Anti-Romney, with a Side of Grits

The implications of Mitt Romney's Michigan win are still being parsed, but the calendar leaves little time for the campaigns to rest. Super Tuesday is in less than a week, and a total of 437 delegates in 10 states is at stake. The media have coalesced around the idea that Ohio is the only race that matters. The candidates have followed their lead—this morning Romney was campaigning in Toledo, and Rick Santorum called in to a Dayton radio station.

To a certain degree, the focus on Ohio is understandable. It's a general-election swing state, and polls indicate it's also teetering between Santorum and Romney ahead of Super Tuesday. The primary results in other states are more easily predicted: Newt Gingrich should carry his home state of Georgia, Santorum should fare well in the other Southern states, Romney will clean up in the Northeast and Virginia, and everyone will ignore the few delegates up for grabs in the caucus states out West.

I'm far more interested to see how things play out in the three Southern states holding primaries next Tuesday, even if we already know the likely winners. The Bible Belt is the traditional anchor of Republican politics, defining the identity in the party much in the way Northeastern liberals influence the policy agenda of Democrats. How Romney is received in the South on Super Tuesday will have implications for how the candidate maneuvers the primaries and fares in the general election.

It's clear Romney has the most trouble with voters in the South. He was coasting on a wave of inevitability following his apparent victory in Iowa and ease with New Hampshire, but South Carolina voters brought him back down to earth, voting for a widely reviled former House speaker by double digits, and Missouri launched Santorum's moment as the anti-Romney du jour. Even in Florida, where Romney pummeled Gingrich's presidential hopes, the former Massachusetts governor failed to catch on with the conservatives in the Panhandle who, more culturally akin to Alabama than the Miami nightlife scene, voted for Gingrich and Romney by equal margins.

Romney can still sweep his way to the nomination without an outright win in a Southern state—he can rack up enough delegates from the rest of the country to squeak by his opponents. But it would spell trouble for his chances against Barack Obama in the fall. Of course, there is zero chance that Barack Obama will win Mississippi, Kentucky, or the other states he lost by double digits in 2008. No doubt Republican stalwarts will line up behind the party's nominee in the most conservatives states even if they're distrustful of Romney's true commitment. Dissatisfaction among Tea Partiers and evangelicals in the Bible Belt could result in fewer donations and activist support, but Romney would probably manage just fine.

Where the support of the right wing of the Republican Party would matter is in Southern swing states that fall along the border of this region. Virginia, North Carolina, and Missouri all have large pockets of traditional Southern conservatives, combined with outposts of liberals and moderates that Obama can rely on. In these states, where winners are chosen on the margins, gaining the support of conservative Republicans could be decisive. If Romney ignores Georgia, Tennessee, and Oklahoma over the next week, ceding these Super Tuesday contests to Santorum and Gingrich, he'll have alienated the party's conservative base. Romney doesn't have to beat Santorum in the South, but if he doesn't even try to make inroads with Southern conservatives, enough right-wing voters might just sit at home in the border states to tip the balance in Obama's favor come November.

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