Magazine | April 2, 2012, Issue

Romney’s Hidden Strength

High gas prices and non-southern voters give him an underappreciated edge

After the 2008 elections, liberal bloggers chortled that the Republicans were becoming a “rump regional party” (the phrase became a cliché) that couldn’t compete outside the South. The 2010 midterms blew that theory out of the water, with GOP gubernatorial, senatorial, and House wins across the map. Now the front-runner for the party’s presidential nomination, Mitt Romney, is doing a feat that seemed even more improbable: building a big lead in the national race while performing poorly in southern states.

Yes, Romney won 60 percent in Virginia, but due to exigent listing requirements, he faced only Ron Paul on the ballot. Beyond the Old Dominion, he has put up disappointing-to-mediocre numbers in the states that made up the Confederacy: 28 percent in South Carolina, 28 percent in Tennessee, 26 percent in Georgia. He won Florida but lost most of its northern counties, the part of the state that is most southern in its culture. Most recently, Romney lost close races in Mississippi and Alabama, but in both states a fairly even split between Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich made Romney’s modest share of the vote look more impressive than it was.

Despite the mainstream media’s lazy narrative of an intolerant evangelical community in these states, it’s not disdain for Mormons that is Romney’s problem. The Gallup polling organization found that 23 percent of southerners said they would never vote for a Mormon, a lower figure than in the Midwest (26 percent) and not far behind the West (22 percent) and East (17 percent). (The figure for self-identified Democrats is 27 percent.) Recent history shows that evangelicals are quite comfortable being in a political alliance with people they disagree with theologically, and in the primaries so far, most of those evangelicals have voted for the two Catholic options in the field, Santorum and Gingrich.

The bigger difference is cultural. Fairly or not, the Michigan-born former Massachusetts governor is perceived to be on the left side of the party’s spectrum, and he shows no ability to appeal to the populist streak that runs through southern-Republican politics. Romney’s awkward attempt to articulate his love of grits, and his campaigning alongside “You might be a redneck” comedian Jeff Foxworthy, speak for themselves.

Romney’s campaign also relies heavily on endorsements and surrogates, an approach that is less effective in the South, where state Republican parties have less cohesive hierarchies and structures. The better organized a state’s party is, the more likely Romney is to win it.

“In the South, the Republican party is less of an organization than it is a group of people who think the same way,” says Brad Todd, a Tennessean Republican strategist and ad-maker who is working with House Republicans this cycle. “There are some counties in the South where there is no county party structure or chairman. Fewer than there were ten years ago, but they’re still there.”

Prior to most of his big wins, Romney has touted the endorsements of popular local officials as a Good Housekeeping seal of approval — Representatives Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Mario Diaz-Balart and former congressman Lincoln Diaz-Balart in Florida, Senator John McCain and Representative Jeff Flake in Arizona, Governor Rick Snyder in Michigan. But the endorsements of Governors Nikki Haley in South Carolina and Bill Haslam in Tennessee did him little good.

In the competition for delegates, however, Romney can afford his southern losses. After Super Tuesday, the RNC’s tally gave Romney 339 delegates, Gingrich 107, Santorum 95, and Ron Paul 22, a 232-delegate margin for the front-runner over his nearest pursuer.

With the Mississippi and Alabama primaries now over, the remaining southern states other than Texas have 137 delegates. Texas has 155, and two non-Confederate states with regions that match the culture of the South, Kentucky and Missouri, have 97. The only way Romney’s lead will be significantly threatened is if either Santorum or Gingrich roars out of the upcoming primaries in these states with an overwhelming majority of their combined 389 delegates. More likely, Romney will do well enough to retain his lead and then build on it with wins elsewhere, in states such as Maryland, Connecticut, and Oregon, and particularly in states such as New Jersey, New York, and California that are expensive to campaign in because of their large populations and high advertising rates.

