Politics Counts: Who Benefits If Gingrich Drops Out?

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The results from Tuesday’s Mississippi and Alabama primaries were not even fully tabulated when attention turned to former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. The results, second-place in both states, were a blow to Mr. Gingrich, who had argued his path to the nomination led through the South. But in his concession speech, the candidate quickly tamped down any speculation about his exiting the race and pledged, again, to fight on to the Republican convention in Tampa.

Still, vows to fight on aside, Mr. Gingrich’s struggles raise questions about his role in the race going forward and about what would happen if he dropped out – or simply fell into irrelevance. Many assume that former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum would gain the most, by giving conservative voters one only option at the ballot box, and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney would face a stiff new challenge. Mr. Santorum clearly feels that way and this week said he’s earned the right to a head-to-head matchup with Mr. Romney.

The reality might be a bit more complicated.

The most recent Wall Street Journal/NBC poll found the dynamics of the national race would not change dramatically if it were a simple Romney-Santorum showdown. With the four current candidates in the field Mr. Romney leads Mr. Santorum 38% to 32%. If it is just the two of them in the running Mr. Romney still leads 45% to 40%.

State primary matchups would likely yield different results, but it’s difficult to know how different. The temptation is to assign a percentage of the Gingrich vote to each of the front-runners – what if Mr. Santorum captures, say, 65% of Mr. Gingrich’s vote in Illinois or Louisiana?

But the bigger question is: How does one identify the Gingrich vote – 65% of what?

Simply playing the percentage game doesn’t get at the heart of the matter. Understanding the arithmetic behind the Gingrich vote is not easy.

First, which states are you focusing on? Like any candidate Mr. Gingrich has places that are more likely to support him than others and you can get a sense of where his supporters would have the biggest impact by using the demographic/geographicPatchwork Nation breakdown of counties.

So far anyway, Mr. Gingrich’s greatest strength has been in southern states and particularly in counties Patchwork Nation calls Minority Central, places with large African-American populations. So far the former House speaker has won 36% of all the votes coming out of those counties – generally the white, largely Republican voters in them. He won those counties even in Florida, where he lost overall.  Mouse over the key below to see the vote total by county type.

He’s also done pretty well the Boom Town counties, which grew fast and then were hit hard in the housing crunch, and the socially conservative Evangelical Epicenters – though those evangelical communities seem to be trending more toward Mr. Santorum in recent votes.

Read the rest of this week's Politics Counts post on the Wall Street Journal's Website.