BIRMINGHAM, Ala. -- At 8 p.m. eastern time, polls in Alabama and Mississippi will close. Voters will tell us whether Mitt Romney can win anything in the deep South, whether the conservative heartland has abanoned the H.M.S. Newt for the U.S.S. Santorum, and whether two incumbents -- Rep. Joe Bonner, Rep. Spencer Bachus -- will have to face runoff elections against more conservative challengers.
But you're thinking about the presidential race, aren't you? The final polls suggested a three-way tie between Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, and Rick Santorum. The under-polling of the deep South has limited the research value of those numbers: When it was polled last month, Gingrich was winning easily and Santorum was nowhere. Anecdotally, in a short tour of both states, I've found some voters who would normally break for Santorum swallowing hard and going for Gingrich, who's spent the entire period since Super Tuesday in these states trying to spread his deep South map -- he has lost only six counties in two deep South primaries -- westward. But I've seen hundreds of the Santorum signs put up on a weekend blitz, and heard from GOP sources that he may win by resurrecting the Mike Huckabee strategy of 2008. Here, for a refresher, is how that worked in Alabama. (Mississippi's primary came after McCain had forced everyone out of the race.) Mike Huckabee won the state by 4 points by taking almost everything north of Montgomery.
This is a three-way primary: It'll be hard to screen against the 2008 numbers. But Romney was often in third place in the more rural counties of the state; he flew into second in the coast area, Birmingham (Jefferson County), and other urban areas that led the Dixiecrat conversion to the GOP.
When they're really starting to churn, exit polls for Alabama will appear here; exit polls in Mississippi will appear here. I'm unaware of any Hawaii exits, as reporters have mystified every normal person by skimping on coverage of those caucuses. Same goes with American Samoa, where a heavily Mormon population (around 25 percent, according to BuzzFeed's McKay Coppings) is expected to power out a 9-for-9 Romney win.
8:16: The early exits, which were only a little wrong in Ohio, have Santorum benefitting from an enormous gender gap in Alabama: Winning 38 percent of women, 30 percent of men. If true it would point him to a 34 percent win over Romney and Gingrich who can't crack 30 percent. If true! The Ohio polls shifted 4 points toward Santorum at poll close. Only 46 percent of voters say Romney is most likely to defeat Obama. In Mississipi, a smaller gender gap allows Romney to edge ahead of Santorum 33-31.
We'll watch the churning exits. In Tennessee, polls showed a three-way race that Santorum won easily. In Georgia, polls didn't quite predict a Gingrich landslide, but it happened and he took all but three counties.
8:45: If Santorum wins, it will be by splitting the difference, Goldilocks-style, between his rivals. In Misssissippi, a plurality of voters -- 35 percent -- say Gingrich best understands their problems. Fifty precent say Romney is most electable. In Alabama, Gingrich narrowly wins "best understands" and Romney solidly wins "most electable." Those guys are not winning.
8:55: NBC News calls Alabama for Santorum, which seems awfully confident and early; the exits, which have been adjusted, point to a 3-point Santorum win.
9:45: Here's one that fell far below -- like, B-20 basement garage low -- of the national radar. Judge Roy Moore, the "Ten Commandments Judge" who was removed from his role as Chief Justice a decade ago, is solidly leading in the race for his old job. He lost a 2006 governor bid. He lost another one in 2010. And tonight he's staying solidly above the 50 percent line in a three-way race, getting twice as many votes as the incumbent. If he can keep a majority, he avoids a runoff and becomes the Republican nominee.
10:05: Rep. Robert Aderholt, one of the few Santorum endorsers in Congress, stops by the Bachus victory party. (Yes, it's clearly going to end up being a victory party.) Does he want Gingrich to drop out, humiliated by his loss here? Aderholt isn't thrilled at the question. "Well, I'm a Santorum guy, so I'd have to say yes."
10:23: Mississippi is Santorum country, barely. It's an impressive win in the sense that there were four pre-primary polls, and he led in none of them. (Rasmussen, mystifyingly, saw an 8-point Romney lead.) It's less impressive in raw delegate and vote terms -- he might only net a single delegate as Romney and Gingrich split the vote in the less rural parts of the state.
10:39: Here's the new map of Alabama, with most of the vote in.
That's four counties won by Mitt Romney, three of them containing large population centers. Gingrich grabs the part of the state that borders Georgia; Santorum grabs the part that borders Tennessee. If you were a lousy cynic you would have predicted this breakdown a week ago.
11:05: I took this screenshot at 7:00. File in the thick, unsteady binder labeled "InTrade isn't worth a bucket of horse tripe."
11:34: Luckily, for Barack Obama, we're not getting a repeat of his meltdown in Oklahoma. A mere 19 percent of voters who pulled Democratic ballots (around a third as many as voted Republican) voted for "Uncommitted."
1:37: No official results from American Samoa yet, but local tweeter @ChanelBarber says the vote to give nine delegates to Romney was unanimous. Good enough!