Newt’s Southern Strategy: Not Impossible, Just Very Unlikely

Stuart Rothenberg February 9, 2012 · 1:21 PM EDT

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich has adopted a Southern Strategy that he hopes will keep his campaign alive. It’s only a long shot, but Gingrich doesn’t have many better options.

After winning the South Carolina primary, Gingrich figures he can sweep most of the South and add victories (and delegates) in other conservative states, stopping Mitt Romney’s momentum, creating doubts about the former Massachusetts governor’s ability to win the GOP nomination, and eliminating Rick Santorum from the equation.

Between now and Texas on April 3, six Southern states have primaries: Georgia, Tennessee and Virginia on March 6, Alabama and Mississippi on March 13 and Louisiana on March 24. Add in conservative Super Tuesday states not in the South, including Oklahoma and Idaho, and Gingrich could potentially have the kind of delegate haul that would revive his prospects.

But Gingrich’s plan suddenly looks much less realistic following Santorum’s performance this week, when the former Pennsylvania senator, not Gingrich, got a boost from his strong showings in the Minnesota and Colorado caucuses and in Missouri’s “beauty contest” primary.

The stronger the Pennsylvanian appears between now and Super Tuesday on March 6, the more likely that the conservative vote will be split during the crucial March stretch, when all states are required to use proportional representation. And it is even possible that Gingrich will come under more pressure to yield to Santorum.

A closer look at the calendar raises questions about the former House speaker’s strategy.

While Gingrich should do well in Georgia, the state he represented in Congress, Romney is likely to win another of Super Tuesday’s Southern states, Virginia, where only he and Ron Paul are on the ballot.

Gingrich’s strategy would seem to require that he carry the third Southern state on March 6, Tennessee, to keep his scenario viable. But while Tennessee has become increasingly Republican and is generally conservative, it usually prefers moderate conservatives (Senators Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker, for example, as well as Gov. Bill Haslam) rather than “movement conservatives.”

No matter what happens in the Southern states, two New England state on Super Tuesday, Massachusetts and Vermont, seem ideal Romney states. And while Idaho Republicans are unquestionably conservative, the state has a substantial Mormon population.

And, of course, Ohio remains the big prize on March 6, not merely because it has the second largest number of delegates at stake (behind only Georgia), but also because its reputation as a key state in November.

Three more Southern states come along in mid- and late-March: Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana, before Texas arrives April 3.

Of course, three weeks after that comes the next battleground – the Northeast, an area of the country where Gingrich isn’t likely to have a lot of appeal. The list of primaries includes Connecticut, Delaware, New York, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island.

Santorum’s performance on Tuesday guarantees he will remain in the race through Super Tuesday, complicating Gingrich’s arithmetic. But it also means another voice criticizing Romney, as the former Massachusetts governor must fight a two-front war: against both Santorum and Gingrich.