HARAHAN, Louisiana -- Rick Santorum scored his 11th victory of the 2012 campaign Saturday, defeating Mitt Romney by a surprisingly wide margin in the Louisiana GOP presidential primary, and the media immediately went to work dismissing this victory as insignificant and inconsequential.
The size of Santorum's Louisiana victory, however, made it hard to dismiss. While polls had shown the former Pennsylvania senator leading by double digits, no one had imagined that he would win by more than 20 points. Yet with 98 percent of precincts reporting, Santorum had 49 percent to Romney's 27 percent -- and if the margin had been much larger, Santorum would have gotten all 20 of the delegates at stake in the primary. That caused some Santorum supporters, who gathered at the Fox and Hound tavern here to celebrate their victory, to wonder why former House Speaker Newt Gingrich -- who finished third with 16 percent of the vote Saturday -- remains in the race. One local coordinator for Santorum stepped outside the tavern, lit a cigarette, and said, "Newt's killing him. … Without Newt, we'd be at 60 percent."
Gingrich has now admitted that he can't possibly win the nomination, but continues to campaign, and to disparage Santorum in speeches and media interviews. Newt seems oblivious to the reality that by pulling conservative votes away from Santorum, his continued presence in the race only helps Romney, the moderate whom Gingrich has predicted would "lose badly" to President Obama. But his third-place finish in Louisiana, following his March 13 defeats in Alabama and Mississippi, is likely to make Gingrich increasingly irrelevant to the outcome of future contests.
Santorum added Louisiana to his long list of wins in the American Heartland: Iowa, Colorado, Minnesota, Missouri, Oklahoma, Tennessee, North Dakota, Kansas, Alabama, and Mississippi. The persistence of his popularity among evangelical Christians -- 54 percent of whom told exit pollsters in Louisiana that they had voted for Santorum -- is almost exactly mirrored by the 48 percent support Romney gets from voters who say they care most about whether a GOP candidate can defeat Barack Obama. The question, however, is whether the Republican voters who consider the former Massachusetts governor more "electable" than Santorum have misjudged what it will take to beat Obama in November.
The problem, as both Santorum and Gingrich have pointed out, is that Romney keeps winning Republican primaries by piling up votes in areas dominated by Democrats and in states that will almost certainly be carried by Obama in November. And whenever any of his conservative rivals appears to pose a threat to his lead, the more moderate front-runner exploits an advantage he certainly won't have in the fall campaign by burying his GOP opponents with a big-money blitz of attack ads. In the most recent example of this phenomenon, Romney won the Illinois primary Tuesday by outspending Santorum 7-to-1 in advertising, with a 21-to-1 margin in the Chicago market. This helped Romney add to his lead in delegates, but does anyone seriously believe that Romney will beat Obama in Illinois in November? Does anyone think Romney will be able to outspend Obama 7-to-1 anywhere?
The TV commentators keep saying that Romney has a commanding lead in the delegate count, but that lead has been built of rather flimsy stuff. The allegedly "inevitable" nominee has padded his delegate lead with easy wins in Democrat strongholds like Vermont, Massachusetts, and Hawaii, and by running the table in U.S. territories -- Guam, American Samoa, Puerto Rico, etc. -- that don't count in presidential elections but do get to send delegates to the GOP convention. Despite all his advantages in terms of money and endorsements, Romney has received barely 40 percent of the popular vote in the Republican primaries and caucuses.
Santorum's campaign spokesman Hogan Gidley issued a statement calling the Louisiana win a "vindication," indicating a rejection of "the media's and the establishment's declaration that we must fall in line with a moderate from Massachusetts." By the time the votes were counted in Louisiana, Santorum was already in Wisconsin, which holds its primary April 3. He watched the returns at a pub in Green Bay, where he gave a victory speech in which he made mention of those who have repeatedly counted him out contention.
"We don't believe, as the pundits have said, that this race is over. We didn't get the memo," Santorum said. "We're still here. We're still fighting.… I'm not running as a conservative candidate for president. I am the conservative candidate for president."