#page#If Romney is nominated, his southern troubles will not matter much in the general election. Democrats would have you believe that Romney’s cultural gap will put the region in play, but that argument requires ignoring a lot of contrary evidence — starting with the recent wholesale electoral slaughter of the Democratic party in these states at the congressional level. Already in this cycle, two House Democrats in North Carolina, one in Arkansas, and one in Texas have announced their retirements. The idea of Obama’s name atop the ticket appears not to have inspired confidence.

“President Obama will be the greatest motivator Republicans have ever had,” says Todd. “He played this role for Republicans in 2010, and he will play it again in 2012. This election is about putting out the fire, not whether we have a perfect fireman or not. Republicans want to slam on the brakes, and they’ll vote for whoever represents those brakes.”

This year, Barack Obama will run his first contested reelection campaign since 1998, when he beat first-time Republican candidate Yesse Yehudah, 89 percent to 11 percent, in Illinois’s 13th state-senate district. It is not an exaggeration to say that this is the first time Obama has been forced to run on his record, as opposed to a promise of utopia.

By historical standards, Obama’s record is jaw-droppingly weak. Last August, former George W. Bush strategist Mark McKinnon noticed that the average value of the Michigan Consumer Confidence Index under incumbent presidents who win reelection is 95.9. Under incumbents who lose, the average is 78.4. Over the past year, the index has surged 20 points — all the way to 75. And this is before the coming summer of four-dollar gas in most of the country.

If gas prices become the big issue of the summer and fall, Obama’s best shot at reelection might be a foreign crisis. Ironically, the president who campaigned on ending the war in Iraq, and who is running for reelection on withdrawal from Afghanistan, may find his odds for reelection enhanced by a conflict with Iran.

An ABC News/Washington Post poll released March 12 confirmed the impression of most political observers: Any incumbent president running for reelection with gas around four dollars per gallon is in deep trouble. The survey found Obama trailing Romney 49 percent to 47 percent among registered voters (not likely voters, who tend to favor Republican candidates more strongly), with 65 percent of respondents disapproving of how Obama is handling the rise in gas prices. The president’s overall job disapproval is back up to 50 percent again.

“The president needs a serious economic crisis, originating offshore, to have any hope of being reelected,” suggests Fred Wszolek, a GOP strategist aligned with Romney this cycle. “If something goes haywire in China or Europe, he won’t be blamed. But something that hits the world economy hard would bring the price of oil down and get Obama off the hook for expensive gas. That’s really killing him right now. It cost me 50 bucks to fill my car the other day. And it’s a Mini Cooper. The guys who are driving the F-150 [trucks] are spending $100. That is real economic pain for middle- and working-class people, and it throws the whole family budget out of whack. So unless the administration can prove that Dick Cheney is still secretly manipulating the price of gas, they need a ‘Look, Ma, no hands’ financial crisis to bring prices down.”

Gas prices are disproportionately influential in voters’ perception of the economy. It’s a purchase they make regularly, and the prices change often and are listed in giant numbers by the side of the road. In 2005 the Gallup organization said, “The relationship between higher gas prices at the pump and voters’ negative expectations for the economy is stunning.”

Back in 1996, then-Democratic strategist Dick Morris told President Bill Clinton that a failure to reform welfare was the last strong argument Bob Dole could use against him in a general election. Clinton overruled his advisers, who were urging a third veto of GOP-supported welfare reform, and signed it into law, eventually touting it as his signature domestic-policy accomplishment. Perhaps Clinton was suggesting a reprise of that strategy when he told an energy conference at the end of February that the administration should “embrace” the Keystone XL pipeline to show its determination to increase America’s energy supply. Mr. Geraghty writes National Review Online’s blog The Campaign Spot.

In Obama, the GOP faces a president unwilling to take action on the part of his record that voters are most likely to deem a failure. So Republicans who feel dizziness, nausea, or agitation about the party’s presidential odds in 2012 have probably inhaled some of those ever-more-expensive gasoline fumes.

– Mr. Geraghty writes National Review Online’s blog The Campaign Spot.

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