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Tennessee Mattered in 2012 Presidential Primary by Keeping the Matter Muddled

If not for Tennessee, the slugfest for the GOP presidential nomination might already be over, writes Michael Collins.
Rick Santorum’s solid victory over Mitt Romney in Tennessee in the Super Tuesday presidential primary enables the former U.S. senator from Pennsylvania to stay in the race and all but guarantees that the bloody battle for the GOP nomination will drag on for weeks.
“That’s the most important take-away here: The race will continue, and Tennessee had something to do with that — for better or worse,” said Anthony Nownes, a political scientist at the University of Tennessee.
Romney walked away with the most wins in the Super Tuesday elections. The former Massachusetts governor won six of the 10 states that held nominating contests on Tuesday, while Santorum took three and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich won one.
A strong showing in the two most competitive contests — Tennessee and Ohio — would have solidified Romney’s standing as the frontrunner in the race. But Romney failed to deliver the knockout punch he needed. His 9-point loss in Tennessee and his narrow win over Santorum in Ohio again raised doubts about his appeal to conservative voters and served to prolong the nomination fight.
“If Romney had won in Tennessee, there would be a fair number of calls today for Santorum and Gingrich to ensure party unity by getting out,” said Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia. “Well, I haven’t heard anybody say that Santorum and Gingrich should drop out and endorse Romney. I think Tennessee had a lot to do with that.”
Tuesday’s election marked the first time in more than a decade that Tennessee has played a significant role in a presidential contest. The last time the state had such an impact on a presidential race was when Republican George W. Bush defeated Democrat Al Gore in the 2000 general election. Gore’s disappointing loss in his home state ultimately kept him out of the White House.
Tennessee mattered this year for a number of reasons.
Of the 10 states that held nominating contests on Tuesday, only Georgia and Ohio had more delegates to the Republican National Convention at stake than Tennessee. But Georgia was Gingrich’s home state, so the election outcome there was never really in doubt.