Deep Down Louisiana, Will Romney B. Goode?

In a contest that Mitt Romney will likely lose, voting in the Louisiana Republican primary is now underway. Romney’s loss will come despite a spate of media stories claiming that his convincing  victory in last Tuesday’s Illinois primary, combined with his endorsement by Jeb Bush, signified a potential turning point in this nomination fight.  But that was before the now infamous etch-a-sketch incident which, if pundits are to be believed, has the potential to be a “campaign-defining disaster”.   Pundits think the etch-a-sketch incident matters because, as the Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza opines, “it speaks to a broader storyline already bouncing around the political world: That Romney lacks any core convictions and that he will say and do whatever it takes to win.”

Cillizza is right that many Republicans believe Romney lacks core convictions – and that is precisely why the etch-a-sketch incident will have almost no impact on today’s Louisiana vote, or on the Republican fight more generally.  At this point halfway through the delegate race, candidate impressions are largely fixed among most voters and the etch-a-sketch incident, because it does not provide any new information, will likely be inconsequential.  In forecasting today’s outcome, the far more telling factor is that self-identified evangelicals constitute about 30% of Louisiana’s adult population, and they will likely make up 60% or more of today’s turnout.  Romney has yet to win any primary state in which evangelicals composed more than 50% of those who voted, and I see no reason why that will change today.  If we take the conservative road and project evangelical turnout at about 60%, that would suggest Romney would win about 27% of the popular vote today. Recent polling supports my forecast; the last four polls of likely Republican voters all show Santorum winning the state easily by about 12-15% over Romney:

Date of Poll Santorum Romney Gingrich Paul
ARG 3/20 – 3/22 43% 27% 20% 6%
PPP 3/21 – 3/22 42% 28% 18% 8%
Rasmussen 3/21 – 3/21 43% 31% 16% 5%
Magellan 3/19 – 3/19 37% 24% 21% 3%

Note, however, that only 20 of Louisiana’s 46 delegates to the Republican National Convention are at stake today; another 18 are chosen through caucuses in congressional districts and the remaining 8 attend the convention as unpledged delegates.  Moreover, only candidates who reach the 25% threshold of the statewide popular vote are eligible to win delegates today.   If the polls are correct, then, Romney may be able to meet that threshold, in which case he would pick up a quarter or more of today’s 20 delegates.  So a Santorum win isn’t likely to close the delegate gap with Romney very much.

It is tempting to conclude that Newt Gingrich, who is polling at about 20%, is costing Santorum a potentially bigger delegate haul.  However, according to the latest PPP poll, if Gingrich were not in the race, Santorum’s vote percentage would jump to 51% – but Romney’s would climb as well, to 31%.  So it appears that although Gingrich is drawing more votes from Santorum, Romney still wins almost as many delegates even if Gingrich is not in the race.

In some ways, of course, today’s outcome is more important to Gingrich than to Santorum. Newt finished 4th in the Illinois primary, behind Ron Paul, leading to media speculation that he might soon be forced to drop out of the race.  That speculation will undoubtedly intensify if he can’t win any delegates today, in a southern state.  (He needs to break 25% to pick up delegates.) Keep in mind that polls have tended to underestimate Santorum’s support by about 2% in recent races, and that in Illinois, at least, Gingrich underperformed his pre-contest polling.  So it may be that we will see a late movement toward Santorum today, at Gingrich’s expense.

The bottom line, however, is that barring a Romney win, the results in today’s primary are not likely to change the underlying dynamics driving the Republican race.  However, the primary does give me an opportunity to remind you of the legendary founder of rock and roll – the incomparable Chuck Berry, who sang about another country boy from Louisiana.  Cue the duck walk!

Go, Romney, go!

P.S.  I may be on later with an update, but I’m not likely to be live blogging given the rather predictable outcome.

Addendum 7:55. Just to clarify the Louisiana delegate allocation rules – according to  NBC’s First Read  any candidate who clear the 25% threshold only earns that portion of the 20 delegates up for grabs tonight that is equivalent to their percentage of the vote.  That means not all 20 delegates are necessarily going to be allocated tonight.  Instead, the leftover delegates that those clearing 25% don’t win go into the uncommitted column.  So, based on current polling, Santorum may end up winning only 9 delegates tonight, with Mitt taking in 5 – and the remaining 6 going to no one.

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