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Mississippi, Alabama and the power of political surprises

at 03:22 PM ET, 03/12/2012

For all of its unpredictability, there have been few actual surprises since voters began casting ballots in the 2012 Republican presidential race.


The element of surprise is a powerful one in American politics.
Mitt Romney won New Hampshire. Newt Gingrich won South Carolina. Romney won Florida. Even Rick Santorum’s (eventual) victory in Iowa wasn’t entirely surprising since polling suggested he was surging and social conservative candidates have a history of strong performances in the Hawkeye State. Santorum almost won in Michigan and Ohio, both of which would have been real surprises, but he didn’t.

The closest thing we have come to a genuine surprise in the race to date was Santorum’s sweep of Missouri, Minnesota and Colorado on Feb. 7, victories that turned Santorum into the figure he is now: the conservative alternative to Romney.

And that’s why the Mississippi and Alabama primaries tomorrow could truly matter — if, that is, Romney can find a way to win one of the two.

Despite the fact that polling in both states seems to suggest a muddle between Romney, Gingrich and Santorum, no one expects the former Massachusetts governor to win either race. After all, Romney has yet to win a Southern state where Santorum and Gingrich also appeared on the ballot (sorry, Florida, we don’t consider you a Southern state) and the conservative electorates of Mississippi and Alabama don’t seem like the place where his winning streak might start.

A victory by Romney, which, weirdly, he predicted in Alabama today, would then be a genuine surprise — an upsetting of expectations and conventional wisdom that could reset the governing dynamic of the contest.

Here’s why.

There’s something in human nature that loves surprises — even as they become more and more rare in our information-overloaded society.

Cultural critic Chuck Klosterman — a Fix favorite — has talked about this phenomenon in relation to the furor surrounding the rise of New York Knicks star Jeremy Lin. Klosterman’s theory is that sports have become so dominated by numbers and statistics that we are even more drawn to stories like Lin’s because they prove that not everything in sports (and the world generally) is knowable.

The same goes for politics. Due to the proliferation of public opinion polling over the past decade or so, the number of true surprises in politics has dropped to almost zero — making them a rare and powerful commodity when they do happen.

Go back to January 2008. Then Illinois Sen. Barack Obama wins the Iowa Democratic presidential caucuses convincingly. Polling — and conventional wisdom — suggests that he will sweep to victory in the New Hampshire primary five days later over then New York Sen. Hillary Clinton and, in so doing, clinch the Democratic nomination.

But, Clinton won — a victory that fundamentally re-shaped the Democratic race from an expected Obama landslide into a jump ball. (Bad — and mixed! -- metaphor alert!)

Clinton’s victory in New Hampshire, in and of itself, wasn’t all that amazing. She was a senator from the Northeast and her husband, former President Bill Clinton, had worked the Granite State tirelessly during his own campaigns. That she won when all signs pointed to her losing is what made the story such a big, well, story.

While a Romney victory in Alabama or Mississippi wouldn’t be as large a surprise as Clinton winning New Hampshire was, it would qualify as an expectations-altering sort of win. Gone would be the “he can’t win in the South” storyline. Gone would be the “conservatives don’t like him” narrative.

They would both be washed away — for the moment if not forever — thanks to the power of political surprise.

 
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