With a buildup that makes the day feel like the Super Bowl for political junkies, Super Tuesday is finally upon us. A whopping 419 delegates will be awarded today in Republican primaries and caucuses across 10 states (another 18 superdelegates are not tied to the results): Alaska, Georgia, Idaho, Massachusetts, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Vermont and Virginia. While no candidate will sweep all 10, tonight's results are expected to favor Mitt Romney the most, thanks to likely wins in Massachusetts, Vermont, Virginia and Idaho.
But the intensity of today's contests won't necessarily forecast what happens in November's general election. According to David Bositis, senior associate at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, the Obama campaign currently has the advantage in some of the biggest Super Tuesday battleground states.
The Buckeye State is the race to watch today, not only because of its 66 delegates on the line but also because of the dead heat there between Romney and Rick Santorum. An NBC-Marist poll (pdf) released on Sunday showed Santorum with a narrow lead of 2 percentage points over Romney, getting the support of 34 percent of likely Ohio primary voters to Romney's 32 percent. Upping the ante even further is the fact that no Republican nominee has ever become president without winning Ohio. "If Romney gets beaten in Ohio by Santorum, it would make Romney look weak," said Bositis.
Yet Bositis argues that the results in Ohio matter little in terms of the general election. The same poll shows that in a matchup between Romney and President Obama in Ohio, Obama leads by 12 points: 50 percent to 38 percent. The president's favorability ticks up slightly when he's matched against Santorum, leading 50 percent to 36 percent. "When one of the candidates hits 50, that's a very strong sign for what will happen in the fall," Bositis said.
A major factor boosting the president in Ohio is the state's tens of thousands of autoworkers and their personal stake in the auto bailout that Obama oversaw (and the Republican candidates have strongly condemned). "Contrary to what the Republican debates would have you believe," said Bositis, "in the states where the auto industry is located, the bailout was very popular, and that's a big plus for Obama."
With 76, Georgia has the most delegates up for grabs and is widely considered the second-most-important state to watch. It's also essential to Newt Gingrich's chances of survival, since he has put nearly all of his campaign's focus there over the past month and represented the state for two decades in the House of Representatives. Hinting that he may drop out if he loses, Gingrich admitted at a campaign event last week, "Let me just be clear: I have to win Georgia, I think, to be credible in the race."
Gingrich's focus is expected to pay off for him today. An Atlanta Journal-Constitution poll released on Sunday shows him ahead of the competition with 38 percent of support from likely voters. Romney and Santorum tied for second place in the poll with 24 and 22 percent of the vote respectively. "But in some ways, if Gingrich wins, that's actually a plus for Romney," said Bositis, pointing to the advantage of splitting the "conservative alternative" vote. "Gingrich would be getting votes that would otherwise very likely go to Santorum."
Unlike in Ohio, however, Obama's shot at the deep-red state in November is far less probable. Despite Georgia's large black population (30.5 percent) and the high percentage of people of color overall (45 percent), Bositis questions whether it's fertile ground for the president's re-election campaign. "Georgia has become a very Republican state, and it would be a hard slog to win there," he said, pointing out that the GOP swept every statewide office in 2010 and the vast majority of Georgia's seats in the U.S. Congress.
But banking on the state's minority and youth voters who turned out for Obama in 2008 to the tune of 47 percent of the vote, Democrats say that Georgia is still in play for the president. Speaking at the opening of new party headquarters in Atlanta last fall, Democratic National Committee Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz stated, "We are planting a flag in the South. We need to make sure we explain to voters that 2012 is personal."
Neither Santorum nor Gingrich made it onto the ballot in Virginia, because of a shortage of the required signatures. In the consequent one-on-one race between Romney and Ron Paul today, Romney is expected to win handily. Another NBC-Marist poll (pdf) from Sunday predictably showed Romney with a commanding lead over Paul: 69 percent to 26 percent.
But the swing state, which Obama won in 2008, looks poised to support the president again in the general election. Among registered voters in Virginia, the poll shows him with huge leads, including 17 points ahead of Romney, when pitted against the GOP candidates.
Bositis attributes Virginia's support for Obama to its politically moderate nature — it's the only Southern state with two Democratic senators. But some of that support is also about the shifting demographics in the northern part of the state. "The growth in the black, Latino and Asian populations is emerging in northern Virginia," said Bositis. "And that part of the state is becoming, more and more, the driving force."
Cynthia Gordy is The Root's Washington reporter.