By JEFF AMY
JACKSON — New voters flooded into Mississippi’s Republican presidential primary Tuesday, watering down the influence that metro Jackson had in the primary four years ago and apparently benefiting Rick Santorum at the expense of Mitt Romney.
Turnout roughly doubled from 2008, when 145,000 voters cast ballots. That year the Republican presidential race was nearly over by the time of the primary, which Arizona Sen. John McCain won with 79 percent of the vote on his way to the GOP nomination.
But in 2008, there was a lot of suspense over who would win the Republican nomination for the state’s 3rd Congressional District, a contest that U.S. Rep Gregg Harper of Pearl eventually claimed. That race bolstered turnout in the 3rd District, which runs diagonally from Macon to Natchez, but is centered in Jackson’s Republican suburbs.
In 2008, there were also Democratic primaries in three of four congressional districts, and the Democratic presidential race between then-Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton was still in doubt. That drew voters into the Democratic primary, said Henry Barbour, a nephew of former Gov. Haley Barbour, who worked for Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s failed presidential campaign before backing Romney.
So when Republican turnout rose Tuesday, it increased a fair bit in Rankin, Madison and Hinds counties. It also doubled in Lee and Itawamba counties, tripled in Jackson County, and quadrupled in Harrison and Forrest counties. It also went up in a number of rural counties that had never been major factors in GOP presidential primaries.
“The more rural counties that have not voted in overwhelming numbers in Republican presidential primaries, they turned out in big numbers,” Henry Barbour said. “That played to the advantage of (Newt) Gingrich and Santorum.”
Romney ran ahead in metro Jackson, but not by enough to offset his losses in places like Lee County, where Santorum won more than 40 percent of the vote, as well as DeSoto County, where Santorum received 37 percent.
That helped Santorum, a social conservative and former Pennsylvania senator, and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich edge out Romney. The former Massachusetts governor leads the national delegate count.
“Where (Romney) won, he didn’t win by a significant enough margin to help him, and where he lost, he got clocked pretty good,” said Andy Taggart, a Madison Republican who voted for Santorum.
The electoral map also reflected Mississippi’s historic split between the hills on the east side of the state and the Delta and coast. Of the 23 counties where Romney won the most votes, the only ones that didn’t follow that pattern were the university-dominated counties of Lafayette and Oktibbeha. Some of those Delta counties, though, had small Republican electorates.
Marty Wiseman, a political scientist at Mississippi State University, said Santorum appealed to rural conservatives who wanted a sharper anti-government message than Romney offered.
“It was obviously time well spent in Tupelo for him,” Wiseman said.
Barbour agreed: “I think Santorum won because he was perceived to be the most conservative of the Republican candidates. It is a Republican primary in Mississippi.”
Romney had been endorsed by Gov. Phil Bryant and the six other statewide elected Republicans, but it wasn’t enough.
“That he was supported by true conservatives was not enough to convince Mississippians that he is one,” Taggart said.
Wiseman said that although Romney didn’t win, he still believed those endorsements helped.
“He got 30 percent of the vote, which is the highest percentage he’s gotten in any other state,” Wiseman said.