Mitt Romney Keeps Front-Runner’s Pace with Super Tuesday Victories

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Lauren Fleishman for TIME

Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney speaks during a Super Tuesday event at the Westin Copley Place March 6, 2012 in Boston, Massachusetts.

On Super Tuesday, the most dramatic night in presidential primary politics, Mitt Romney failed to clinch the field-clearing victory that had once seemed plausible. But even as he battled Rick Santorum late into the night in crucial Ohio, saw three states chalked in Santorum’s column, and Newt Gingrich’s flagging candidacy reinvigorated by a home-state win in Georgia, there was no doubt that the math still favored the front-runner.

By most accounts, Super Tuesday was a split decision. Romney easily won Massachusetts, where he served as governor, nearby Vermont, Mormon-populated Idaho, far flung Alaska and almost the entire cache of 46 delegates from Virginia, where Santorum and Gingrich failed to make the ballot. Santorum had a strong showing in conservative Oklahoma, fought off a late Romney surge in Tennessee, and topped out the preference poll in the North Dakota caucuses. And in Ohio, the crown jewel of the night, the race was called after midnight as Romney edged Santorum 38% to 37% with 99% of precincts reporting.

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In keeping with past contests, Romney performed best with seniors, the well-educated, affluent voters and moderates. In Georgia, where Gingrich cleaned up 47.5% of the vote, winning almost every demographic, Romney led among those making more than $200,000 a year and those with post-graduate degrees netting him 25.6% support. In Tennessee, Santorum capitalized on a strongly Evangelical electorate to rout Romney by 9 points, but the former Massachusetts governor was still able to beat him among the 65+ club and six-figure earners.

The same dynamics were at work in Ohio, though Romney seemed to make small inroads with blue-collar voters there: he lost those with no college degree to Santorum by just four points and those making less than $50,000 a year by an even smaller margin. Working women swung to Romney by 11 points, unmarried women by 14 and Catholics by 13. Rural counties tallied early in the night seemed to have placed the state in Santorum’s reach, but as in Michigan, the big city suburbs came through for Romney.

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Even with the big win, Romney struggled in all the familiar areas. Santorum racked up huge margins across several states among “very conservative” voters, “strong” Tea Party supporters, and those compelled by religious and social issues. The South continues to deal Romney setbacks and he’s yet to claim a resounding victory in the Midwest. Santorum was actually able to wrest away one group from Romney in Massachusetts despite his massive margin of victory: those who rated abortion as the most important issue favored Santorum by three points.

With mostly Southern states on the horizon in the next month, Romney has little hope of truncating the calendar and avoiding a drawn-out nomination fight. If nothing else, Super Tuesday made that clear.

But the arc of the Republican presidential primary still looks good for Rommey and Santorum’s organizational failures marked the most important lesson of the night. Not being on the ballot in Virginia may have cost Santorum a huge victory —Ron Paul claimed a surprising 40% of the vote there, a strong indicator of an anti-Romney bloc, and turnout was abysmal. Regardless of what the outcome has been in Ohio, the state would award more delegates to Romney because Santorum missed the ballot in several of the state’s congressional districts, rendering him ineligible for their convention votes. He seems to have narrowly missed the vote percentage threshold to win delegates in Massachusetts and Georgia, where his campaign had a scant presence.

(MORE: Election 2012: Romney’s Long March)

Even without these handicaps, Santorum is not on pace to contest the Tampa convention. “No, it isn’t mathematically impossible,” delegate whiz Josh Putnam wrote Tuesday of Santorum’s chance to hit the 1,144 mark necessary to clinch the nomination. “But it would take either Gingrich or Santorum over-performing their established level of support in the contests already in the history books to such an extent that it is all but mathematically impossible.”

Romney seems to know all this. Before a rowdy hometown crowd Tuesday night in Boston, well before Ohio’s results were unraveled, Romney delivered a speech long on anti-Obama bromides and short on intra-party sniping that seemed to acknowledge his trajectory toward the Republican convention. “Tonight we’ve taken one more step toward restoring the promise of America. Tomorrow we wake up and we start again. And the next day we do the same. And so it will go, day by day, step by step, door to door, heart to heart,” he said. “There will be good days and bad days, always long hours and never enough time. But, on November 6, we will stand united, not only having won an election but having saved a future.” Perhaps it was overly dramatic. But what’s Super Tuesday without a little drama?

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