Election 2012
9:41 am
Wed March 7, 2012

Next Question: Can Romney Win In The South?

Originally published on Wed May 23, 2012 9:58 am

Given his victories on Super Tuesday, there's growing talk that Republican officeholders and voters are just about ready to line up behind Mitt Romney as the party's "inevitable" presidential nominee.

The South hasn't gotten the memo.

Romney lost Tennessee, Georgia and Oklahoma on Tuesday. Added to his loss in South Carolina in January — which was the first big stumble along Romney's road to the nomination — some Republicans are worried about potentially having a candidate with limited appeal in what is arguably the party's strongest region. (Romney did win Florida, but its demographics make it distinct from the rest of the South.)

And the former Massachusetts governor may be in for some more Southern discomfort, with primaries set for March 13 in Alabama and Mississippi.

Further losses in the South may not be enough to cost him the nomination. And the Republican nominee — no matter who that is — will be expected to prevail in many Southern states against President Obama in the fall.

Obama, who won Virginia, North Carolina and Florida in 2008, hopes to hold onto those states. He travels to North Carolina on Wednesday to talk about jobs and the manufacturing sector.

But Romney's weakness in the region is bound to cause him some further headaches, if only by emboldening his GOP opponents to stay in the race.

"It's a problem, because it's going to keep the other guys hanging around for a while," says Anthony Nownes, a political scientist at the University of Tennessee. "Rick Santorum did so well in Tennessee and Oklahoma [winning both states on Tuesday] that there's enough there for him to keep going."

Not A Perfect Fit

Romney's Southern problems have several different roots. Evangelical voters have been reluctant to embrace him, with more than six in 10 primary voters in Tennessee and Georgia saying it's important to share a candidate's religious beliefs, according to exit polls conducted Tuesday.

As has been the case in other states, Romney has struggled to win over rural and blue-collar voters, who are more prevalent in some Southern states than elsewhere.

"The fact is, the base of the party is white, rural voters, particularly in the South," Nownes says.

And Romney's reputation as the most moderate candidate in the GOP field has been a handicap in the nation's most conservative region.

"He's not a natural for the South," says Merle Black, an expert on Southern politics at Emory University. "He's a guy who thought passing health care in Massachusetts was going to be a plus in 2008. Conservatives certainly don't see him as one of their own."

Coming Home This Fall

The Romney campaign has sought to reassure party leaders across the South that his losses in the region won't matter in the end. The conservatives who have opposed him in primaries will not express further disdain by supporting Obama.

"They may not be particularly fond of Mitt Romney, but given a choice between Mitt Romney and Obama, most white voters [in the South] are going to vote for Mitt Romney," says Charles Bullock, a political scientist at the University of Georgia. (Nationwide, Obama won 43 percent of the white vote in 2008, actually a slight improvement over previous Democratic nominee John Kerry, who won 41 percent of the white vote in 2004.)

There is always a chance that many evangelicals and other Southerners could be so discouraged by a Romney nomination that they'll stay home in the fall.

Even if that were to happen, however, the winner-take-all nature of the Electoral College means that Romney would still be favored across the Deep South.

Still The Solid South

The parties have switched places when it comes to Southern dominance. For much of the 20th century, the South was solid for Democrats. It was only after the South began to favor Republicans that Democrats nominated Southerners such as Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and Al Gore, in part in hopes of competing in the region.

During their long period of success, Democrats rarely bothered to put Southerners on the ticket — Lyndon B. Johnson in the 1960s and John Nance "Cactus Jack" Garner in the 1930s, both Texans, being the exceptions.

"By and large, you could ignore the South and still win — you could take them for granted," says David Woodard, a Republican consultant who teaches at Clemson University. "They weren't going to vote Republican."

The reverse now is true for Republicans.

Romney's Southern Strategy

Romney and the superPAC backing his campaign have been advertising and sponsoring robo calls in Southern states, in hopes of racking up delegates even in states he is unlikely to win outright.

"Romney began spending money in the state," says Tennessee GOP consultant Tom Ingram, "but that's really the only thing he did. There wasn't any established grass-roots effort."

But not pressing his case too hard — and not shifting further to the right on issues such as abortion and gay marriage in order to appeal to Southern sensibilities — may prove a canny move on Romney's part, Woodard says, that could help him in the fall in the Southern states that may actually be competitive.

The two Southern states that Romney has won thus far — Florida, by dint of a multimillion-dollar effort in January, and Virginia on Tuesday, practically through default (neither Rick Santorum nor Newt Gingrich were on the ballot) — have often supported Republicans, but went for Obama in 2008.

"You can appeal to the moderates and at least this way pick up Virginia, North Carolina and Florida that might get out from under the tent," Woodard says.

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