Today’s Courier Herald Column:
Georgians and voters in nine other states get to have their say in the Presidential nomination process today. Georgia is the single largest prize with 76 delegates to be pledged. According to Republican Party rules adopted this year, primaries held before the month of April must allocate delegates proportionally, rather than the candidate getting a plurality taking everything.
Georgia’s delegates will be awarded at a rate of 3 per Congressional district, with the first place finisher in a district getting 2 delegates, while the runner up will get 1. Georgia’s new map containing 14 districts will be used. Should any candidate reach a simple majority in any district (50% plus one vote) they will receive all three delegates for that district.
Statewide, the remaining 34 at-large delegates will be divided proportionally among the candidates that receive more than 20% of the vote. Any candidate that doesn’t reach 20% of the statewide vote or come in at least second in a congressional district will receive zero delegates from Georgia.
And with that, here’s what I’ll be looking for tonight from Georgia and the rest of the country:
1) How strongly does Newt win Georgia? His poll numbers put him within range of winning a true majority of Georgia’s voters. He’ll likely take several Congressional districts with more than 50%, taking all three of those districts’ delegates. Figure Gingrich for more than 40 of Georgia’s 76 delegates.
2) Can Santorum break 20% statewide? Polls by Georgia based Landmark Communications and CNN place him at 17% and 15% in their final polls respectively. If he can outperform and hit 20%, it cuts the number of statewide delegates given to Gingrich and Romney
3) How will Gwinnett County vote? The “establishment” in Gwinnett seems to be behind Santorum, despite the Georgia “establishment” being behind Gingrich and the national “establishment” supposedly behind Romney. Senator David Shafer and Representative Buzz Brockway are openly supporting Santorum. Tea Party leader Julianne Thompson and her husband Jason are as well. If Santorum is to perform well in Georgia, it will likely start in Gwinnett County, with this determining if he can reach that 20% number as well as pick up a delegate or two in the 7th Congressional District.
4) How do evangelicals vote? The 2nd, 9th, 10th Congressional districts tend to vote more along the lines of social conservatives than fiscal conservatives. These are the other areas I would look to in order to see if Santorum can get to 20% or pick up additional Congressional district delegates.
5) Virginia: Only Mitt Romney and Ron Paul are on the ballot. If Mitt Romney receives over 50% of the vote as polls suggest, he will receive all 49 Virginia delegates. Depending on Gingrich’s performance in Georgia, this may be the single biggest delegate win Tuesday night.
6) Tennessee: Gingrich has routinely stated that he is viable because he is the candidate that can win the South. He has spent a significant amount of time over the past two weeks in Tennessee as well as Georgia. While trailing early, he’s now pulled into a three way statistical tie with Romney and Santorum. It will be very hard for Gingrich to overcome a third place finish in Tennessee. A win gives him yet another “comeback kid” status.
7) Ohio: Who wins? Final polls show both Romney and Santorum in a dead heat in Ohio, which offers the second total amount of delegates awarded at 66. A Romney win will add a trophy large state to his expected victory in many of the smaller states. A Santorum victory gives him a much better argument to continue as a viable potential nominee.
8) Ohio: What happens to the delegates? Rick Santorum was still fairly unorganized as a third tier candidate when Ohio’s delegate list had to be filed. As such, Santorum enters today’s contest without a complete slate of delegates. It is possible that Santorum could win more delegates than he has named to be awarded. The battle within the Ohio GOP over how to handle this situation will provide some fodder for political junkies as they decide if the rules need to be changed after the votes are counted.
9) The “big picture”: Does Romney look inevitable by the time the votes are counted after Tuesday? Republicans are growing weary of a long and damaging primary. If Gingrich only wins Georgia and looks weak in Tennessee, and if Santorum loses Ohio, Romney will have a large list of states he has won by plurality and the largest concentration of delegates by far. In this scenario, it would be likely that elected officials and high level activists would start working behind the scenes to engineer a graceful exit for the remaining candidates. Should Romney not be able to seal the deal in Ohio and Gingrich pulls out a top two finish in Tennessee, this probably goes on a bit longer.
10) Tuesday night speeches. Rick Santorum is already grumbling about dipping into personal funds to keep the campaign going. What he says at the end of the evening tonight could possibly tip his hand if he plans to continue. I expect Newt’s speech to indicate he’ll soldier on.
And with that, polls are open. Time to exercise civic duty and go vote.