VOTE 2012 -- March 23, 2012 at 5:19 PM EDT
Santorum, Romney Vie for Louisiana's Shifting Electorate
GOP presidential candidate Rick Santorum addresses supporters on March 13 in Lafayette, La. Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images
Republican voters in Louisiana aren't used to being in the national spotlight during primary season.
"We're in shock, and the candidates are actually coming to the state. We're 22nd in population and a safe Republican vote," Pearson Cross, the political science department chairman at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, told the NewsHour.
But it's a two-stage contest. Saturday's primary will only award 20 of the state's 46 delegates, and those are split proportionately to candidates receiving 25 percent of the vote. Three super delegates and 23 delegates are assigned in later statewide caucuses on April 28. This means a victory in Louisiana on Saturday would only translate to a narrow gain for a presidential hopeful looking to challenge Mitt Romney's delegate lead.
Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum is ahead in Louisiana by double digits in recent polls. In the most recent Public Policy Polling poll, Santorum led Romney 42 percent to 28 percent, while Newt Gingrich had 18 percent and Ron Paul trailed with 8 percent of those polled.
Santorum and Gingrich, who each won other Southern primaries that gave their campaigns much-needed boosts, have made appearances across the state all week. Romney also stopped in Louisiana on Friday, but after his Illinois victory, it was clear he already had his eye on the next round of primaries.
Gingrich has pinned hopes on the state after losing last week in Mississippi and Alabama, though he plans to be in Pennsylvania when the vote occurs. Times-Picayune political columnist Stephanie Grace noted that Gingrich has a history in Louisiana: He helped Republicans with recruiting during the Reagan era and received a PhD from Tulane University.
"He dove into things that are very specific, local issues that a lot of the candidates don't know. When I saw him recently, he was talking about energy, which is a big issue here," Grace said.
Energy concerns are one factor that separate Louisiana from Alabama and Mississippi. The state's economy, which tends to lag after the national economy during boom times and appear ahead of it during slumps, sets it more in line with Texas than its eastern neighbors.
The state has also been politically out of step with the rest of the South in the past. New Orleans has long been a haven for Democratic support. Catholics in the southern part of the state, known as French Acadiana, account for the largest concentration of Southern Catholics outside Florida. But Cross told the NewsHour the state is losing its distinctiveness.
"French Acadiana doesn't speak French as much anymore, New Orleans lost a third of its people and the Democratic electorate is disappearing," he said. As a result, evangelical conservatives and -- to a lesser extent -- fiscal conservatives are the loudest and most influential factions in Louisiana, Cross said.
"Ultimately, (Gingrich) was a better fit. Now that Santorum is the flavor of the month, I think Louisianans have decided he's the religious conservative they're seeking," Cross said..
That kind of support lends itself to a closed GOP primary in which only registered Republicans -- just 27 percent of the state's electorate -- can vote.
"When we're looking at just the primary, we're talking about a Republican base that has the kind of people that support Rick Santorum, and that's why he's expected to do well," Grace said. "There are a lot of evangelicals, Tea Party members, that sort of thing."
She also noted that Louisiana was among the last of the Deep South states to swing firmly Republican. "Louisiana has a long history until recently -- five years ago -- of electing conservative Democrats to major office. That doesn't happen anymore. We've had conservatives ever since," she said.
Whatever the result Saturday, the Republican nominee is strongly favored to win Louisiana in the November general election.
NewsHour desk assistant Maria Lopez Conde contributed to this report.
You can follow the results Saturday in our Vote 2012 Map Center.