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First Thoughts: Why Romney could lose (and also win)

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Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney waits to speak while being introduced during a campaign stop at the Whistle Stop cafe March 12, 2012 in Mobile, Alabama.

Why Romney could lose tonight… And why he could win… Polls close in Alabama and Mississippi at 8:00 pm ET, and they close at 2:00 am ET for Hawaii’s caucuses… The final ad-spending numbers for tonight’s contests: Romney and allies outspent Gingrich 3-to-1 and Santorum 4-to-1… On the NYT/CBS poll and the Chewbacca Defense… Speeding up the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan?... And Obama and Cameron to take in NCAA tournament hoops game from Dayton, OH at 6:30 pm ET.

*** Why Romney could lose: With polling all over the place in Alabama and Mississippi -- two states not usually associated with well-known polls -- we’re not sure anyone has a good idea how tonight’s races will turn out. But we’re on firmer ground to explain why Mitt Romney could lose in these southern states, as well as why he could win. Let’s start with the former: Beyond ideology, Romney could lose due simply to the demographics. Averaging the nine states where Romney WON (and where exit polls were available), 51% of GOP primary voters were college grads, 31% made more than $100,000 a year, and 35% were born-again or evangelical Christians. But the averages for the states where Romney LOST is 48% college grads, 28% making more than $100,000, and 68% evangelical Christians. So where do Alabama and Mississippi fit in here? Well, they look more like the states where he has lost. In Alabama in ‘08, per the exit polls, just 42% of GOP primary voters said they were college grads, 18% made more than $100,000, and 77% were evangelical Christians. In Mississippi, the numbers were similar: 38% college grads, 19% making more than $100,000, and 69% evangelical Christians. Focus on the evangelical number; that could the best explainer.

The Daily Rundown's Chuck Todd previews the Alabama and Mississippi primaries.

*** And why he could win: Yet despite those ideological and demographic challenges for Romney, there also are three reasons why he could win. Reason #1: Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum could split up the anti-Romney vote. Note that Gingrich and Santorum BOTH haven't received 30% in any one contest so far, but the polling out there suggests that they could possibly hit those percentages tonight. Who would have figured that Romney’s best friend in this race right now would be Newt Gingrich? Go figure. Reason #2: Romney and his allies, once again, are greatly outspending the competition (4-to-1 edge over Santorum and his allies and 3-to-1 advantage over Gingrich and his allies). Anytime Team Romney has spent more than 3-1 than opponents in a given state, it’s usually spelled victory. And Reason #3: Although this is much harder to quantify, a Romney win in either Alabama or Mississippi would signal that Republican primary voters are beginning to rally around him, despite the ideology or geography. As Politico’s Martin writes, Romney could seal the deal in Dixie. Then again, look at his vote percentages in previous Dixie primaries: South Carolina (28%), Georgia (26%), and Tennessee (28%). What do they have in common? They’re all below 30%. It would certainly be a shocker if Romney won either state tonight let alone even broke 30%.

*** The skinny on tonight’s races, per NBC’s John Bailey: In Alabama, where polls close at 8:00 pm ET, 47 delegates are at stake -- 21 awarded from congressional districts (two to district winner, one to the runner-up, winner-take-all with a majority), 26 are at large (proportional per statewide vote with 20% threshold, winner-take-all with majority). In Mississippi, where polls also close at 8:00 pm ET, there are 37 delegates at stake -- 12 awarded from congressional districts (proportional with 15% threshold, winner-take-all with 50% plus 1 vote) and 25 at large (proportional per statewide vote with 15% threshold, winner-take-all with 50% plus 1 vote). And in Hawaii’s caucuses, where polls close at 2:00 am ET, 17 delegates are at stake -- six via congressional districts (proportional per district-wide vote) and 11 at large (proportional per statewide vote). By the way, there’s a reason why the Romney folks have concentrated more on Alabama than Mississippi: Because third place in an Alabama congressional district doesn’t net you a delegate, second place there matters a LOT. Just look at the delegate haul for Romney in Georgia, thanks to edging Santorum for second place.

*** The ad-spending numbers for tonight’s races:
Alabama
: Restore Our Future $1.4 million, Winning Our Future PAC $400,000, Red White and Blue Fund $275,000, Mitt Romney $234,000, Newt Gingrich $134,000, Rick Santorum $39,000
Mississippi
: Restore Our Future PAC $764,000, Winning Our Future PAC $243,000, Red White and Blue Fund $221,000, Newt Gingrich $74,000, Rick Santorum $56,000
Hawaii
: Ron Paul $40,000

*** On the trail, per NBC’s Adam Perez: Gingrich hosts a primary night event in Birmingham, AL… Santorum does his event in Lafayette, LA…Romney attends a grassroots event on jobs and economy in St. Louis, MO then heads to Liberty, MO for a caucus event… And Paul will be at the University of Maryland.

*** On national polls and the Chewbacca Defense: Last night’s New York Times/CBS poll was the latest survey to show a job-approval drop for President Obama; in one month, his score declined nine points, from 50% to 41%. This raises the question: What major event occurred in the past month to account for this drop -- or even in the past week, when our NBC/WSJ poll had Obama’s approval rating at 50%? There are two potential culprits here: gas prices and Iran. But did those two issues really account for a nine-point drop, bringing Obama to his lowest rating in that survey (lower than after the debt-ceiling debacle)? What’s more, is it possible for Obama to be at 41% approval but leading Romney by three points (47%-44%) in a head-to head? Invoking the Chewbacca Defense, it just doesn’t make sense. Then again, actions speak louder than words, and the Obama White House has been VERY defensive on gas prices. Bottom line: It’s probably worth waiting for a few more national polls before reaching the conclusion that something has happened to Obama’s standing in the past month.

*** Speeding up the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan? Of course, there’s one additional news story you can add to Obama’s issue matrix for the month of March: Afghanistan. And the New York Times is reporting that, after the civilian killings by a U.S. soldier there, the Obama administration “is discussing whether to reduce American forces in Afghanistan by at least an additional 20,000 troops by 2013, reflecting a growing belief within the White House that the mission there has now reached the point of diminishing returns.” More: “Administration officials cautioned on Monday that no decisions on additional troop cuts have been made, and in a radio interview President Obama reaffirmed his commitment to the Afghan mission in spite of the recent setbacks, warning against ‘a rush for the exits’ amid questions about the American war strategy. ‘It’s important for us to make sure that we get out in a responsible way, so that we don’t end up having to go back in,’ Mr. Obama said in an interview with KDKA in Pittsburgh.”

*** March Madness: You can be sure that Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron will discuss Afghanistan, plus other issues, when they travel to Dayton, OH to watch tonight’s NCAA tournament basketball game there at 6:30 pm ET. The game they will be watching:  Mississippi Valley State vs. Western Kentucky.

Countdown to Election Day: 238 days

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