Why Not Tennessee?

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Busy busy day today between teaching and media, so this will be an abbreviated post before tonight’s live blogging session. Let me start by reiterating a point that I made in an earlier post, and which has caused no little consternation among readers: it doesn’t really matter if Santorum or Romney “wins” Ohio.   At this point, it is pretty clear that it is going to be a close race, and as I said after Michigan, a movement of 3% in votes in either direction will determine who “wins”, but it isn’t likely to change the delegate allocation very much, which is really what counts at this point.  To his credit, Jeff Greenfield is one of the few media pundits who seem to get this.

Look, I’ve already made my case for why Georgia is the most important state tonight.  But if we really want to play the “who beats the media expectations game”, why not look at Tennessee?  Polling has been sparse there, but the few polls conducted suggest that both Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney have been closing fast, so that now the race is a three-way tie between those two and Santorum, who had held a comfortable lead.  That means lots of uncertainty regarding the victor – always a media plus!  Also, one of the knocks on Romney is that he can’t expand his coalition to win among the Tea Party crowd or evangelicals.  If he takes Tennessee, with its roughly 60% evangelical vote, he’ll be able to say that he won a true southern state.  Never mind that he’ll likely do so because Santorum and Gingrich will have split that vote about evenly – a win is a win.  And if he takes Ohio too?  Well, Chuck Todd has already said that means “game over.”  Who am I to argue with Chuck Todd?

However, if Newt wins Tennessee he’ll have taken at least two of the four big ticket contested primary states, and thus he can declare he’s now the true non-Mitt candidate by virtue of beating the media expectations game, particularly if he wins more delegates than Santorum today, which I think he will.  Cue the Lazarus metaphor!  Of course, if Rick holds on to his polling lead in Tennessee, and wins Oklahoma too, Newt becomes the guy who only won his home state, and Rick can retain his status as the media-created “non-Mitt” candidate, even if he loses Ohio and is shut out of Georgia entirely.   In short, Tennessee offers much more of what the media likes – uncertainty, competing narratives, a chance to develop a new story line – than does Ohio, which is really just a rerun of Michigan.  And it has almost as many delegates – 55 – as does Ohio with 63.  So there you have it: all eyes are on Tennessee.

I hope you see my point.  Depending on who wins what states, the media will develop a frame to make sense of it all, but that frame may be superfluous to the real story. Don’t be distracted – it’s all about the delegates.   Romney is going to take home the bulk of them, but in terms of assessing his support and future prospects, it is almost as important to see where he wins them as it is how many he gets.  Is there any evidence that he’s expanding his support to include lower-income, more conservative and evangelical voters?   At some point Santorum and Gingrich have to realize that they cannot continue dividing up the non-Romney delegates and expect to prevent him from winning the nomination.  Will tonight convince one or either of them that they need to strike a deal?

I’m not optimistic.  Bottom line?  I expect tonight to add a few more bricks in Romney’s “wall of inevitability”, but without having much impact on the candidate pecking order.

I’ll be on in 20 minutes for what promises to be an interesting night.  As always, join in with your comments….

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