Voters in ten states will cast votes today on “Super Tuesday,” the biggest day so far in the GOP primary process. The contests include primaries and caucuses in Alaska, Georgia, Idaho, Massachusetts, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Vermont and Virginia.
Here are the five big questions that will be answered on Tuesday.
1. Is Mitt Romney the inevitable nominee?
Many Republicans don’t love the former Massachusetts governor. And they’ve shown that in a variety of ways throughout the nomination process, handing him defeats in Iowa and South Carolina, barely supporting him enough for victory in Michigan — the state he grew up in —, and allowing for a prolonged primary against a group of rivals that most party strategists view as virtually unelectable.
But Romney can take comfort in one thing: he’s very likely to win the nomination. The rules in nearly all of the GOP primaries and caucuses on Tuesday reward delegates proportionally instead of a winner-take-all format. What that means is that even though Rick Santorum is likely to win the primary contest in Oklahoma, Romney, Ron Paul and Newt Gingrich can still collect delegates as well in that state.
The rules encourage Gingrich and Paul to keep running, splitting the anti-Romney vote that Santorum might otherwise consolidate. And Romney’s support among more establishment Republicans guarantees that he will finish above 20 percent in most states and will stand to collect delegates.
Of the estimated 422 delegates at stake on Tuesday, it is likely that Romney will collect at least half of them, allowing him to keep his lead while shrinking the number of states left for his rivals to catch up.
2. Can Newt come back?
Gingrich hinted that he will drop out of the race if he loses in Georgia. But polls show him well ahead in the state he represented in Congress. And he is arguing that a win in Georgia can help lead to victories in Alabama and Mississippi, which hold primaries on March 13.
What will be more interesting than Georgia is to see how Gingrich performs in the other nine states. Poor finishes, particularly behind Paul, in the other states could cement the view among Republicans that Santorum is the true Romney alternative.
3. Is Santorum’s bleeding over?
Santorum’s stumbles ahead of the Michigan primary helped Romney win there and allowed Romney to regain control of the nomination process. A loss in Ohio, a state Santorum has intensely campaigned in, would further establish him as a candidate who is just not able to defeat Romney when it counts.
4. Is the GOP permanently divided?
The exit polls so far in the GOP race have showed that the same kind of divide exists between Santorum and Romney that occurred in 2008 between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton: working class, lower-income voters side with one candidate (Clinton in 2008, Santorum now), while the other candidate appeals to upper-income, white-collar voters. Santorum has also done very well among Tea Party conservatives and evangelical Christians.
If “Super Tuesday” cements this divide in the party, it could shape a huge part of the presidential election process: the vice-presidential selection. Obama tabbed Joe Biden to be his running mate in order to address his perceived weaknesses, a lack of experience in Washington and a struggle to connect with white, working-class voters. If Romney continues to lose to Santorum among blue-collar voters and evangelicals, that could affect who he taps as the vice-presidential candidate.
5. Will the race end after Tuesday?
Major donors to the Super PAC’s of Santorum and Gingrich are in some ways keeping the race alive, as Romney would be able to vastly outspend his rivals without that support. If Romney won Oklahoma and Tennessee, states which are Santorum strongholds, and Georgia, where Gingrich is favored, then party donors might feel forced to stop giving money to Santorum and Gingrich.
But as long as those two men keep winning and Romney continues to show weakness among major blocs of the party, then this primary could continue on for weeks, if not months.
Follow Perry Bacon Jr. on Twitter at @perrybaconjr