As the old saying goes about North Carolina weather, “if you don’t like it, wait 24 hours—it’ll change.” The same can be true about politics as well. Within a few hours of Public Policy Polling releasing its latest results on the GOP presidential battle in the Tar Heel state, Rick Santorum announced he was suspending his campaign.
Now, all that is left for Romney to become his party’s nominee is the collection of 1,144 GOP delegates heading into Tampa. But there are several questions left lingering about the contest, and North Carolina would have been an interesting experiment if Santorum had stayed in.
What does the GOP base do now?
As noted in some early postings, the GOP base — especially evangelical voters, Tea Party supporters, voters who are very conservative, and Southerners — didn’t get the memo that they needed to line up behind Mitt. In fact, it was “anyone but Mitt” for these core constituencies in the Republican Party.
As one observer noted, evangelical voters are split into two camps with Santorum’s news: One group that really liked what the former Pennsylvania senator was addressing in his campaign, and the other that really doesn’t trust what the former Massachusetts governor was attempting to address in his campaign.
Does Newt see another resurrection of his attempt to be the “true voice of conservatives?”
Both Santorum and Gingrich were splitting the core of the Republican Party, much to each man’s detriment against Romney. But the bigger question now is, does the Republican core decide “we’ve had enough” and simply decide to fall in line with the nominee (who has the bigger war chest, the most delegates, and has already begun his general campaign against President Obama)?
In trying to read the tea leaves of the upcoming North Carolina primary, the PPP poll may give some hint about the willingness of the core constituents to follow the standard Republican operating procedure of “fall in line.”
Before Santorum made his announcement, PPP’s poll found Romney with a slight lead over Santorum in North Carolina, 34 to 30 percent. But a few interesting breakouts might give some hints as to what might happen on May 8th.
Among those voters who are strongly committed to their candidate, Romney has a substantial lead among the four candidates, with 58 percent of his supporters committed to voting for him, compared to only 42 percent of Santorum’s supporters.
Of those who identify as members of the Tea Party, Romney was close to Santorum (32 to 30 percent ), but when PPP dropped Newt Gingrich out of the race, the spread went to 51 percent for Santorum to 36 percent for Romney.
Gingrich was certainly acting like a spoiler for Santorum, but now that things are reversed and Newt is the one viable anti-Mitt candidate left standing (even though Newt’s campaign is deeply in debt and on life-support), will those Tea Party supporters still go for anyone but Mitt, or realize that the race is all-but-over and fall in line?
In asking about the candidate’s favorability, Romney came in third with 58 percent favorability rating, behind Santorum (74 percent ) and Gingrich (67 percent ) among Tea Party supporters.
Among evangelicals, Romney also came in third with a 51 percent favorability rating, while Santorum and Gingrich had 67 percent and 54 percent favorability.
When asked who evangelicals would vote for in the four-way contest, Romney was able to pull 32 percent to Santorum’s 34 percent . But when the field narrowed to 3, Romney only gained four percentage points, while Santorum went to 42 percent of evangelical support.
Among those voters who identify themselves as “very conservative,” Romney is actually in positive territory when it comes to them liking him, with 51 percent . He hasn’t been able to get that much support in past primaries among this key group. But in comparison to Santorum’s favorability of 80 percent and Gingrich’s favorability of 63 percent , Romney still comes in third with this important group.
In the four-way matchup, Romney garners only 26 percent of the “very conservative” vote, compared to 40 percent for Santorum. In a three-way matchup, Romney only gains 3 points, something that still has to be a concern for his campaign.
Should Romney just skip past the Tar Heel State?
Now that we don’t have a realistically competitive primary in North Carolina, all attention will probably shift to the constitutional amendent on marriage and the Democratic gubernatorial nomination.
But the Romney campaign shouldn’t write off coming to North Carolina. After all, he needs this state in the fall. He could use this contest to solidify his conservative credentials to a still skeptical core group within the GOP.
Another benefit to actively campaigning in North Carolian is to organize his ground forces, because we know that the Obama campaign has already begun to do so.
In fact, why not make the beginning of the general campaign start right here in North Carolina?
If Romney decides to take North Carolina for granted on his way to Tampa, just remember that old saying about weather: It could change on him in 24 hours or less.