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.