaker loss to Mitt Romney in Michigan’s statewide vote, and his big loss in Arizona. Ohio’s March 6 GOP primary now looms as a substantial test of whether that momentum can be restored.

Why Ohio? It’s the backyard to Santorum’s home state of Pennsylvania. It’s a Rust Belt, union-heavy place where Santorum’s economic focus on reviving manufacturing should appeal to voters. It’s a place where Santorum currently leads, with the RealClearPolitics rolling poll average putting him in front there by 8.3 percentage points.

It’s also the only Super Tuesday primary race where the winner really remains in doubt, points out University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato on his “Crystal Ball” blog. That’s why March 6 might fairly be called, not just Super Tuesday, but Super Ohio Tuesday.

Mr. Romney “must take the battle to Santorum in the most important Super Tuesday state, Ohio,” writes Mr. Sabato Wednesday.

Santorum shouldn’t take too much comfort from his current lead in Ohio polls, and he probably isn’t. After all, a similar lead in Michigan slipped away prior to Tuesday’s vote. Primary elections can be more volatile than general elections, as voters know less about the candidates and the differences between them seem less pronounced. The biggest cue voters have in the booth – party identification – does not come into play in a primary where all candidates are GOP.

The potential volatility of the Ohio vote can be easily seen in the most recent statewide survey, Ohio Poll, from the University of Cincinnati. This poll puts Santorum up by 11 points. But 47 percent of respondents also said that they might switch their vote between now and March 6. It’s possible that Santorum’s loss in the nearby Wolverine State could give them second thoughts, for instance.

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“While Santorum leads the field of Republican candidates in Ohio, the dynamics of the race could change in the campaign’s final week,” write Eric Rademacher and Kimberly Downing of the University of Cincinnati Institute for Policy Research.

One thing that may help Santorum is that Ohio has a higher percentage of evangelical voters than does Michigan. Self-identified evangelicals made up 44 percent of the Ohio GOP electorate in 2008 as opposed to 39 percent in Michigan, points out Larry Sabato.

And right now Santorum has a big lead among Ohio evangelicals – 45 percent, to 20 percent for Romney, according to the Ohio Poll. Santorum also leads Romney among women, 42 to 23 percent, says the Ohio survey. That’s the reverse of the case in Michigan, where women went for Romney, 43 to 38 percent.

As he campaigns this week, Santorum may try to focus more on his manufacturing-specific economic policies than social issues, which could have pulled down his Michigan vote by a crucial few percentage points.

Meanwhile, “Romney will do what he always does – outspend Santorum, go hard negative on TV and ask the GOP leadership to come to his rescue,” writes Sabato.

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