Despite talk of "low turnout," last week's Mississippi Republican Presidential Primary doubled in turnout from four years ago.

The jump from 143,286 to 289,554 (unofficially) comes despite the heated Republican congressional primaries in the First and Third Districts in 2008. The turnout reveals an anxiousness of Mississippi conservatives to defeat President Barack Obama in the general election with a plurality of Republicans (39 percent) claiming the most important quality in a candidate is whether he can defeat Obama in November, according to exit polling. That data ranked other candidate qualities like "true conservative" (20 percent), "strong moral character" (20 percent) and "right experience" (19 percent) as other motivators.

Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum won the state with 32.8 percent, followed by former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich with 31.2 percent and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney with 30.6 percent.

Just over six thousand votes separated first and third place, or fewer than 4 votes per precinct statewide. The Associated Press projects 37 delegates to be apportioned among those three with 13 going to Santorum and 12 each to Gingrich and Romney.

The Mississippi members of the Republican National Committee account for the state's remaining three delegates: State Chairman Joe Nosef, National Committeeman Henry Barbour and National Committeewoman Jeanne Luckey. Barbour and Luckey are supporting Romney. The Mississippi Republican Party will certify official vote totals and delegate allocation on March 22.

For the first time since Gerald Ford, the Magnolia State
mattered in picking the GOP nominee.

The Gingrich and Santorum campaigns, and the Super PACs supporting all three candidates, spent about $1.36 million on ads in the Magnolia State. Combined with volunteer and automated calls, earned media and events, Mississippi Republicans saw firsthand the energy of a presidential primary campaign previously reserved for Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. Due to RNC rule changes prohibiting "winner take all" states early in the primary calendar, combined with the ability of Super PACs to fund candidate messages, this year's primary extended into Mississippi and Alabama.

For the first time since Mississippi Republicans began conducting presidential preference primaries in the 1980s, the Magnolia State mattered in picking the nominee. The last time Mississippi impacted the GOP nomination selection, beyond rubber stamping the presumptive nominee, was during the pre-primary days of the 1976 nomination contest where Mississippi delegates provided the momentum for incumbent President Gerald Ford to stave off a challenge by Ronald Reagan.

Democratic Primary voters in Mississippi enjoyed this excitement four years ago during the long primary contest between Obama and Hillary Clinton. For two cycles in a row, Mississippi voters in one or the other primary, knew their votes mattered.

According to exit polls, about 20 percent of voters in the 2012 Republican Primary identified themselves as Democrats or independents; in the 2008 Democratic Primary about 30 percent identified themselves as Republicans or independents. Essentially, the Republicans and independents from 2008's Democratic Primary voted in the Republican Primary this year along with new Republicans and nearly 12,000 additional Democrats.

Outside of fundraisers, Mississippians usually don't see many presidential campaign events, but this month during three days in Jackson, each of the major candidates made stops: Santorum at the Agriculture Museum on a Wednesday night, Gingrich at the Jackson Hilton on a Thursday morning and Romney at the Mississippi Farmers Market on a Friday morning. Other stops around the state included events in Tupelo, Gulfport, Meridian, Ellisville and Pascagoula.

Santorum swept the conservative evangelical Northeast Mississippi, home of Congressman Alan Nunnelee who endorsed Santorum on the primary election day, and while winning along the I-20 corridor, split the eastern part of the state with Gingrich who dominated the Pine Belt. Romney ran strong on the Gulf Coast, the Jackson metro, the Delta and the university towns of Oxford and Starkville.

Romney's campaign - a Massachusetts Mormon in the Deep South - was the obvious underdog, but his efforts were buoyed by supportive elected officials like Sen. Thad Cochran and State Auditor Stacey Pickering who serve as Romney's Mississippi Co-Chairmen. Add to them for Romney the endorsements of all the statewide Republican elected officials including Gov. Phil Bryant and Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, as well as several legislators and local officials.

Only in a primary like this could you run across Romney and his wife Ann, along with Bryant and Reeves at Jerry's Catfish House in Florence, the iconic concrete igloo off of U.S. 49, eating catfish and hushpuppies while handshaking and baby kissing. Republicans in Meridian who saw Santorum at Weidmann's Restaurant, or those at Jones County Junior College who saw Gingrich are getting a taste of the excitement Mississippi Democrats had in 2008 with visits by Obama and Clinton. The Republicans are hoping for the same result as well, that one of their candidates ends up winning the White House this fall. Come November, I expect the almost evenly split Republican Party will unify behind the Republican nominee to carry Mississippi against President Obama.

Brian Perry is a partner in a public affairs firm. Contact him at